This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
This is also a part of a three-part mini series exploring the lost and forgotten residential areas of cities that when built were bold visions of a future. The series looks at their current state and maps out their future. See our feature on Bijlmer in Amsterdam.
In the nineteenth and twentieth century the southern sprawl of London extended to reach and then to enclose the villages that had been for centuries the last staging posts on the journey into London from Kent and from Sussex. Those arriving on the Canterbury road could stop in Blackheath to eat or to rest, and to draw a few last lingering lungfuls of clean country air, and as they gazed north and east from the shallow hill would have seen, perhaps for the first time, the sprawl of the city laid out along the river and on to the north – witnessing a horizon punctured by the spires and steeples of Wren and Hawksmoor.
The history of the area is still in evidence. The villages that pockmarked the countryside, despite now being linked by modern, built-up roads, are still well-defined and maintain a self-contained air. In the nineteenth century, wealthy landowners and businessmen bought up tracts of land here and built grand estate houses on the edges of these villages. Walking east from Blackheath village today, the money invested in the area’s schools and housing is plain to see.
As London was reimagined in the aftermath of the war, slums were cleared street by street and unprecedented numbers of migrant workers arrived in the city. The need for affordable housing meant that areas that had, thus far, been largely untouched by more modern planners, were now ripe for development, their greenfield sites far enough from the city not to command exorbitant prices, but close enough for easy commuting in an era of affordable mass transportation.
Against this backdrop, less than a mile from affluent Blackheath, Kidbrooke was built up in a few short years in the 1920s and 30s, with row upon row of good-sized semi-detached houses constructed over old farmland. Forty years later, developers returned with a finer eye for opportunity, and seized on a small area of wasteland tucked alongside the now noisy and busy Canterbury trunk road, which was earmarked by planners to be the site of the new Ferrier Estate. Building work began in 1967.
Entering the estate today from the Kidbrooke railway station, whose platform spills more or less straight into the central precinct, belies something that is apparent to anyone entering or leaving by alternative means: that the area is at a sort of conscious remove from its surroundings. Bordered on two sides by busy roads and by open wasteland on the other, the estate is only accessed by those intent on doing so – through the pedestrian tunnels that run under the arterial roads, or by a circuitous and unintuitive negotiation of slip roads and unexpected turnings.
Like many other estates of the period, there is something of an island-fortress about its bearing and its relationship to its surroundings. It appears a number of forces are at play in this design: the desire to create an environment sheltered from the constant noise and movement of traffic; the will to create a community living space that was self-contained and largely self-sufficient; and the hope of mitigating opposition from more well-to-do local residents by keeping their poorer neighbours at a conceptual, as well as physical, remove.
In any event, this psychological segregation was an outcome of the policy – because the enthusiasm and optimism expressed by early residents was soon muted, as perception and experience of the Ferrier estate shifted from utopian social project, to dysfunctional, disaffected sink-estate, with employment levels and home ownership amongst the lowest in the country, and crime a persistent and growing problem. A decade of planning for regeneration of the area concluded in 2009 with the demolitions of the first of the 13 tower blocks; today, the site stands partially ruined, in limbo. Nine months on from the scheduled completion of demolition, work has slowed almost to a standstill, while Kidbrooke Village – the development due to replace it – stands alongside, partially built and with slow progress.
In the centre of the site a line of boarded-up shop fronts is punctured by a single surviving convenience store. It comes as a surprise; the estate is as good as deserted. There are faded testimonies to the former lives of this estate written on the hoardings: a laundrette; an off-licence; the Ferrier Community Hall; the Eltham and District Citizens Advice Bureau. All are adorned with faded and peeling paint; each has its windows and doors protected by heavy metal grills, held firm by now-rusted padlocks. This courtyard is flanked on three sides by four-storey blocks of flats. Most are boarded. Some on the upper floors are not but have had their windows smashed or removed. The walls and balconies are crowded with defunct satellite dishes, clustered together in clumps.
This is the Ferrier’s last stand. Elsewhere, demolition is well-advanced. Of the eleven twelve-storey tower blocks, only two remain standing, and they are gutted and expectant. The rest of the site is an untidy scar of rubble and detritus. Twisted metal, crumbled concrete and carved earth. Fences abound. Diggers and cranes stand in idle impatience.
Walking in a broad sweep around one of the estate roads another structure looms on the horizon. At first glance it appears to be an isolated block awaiting demolition, but closer-to and with the scaffold and reinforcing rods becoming visible it takes on a new aspect. The distinction between construction and demolition here is blurred: this apparently ruined building is, one is forced to conclude, in the process of becoming progressively less-so. The building sits oddly in the landscape: perched on a slight rise in the land, framed by sculpted earth banks and offering commanding views over the surrounding depression, its balconied frontage is bizarrely reminiscent of an alpine hotel, built at the head of the valley, looking down over a modest village. It brings to mind early twentieth century postcards of fashionable leisure resorts, or adverts for exclusive sanatoriums. The illusion is fleeting though. Turn the other way and the towers and iconic factory chimney of the Ferrier bring you resolutely back to a less-distant past.
Soon enough though, the Ferrier will exist only in photographs, and in memory. Because the future of Kidbrooke is already written, and has been spelled out on the posters and sign boards that abound on the old estate: Kidbrooke Village is rising from the ashes of the Ferrier. It is an uninspiring sight, and one which is known too well. New houses, the very obvious products of developers’ architecture – cheap, ugly, trendy, and embodying only the most trivial notions of originality – are springing up along new roads. The tarmac scarcely dry, these houses are occupied by Kidbrooke’s new aspirants. A new era has arrived on the Ferrier – and while it signals a long-overdue death-knell for a failed vision, it has, in its place, posited the total absence of one.
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.