London’s brutalist Thamesmead estate is on the brink of renewal
Ahead of Peabody’s significant regeneration of south east London’s Thamesmead area, take an architectural and photographic tour of its past
‘Thamesmead’. Semantically, the word sounds like a riverside Shakespearean ale house. But, in the public imagination, it conjures images of a 1970s, crime-ridden neighbourhood, and the droogish backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian drama Clockwork Orange.
Initially hailed as a futuristic ‘town for the 21st century’, construction of the London City Council-commissioned Thamesmead began in 1968. Despite early promise, it quickly gained a reputation for no-go areas and poor transport links. Today, after a complicated history, punctuated by well-documented attempts to renew and rethink the area, Thamesmead is undergoing an extensive regeneration project by Britain’s oldest housing association Peabody, which promises around 20,000 new homes, and improved community facilities.
Many conflicting perceptions of the area (and its varied chapters) form a multifaceted portrait; one that has long fascinated photographers, no doubt drawn to Thamesmead’s chipped charm. Amid celebrations of its 50th anniversary, an exhibition at RIBA revisits the area’s original architectural ambitions, and looks at its current day occupation, aiming to capture its character, before Thamesmead pivots again with the next phase of its development.
In the exhibition – ‘Thamesmead: A Town For The 21st Century’ – archival images of Thamesmead, selected from the RIBA Collections, are shown alongside contemporary photographs of the estate’s residents, in a project commissioned by Peabody and NOW Gallery.
The archival images draw from an under-explored catalogue of Tony Ray Jones’ photography. In his tragically short career (which was cut short when he passed away at the age of 30), Ray Jones captured the idiosyncrasies of Britain’s cities and seaside in a hugely influential way, inspiring artists like Martin Parr in both subject matter and style. His work on Thamesmead beautifully documents Britain’s post war architectural moment as a set for social theatre.
Powerful brutalist structures frame each image. Children play with toy prams in a concrete maze. A series of imposing towers carve up the Postcrete-grey sky. There’s a documentary quality to the imagery; which displays humanity without a hint of sentimentality. Throughout, the striking angles that zigzag the estate are highlighted; shocks of glass and concrete against the hazy south east London backdrop.
The contemporary counterpart – images by artist Nina Manandhar – also focus on both the residents of the estate and its structural make-up. Manandhar is concerned with Thamesmead’s place in the imagination of its residents, looking from the inside out, rather than voyeuristically peering in. ‘What began as portrait commission to document the residents of Thamesmead ahead of the large scale regeneration has become a wider photographic exploration into everyday expressions of cultural activity which already exist, with a focus on how creativity is manifested through elements of personalisation,’ she explains.
‘Since 2017 I have been working closely with the residents to explore how they re-imagine the landscape, and create their own spaces, behind the brutalist facade,’ Manandhar continues. Her images brim with colourful characters. There’s a joyful series on a 90-year old local called Anthony Okin, known as the ‘Thamesmead Cowboy’ (pictured above).
Elsewhere in her work, see Bharatnatyam performances by young dancers Neha and Ruhi; hear the wheel spin of Dave Dashwood’s eight classic cars; observe the customised Tudor frontages. Each photograph offers insight into how residents have carved their own identities into the otherwise immutable concrete landscape, creating spaces to live and grow. We look forward with interest to see how Peabody’s upcoming architectural development will contribute to Thamesmead’s history. §