Park Life: On the repeated incineration of Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from the air. Image: John Bointon/Wikimedia Commons.

Head directly north in a straight line from the official centre point of London at Charing Cross, and the first park of any real size you’ll hit is Alexandra Park. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you spot the whacking great palace sat on the hill in the middle of it.

But Alexandra Palace and Park aren’t the former home of some forgotten bit of the nobility: they were actually purpose built for more or less their current use, as a venue for North Londoners to get up to a wide variety of things that may or may not be considered fun.

Various Victorians, including Owen Jones (presumably not him), one of the architects responsible for the Crystal Palace in the south, thought an equivalent in the north might be worthwhile, and used the same cost-saving manoeuvre: while the Crystal Palace had been built from the construction materials of the Great Exhibition, it’s northern counterpart used parts from the 1862 International Exhibition in Kensington.

Proving some kind of point, I guess.

Initially known as “the palace of the People”, it took on a marginal air of aristocracy when the park opened in 1863, the same year that the future King Edward VII married Alexandra of Denmark. The building opened in 1873, and copied Crystal Palace again, albeit preemptively, by almost immediately burning to the ground.


But two years later they’d nailed the bits back together and finally the people of North London had something to do other than complaining how long it’s going to take them to get to this birthday party in Peckham.

One of the more notable features of the next century or so of the park’s existence was its racecourse, known as The Frying Pan, because it looked a bit like a frying pan on whatever the Victorian equivalent of satellite photography is (balloon rides or imagining things, I guess). Popular for much of its life, attendances dwindled in the 1970s. Who wants to look at horses when television’s in colour now?

It was the favourite course of famous sexist and horse describer John McCririck – he’s been linked to efforts to get it rebuilt, and has instructed his wife to scatter his ashes on the site. Hopefully local residents will be warned so they can shut their windows first. Though the outline of the course is visible from above – the cricket pitch sits in the middle of it – It otherwise only survives in the names of a couple of now trendified gastro-pubs, the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Gate.

Early non-horse based physical activities available included going up in a balloon (mainly to draw pictures of what the race course looked like, presumably) and then jumping off the balloon while wearing a parachute if you were, for example, waitress turned daredevil Dolly Shepherd, commemorated in a mural on the side of the palace. There was also a lido, which legend states was used to wash visiting circus Elephants. It is unclear whether this is connected to the dubious cleanliness that to its demise by the early part of the last century.

Winter sports have been an unlikely intermittent features of the park: you prod the some of the undergrowth on one side of the hill, you might be able to uncover the remains of what was once London’s most popular dry ski slope, ideal for if you didn’t want to have to lie to all your friends about how much fun your first skiing holiday had been. Though long since defunct, in 1990 it gained a spiritual successor in the palace’s ice rink, which among other things has been home to various ice hockey teams, most recently the ‘Haringey Huskies’, it says here.

Less glamorous from this angle. Image: Ed Jefferson.

But back in the 1980s the palace and park were briefly threatened with being entirely sport-based. After the palace decided to have a belated centenary celebration and burn down again, there was a proposal to redevelop the whole thing into a massive sports complex, including – good news, snow haters – a brand new dry ski slope. In the end nothing came of it – the existing building was retained and most of the sport associated with the park now is of the indoor variety: among many other things, the palace hosts darts and table tennis tournaments.

The park does see a bit of the action. Aside from the football and cricket pitches, a popular brand of energising drink sponsors an annual soapbox race, and there’s a miniature golf course that makes up for being golf by a) being miniature and b) allowing you to drink while playing (well, if you book the whole thing for an office party circa 2011).

Sadly the park’s best sport of all has been retired: watching puce-faced CityMetric writers attempt to run to the top of the hill the palace sits on, while placing bets on whether they will reach the top before keeling over and dying (2015-2018).

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.