Anthony Kersting’s photographs of the Parliament Buildings in Nairobi illustrate, rather neatly, the contrast between the two stages of its design. The first section, built in 1957, was commissioned by the colonial government, whilst the second was completed, by the same architect, following the country’s independence in 1963. The architect in question was New Zealander Amyas Connell, who, following a career in the UK in the 1930s, relocated to East Africa, and eventually attracted the attention of Kenya’s British governors, who sought a suitable design for Kenya’s post-independence parliament.
However paternalistic a gesture, the building and its history tell a complicated story which reflects a wider trend in the Global South, whereby international cooperation and modern architecture were implemented as part of the decolonisation process, and coincided with the adoption of policies of Non-alignment.
The most prominent aspect in the first image is the clock tower. It was not, however, included in Connell’s first draft, and instead represents his response to the criticisms levelled by the British, who considered the designs not English enough, and lamented that it did not look remotely like Westminster. Indeed, the coolness and near-classicalism of the surrounding buildings represent not just the modernising of Kenya’s political environment but were designed more than anything in response to geography. The Modernist architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who did a considerable amount of work in Lagos, Nigeria, had recently published an influential and detailed study of Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, which demonstrated the practicalities of the Modern style in equatorial countries. So as to appease the British, however, Connell included the central clock tower (then the highest building in Nairobi), a modern mock-up of St Stephen’s tower. There is something comically absurd, however, in its reduction to pure rectangles, and the omittance of Gothic detailing anywhere other than the clock-face itself.
Drew and Fry’s influences extended beyond the African continent. Most famously, they were invited by Prime Minister Nehru to be part of the design team headed by Le Corbusier for the new city of Chandigarh, a symbol of India’s post-independence development. Architectural Modernism was a prominent feature of many newly-independent nations, and, even in countries in which it was implemented prior to the end of colonial rule, a unifying feature of many Non-aligned countries.
Founded in Belgrade in 1961 and rejecting formal alliances with either of the Cold War superpowers, the Architectural Modernism movement allowed for communicative processes beyond those of ‘Iron Curtain’ politics and bloc-formation. As well as the work of Western architects, architectural historian Łukasz Stanek details the Modernist buildings designed by Eastern Europeans in a variety of Non-aligned nations at the invitation of post-colonial governments, as part of a process he deems “socialist world-making”. Although not a founding member of the Non-aligned Movement, Jomo Kenyatta represented Kenya at the 1964 Cairo conference of these countries, and the parliament buildings represent an important addition to the Modernist practices and ideological implications which developed in the Global South.
These ideals are nowhere more stark than in the second section of the buildings, in which Connell takes a decidedly Corbusian approach, and which incorporates a sculptural frieze depicting the triumphant victors of the independence struggle. It is a shame that Kersting did not take a detailed picture of the frieze (the sculptor of which is unknown) as it is the most direct affront to the pro-British sentiment of the earlier section. His photograph does, however, demonstrate the fluidity and breadth of the National Assembly Building, housing the Kenyan parliament’s lower house. It is, in its architectural form, a testament to the newness of the country, both domestically and in playing a role on the international stage.
As Dennis Sharp writes, the building is an attempt “to develop a new and relevant architecture appropriate to the burgeoning political situation”. The employment of the Modern style, which was implemented across Nairobi consistently in the post-independence period, was by no means constitutive of socialistic revolutionary activity; it was, however, and remains to this day, a demonstration of a solidarity shared across the Global South, to participate in international politics on the basis of positive neutrality, and to maintain relationships, architecturally or otherwise, beyond the division of the world into colonial and military blocs.
 Drew, J., Fry, M. (1956). ‘Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone’, Tropical Housing & Planning Monthly Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 2-7
 Stanek, Ł. (2020). Architecture in Global Socialism, Princeton University Press
 Sharp, D. (1983). ‘The Modern Movement in East Africa’, Habitat International, Volume 7, Issue 6, p. 323
‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of nature or been stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows opposite with a copper glow’.
Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate
In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.
Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.
In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration. His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people, a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.
Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half). Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again. However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.
Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.
The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts. Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).
In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.
However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’
Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’, perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.
Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit, while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold,  but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.
In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’. In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’. However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative. The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’
Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!
You can now find over 80 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.
Anyone is able to log on and add photographs that they have taken themselves, and many museums, archives, and libraries have been adding their collection items too. Most importantly, anyone is able to just explore the map!
Since lockdown in March 2020, over 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!
Alla says: “I love London! This task helps me to see places with the eyes of different photographers and find out the amazing history of places – for example Bevin Court, or learn about Lost London – as with Dorchester House.”
From the London Gardens Trust website: “(The Hospital of St Mary at the Cross Convent was) an Anglican Benedictine Community of Sisters of the Poor founded in Shoreditch in 1866 where it purchased a site in 1873 and built a convent. The convent building was begun by James Brooks but completed by JD Sedding in Franco-Flemish style. The Convent closed in 1931, and the Sisters moved to Edgware.”
It was built adjacent to St Michael’s Church. The church is now used by Lassco, an architectural salvage company, and houses an extraordinary collection of artefacts.
Brooks completed the ambitious group of buildings with the Convent of St Mary at the Cross in 1870-75; this included a small chapel and a cloister. The front entrance block in Leonard Street was added by JD Sedding in 1880-81. The convent buildings were relinquished in 1931 and demolition eventually followed c.1959.
The remains of the building are in a public garden on Mark Street / Mark Square, Shoreditch.”
See more on Wikipedia: “Dorchester House was built in 1853 by Sir Robert Stayner Holford; demolished in 1929. The architect was Lewis Vulliamy who designed many grand houses and monuments.
After Sir Holford’s death, his son rented it to Mr Whitelaw Reid, the American Ambassador at that time. Sir Holford’s grandson inherited the Dorchester House in 1926 and put it up for sale the same year. Dorchester Hotel is now in its place at 53 Park Lane, London.”
Text from Ian Visits website: “The name of the building has a curious history. It was named Bevin Court after the recently deceased Labour politician Ernest Bevin, and a bronze bust was installed in the foyer […] However, the building was originally going to be named after a very famous former resident of the area… Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – who is marginally better known as Lenin.
By the early 1950s though, even Finsbury Council balked at the idea of naming the building after a leading light in the Soviet cold-war enemy, so it was named Bevin Court. It is claimed that the architect, Lubetkin in a fit of pique buried his planned memorial to Lenin in the foundations under the stairs. So, you can either say Lenin is still at the heart of the building, or you are stomping on his head every time you use the stairs.”