Alexandra Road

Alexandra Road

This project is relevant to our studio since it looks at one of the successful housing attempts of the 1970s. It relates especially to the idea of a zone of collision and the rejuvenation of the traditional idea of the street as a communal living room.

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Location Camden, London
Number of units 520
Number of people 1660
Density 210 ppa
Type Social
Completion 1979
Architect Neave Brown
Cost £7,155,00

General outline

Built between 1968-1979, Alexandra Road is a social housing scheme in Camden, London. Provided are 520 mixed size units, for 1660 people, with a density of 210 ppa, the highest possible at the time. Built during the period of severe need for housing, it fought the trend of the time, which was large developments at high densities. It was designed in a way to try and solve the problems of mass housing. The architect of the scheme, Neave Brown, wanted to attempt to deal with the issues influencing housing in urban areas.

The 12-acre site is orientated as such that north of the site is the main railway line leading to Euston, to the south lies an area of Victorian houses, heading east leads to a shopping centre at Swiss Cottage and the western boundary is home to a mixed development of low and high rise housing blocks.


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Diagrammatic site plan taken from Architecture in Europe since 1968, Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre, London Thames & Hudson, 1992

The historical context within which Alexandra Road sits is important to understand. Post Second World War the government encouraged Local Authority programmes and lavish grants were made available, especially for schemes incorporating a wide range of amenities. For example if a scheme incorporated an underground car parking into the design, additional money would be made available. Architects began to be inspired by the architecture of Le Corbusier and his Unité d'habitation and the Ville Radieuse. However, simultaneously low-rise, high-density alternatives were also being explored. This was happening particularly in the stepped section buildings in the London borough of Camden.

Alexandra Road housing scheme was the result of ideas which were arising in the 1950s, mainly by members of Team 10. It is a direct descendant of the ideas of Peter Smithson, who felt that urban areas should be kept urban. For this reason the scheme expresses the ideals of the traditional street, which was seen as being an extension of the internal living space. The street allowed not only a place of social interaction but also provided each dwelling with a direct connection to the main thoroughfare. Neave Brown was a pupil of Smithson at the AA and at Alexandra Road has expressed the theories of Smithson in perhaps the best way possible. He described his views on urbanism in an essay saying that architects should "build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define space, to integrate…".1 These ideas are quite clearly manifested at Alexandra Road.


The brief was to provide affordable housing to the highest allowable density on a site zoned at 136 persons per acre. Facilities to be provided on site included a special school for 94 mentally handicapped children with a special care unit for a further 30, a community centre, two shops, a pub, a four acre park, a public convenience and car parking provision of more than 1:1 ratio to provide for cars from the adjoining Ainsworth Estate. The pub and public convenience were later omitted and a youth club, building department depot, estate management office and play centre were instead added to the brief.

The orginial tender for the whole development, in 1972, was approximately £7,155,000. In 1978 the rents ranged from £15 to £23 per week, inclusive of heating, meaning that they had achieved their goal of being affordable. The people living on the estate were those who had either been on the housing waiting list or those who required immediate re-housing due to bad building conditions and site clearance.

Form and Layout

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The layout of the scheme is such that two almost paralled pedestrian streets are bordered on each side by four and six storey terraced housing with a park in between. The eastern end of the development is the communal hub housing many of the facilities, including the special school and community centre. The taller of the two terraces, block A, is placed with its back to the railway line as to block the noise from it.

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The blocks are stepped as to allow direct light into each of the flats but also to ensure that the pedestrian street in between does not become a dark unsafe street.

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The dwellings are arranged so as to be accessible from the pedestrian street via steps. Units range from a one-person two-bedroom unit to a six-person four-bedroom unit. In all two storey dwellings the bedrooms are situated on the lower level of the house with the living room directly above it. Access is via the staircase directly outside the front entrance. Each living room has an external balcony, which is separated from the living space by means of full height glazed sliding doors. By changing the normal domestic layout, the architect argues that the top level living rooms provide more privacy since young adults have the freedom to enter and leave the house without disturbing anyone.

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Block A : Four person unit

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In the taller blocks access to the upper levels is via a main staircase and lift, which are grouped into several cores, arranged at set intervals along the block. These lead up to a public accessible upper level gallery.

The accessibility to the houses via a traffic-free street is possible because the street is built on the roof of the basement car parking below. The garage is naturally lit with a total provision of 600 cars. The car parking area is approached from the pedestrian street by means of circular stairs and ramps and also from the circulation cores in block A.

Technology and Construction

Due to the high levels of noise generated from the railway line, the taller block of the scheme was sound insulated with anti-vibration foundations. These were set on sleeve piles and incorporated rubber pads with steel interleaves. The high noise level dictated the nature of this facade and the back of block A is kept plain with few openings. Those that do occur are double glazed. Alexandra Road was the first yardstick scheme, not associated with international airports, to get a special allowance for noise and vibration reductions.

The majority of the concrete walls are of Portland cement, and the load bearing cross-walls are composed of limestone aggregate mix of concrete. Conduits, containing the heating elements, were cast into these walls and served two apartments simultaneously. These along with the steel reinforcements helped to reduce structural expansion.

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facade facing the railway line

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See also

Architects Journal, volume 173, no.8, February 25, 1981, p.339
Architects Journal, volume 198, no.8, September 1, 1993, p.14-15
Building, volume 238, no. 7136, April 25, 1980, p.38-43
AA Files, no. 30, Autumn 1995, p.35-46
Architecture in Europe since 1968, Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre, London Thames & Hudson, 1992
Zones of collision - Alexandra Road is particularly relevant to the category of the zone of collisions since it approaches the idea of the street as an arena and the social hub of the housing community. The idea that people fight to appropriate this space which is shared not by one but by all.

External links

Content Reference Note

All drawings, diagrams and information are taken from journals and books mentioned in the see also section. All photographs are the author's own.

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