A look back at one hundred years of Islington Council architecture

Spa Green Estate

Spa Green Estate - Credit: Islington Council

The constant drive for more council homes in Islington has left us with fine examples of a century of municipal architecture. We take a look at some seemingly everyday council buildings in the borough which have their own stories to tell.

The new council housing of the 1920s and 1930s reflected the nostalgic trends of the time. An architect who drew from history, designing "grand and impressive places" was Edward Charles Philip Monson. You can see his red-brick Taverner Estate on Highbury Grange, completed in 1922 in the Queen Anne style. Another ECP Monson project is Brecknock Road Estate, completed in 1939 for London County Council. It is a locally listed heritage asset with Islington Council, and regarded as a superior example of interwar council housing, with triangular bay windows in Art Deco style.

A trend that took hold in the 1930s was Modernism, with futuristic designs, influenced by utopian interwar socialism. 

Islington's favourite Modernist architect was Berthold Lubetkin whose firm Tecton created the Grade II* listed Spa Green Estate between Rosebery Avenue and St John Street. Completed in 1949, the blocks of up to eight storeys have balconies in a unique design inspired by the carpets of Lubetkin's Georgian homeland. 

Spa Green Estate

Spa Green Estate - Credit: Islington Council

Lubetkin also came up with the Priory Green Estate (1957) off Pentonville Road, with its own laundry and new-fangled rubbish chutes. Then there's the Grade II* listed Bevin Court (1954) in Cruikshank Street, with a sculptural stairwell and the Grade l listed Finsbury Health Centre (1938) in Pine Street.

The Priory Green Estate (1943-52) by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton

The Priory Green Estate (1943-52) by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton. Photo taken on a tour of the City Fringes with the 20th Century Society on 28.2.09 - Credit: Steve Cadman Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Bevin Court (1946-54) by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton

Bevin Court (1946-54) by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton. Photo taken on a tour of the City Fringes with the 20th Century Society on 28.2.09 - Credit: Steve Cadman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

You may also want to watch:

A major showcase for Modernism was the Festival of Britain in 1951 which influenced the architects who designed Highbury Quadrant Estate (1954). Its terraced houses and low-rise blocks in pale yellow brick echoed the Scandinavian trend.  

Highbury Quadrant Estate

Highbury Quadrant Estate - Credit: Islington Council

Islington and Finsbury boroughs merged in 1965 to form modern Islington, which soon had its own architecture department. Outside architects were also commissioned. Emberton Franck and Tardrew, designed the Finsbury Estate (1965) in Skinner Street, and the Brunswick Close Estate (1962) in Tompion Street.

Most Read

Pressure for new homes remained. The 1960s solution was the High Modern movement's high rise blocks. New materials like pre-cast concrete panels were used, bolted together to create prefabricated 'cities in the sky'.

The building method was quick and economical; the problems came later. Large estates with tower blocks include the Six Acres, Elthorne and Harvist Estates, all three built in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Harvist Estate

Harvist Estate - Credit: cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Stephen McKay - geograph.org.uk/p/359778

A move from the box-block is seen with the Andover Estate (1979). Among the family houses are flats in high rise pyramidal stepped towers.

The Marquess Estate (1976), created by architects Darbourne and Darke, was praised for giving priority to pedestrians with paths and walkways in a high-density, compact development. But within a short time the estate became a hotbed of crime and antisocial behaviour - its design had made policing impossible. The only remedy was major regeneration, thinning out the dwellings and installing proper streets.

A trend within Modernism was Brutalism, the name derived from the French for unfinished concrete. An example can be found at the Weston Rise Estate (1969) off Pentonville Road, comprising eight-storey apartment blocks linked by walkways and towers. Other examples include City University's Northampton Square, Elia Mews at the Angel  and Quaker Court in Banner Street.

Tower blocks fell out of favour after the fatal Ronan Point disaster of 1968,  when supporting concrete panels in a new 22-storey block in Newham collapsed during a gas explosion. Materials also became more expensive after the 1974 oil price crisis, inflating costs. There were also problems with condensation, mould and cold. Smaller developments, infill housing and refurbishments became more common.

A later trend was Postmodernism with more elaborate decoration in a reaction against functional Modernism. More colour was used, with eye catching facades, seen at the 48-home Belvoir Estate (1987). It now has Grade II listed status with Historic England, which called its design "bold and playful".

Nowadays, Islington faces new challenges as entry into the property market by speculative investors has caused land prices to shoot up. Much of the new-build is infill on existing estates.  The recently completed infill project at the King Square estate in Finsbury provides 140 homes.

Kings Square

Kings Square - Credit: ©2021 Steve Bainbridge / Islington Council

Kings Square

Kings Square - Credit: ©2021 Steve Bainbridge / Islington Council

Council house sales have reduced housing stock, and with central government restrictions, local authorities have to finance building homes for social rent with construction for the private sector.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter