The French Connection: The Sceaux Gardens Estate and the promise and peril of bringing L’Esprit Nouveau to south London

Conference presentation

Lovejoy, S. (2023). The French Connection: The Sceaux Gardens Estate and the promise and peril of bringing L’Esprit Nouveau to south London. Urban Modernisation And Representations Of The Working Class. University of Salford 25 - 26 May 2023
AuthorsLovejoy, S.
TypeConference presentation

The first industrial revolution covered the ground with asphalt and bricks. The second is uncovering the ground and discovering the sky.
- ‘The Changing Face of Camberwell’, 1963
Sceaux Gardens is an estate of 400 council homes built in the 1950s to replace war-damaged terraced homes and factories in north-east Camberwell in south London. The estate was named after the Sceaux suburb of Paris and each housing block was named after a prominent French figure, but the influence didn’t stop there. Unusual for a London borough, Camberwell had an architect’s department, led by F. O. Hayes. The department designed Sceaux Gardens in line with ‘L’Esprit Nouveau’ principles of French modernist architect Le Corbusier.
This approach was a reaction to the perceived shortcomings of working-class homes, which were overcrowded with a lack of light, sanitation, and green space. The housing blocks were designed with prefabricated components and modern materials and techniques. Single-storey bungalows were interspersed with six-storey and fifteen-story blocks. To maximise views and daylight maisonettes were designed in a ‘scissor’ arrangement, with the upper storey crossing the building to include windows on both sides.
My research is centred on the reasoning and reception of this new approach. Part of a wider wave of new council housing built in the area, Sceaux Gardens is an example of some of the opportunities and shortcomings of bringing ‘L’Esprit Nouveau’ to south London. Contrasting yet complementary to its surroundings, the estate was included in an eponymous conservation area less than a decade after its construction. The Architects’ Journal (1960, p23) described the design as “the most interesting housing scheme to have come from a Metropolitan Borough Architect’s Department”, but also raised prescient questions about the fire-safety of the tall blocks. The light, privacy, and modern conveniences were praised by residents, but they also had concerns that the designs might act as a barrier to sociability. The estate captures the question of the extent to which the dismissal of the housing of old paved the way for a new future or replaced one set of a problems with another.

Keywordsarchitectural history; modernism; international style; Camberwell; Le Corbusier; post-war architecture; council housing; modern architecture; architectural heritage; architectural theory; council estates; working class housing; urban modernisation
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Print26 May 2023
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Accepted26 Apr 2023
Deposited24 Aug 2023
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