From golden cement lions to crazy paving facades, from Corinthian columns to pebbledash galore, a new show is celebrating 100 years of gaudy, surreal additions to the London council estate
‘A tour of Becontree is demanding,” wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England guidebook, “even for the enthusiast.” The charms of the largest interwar council estate in the world, which celebrates its centenary this year, were not immediately apparent to the German-born architectural historian in the 1960s. Nor may they be to many today. Sprawling across four square miles of Barking and Dagenham in east London, Becontree has neither the strident architectural drama of a place like Thamesmead, nor the quaint bucolic charm of a garden city. Instead, it is an archetypal vision of nondescript suburbia. Row upon row of brick terraced houses, each with their own front and back garden, are arranged along avenues and crescents, populated by the occasional parade of shops. So far, so humdrum.
But what Pevsner lacked on his tour was having Verity-Jane Keefe by his side. Seen through the eyes of this artist, who has been working in and around the estate for the last 15 years, the place becomes a kaleidoscopic patchwork of individual creative acts. There are the homes decorated with mock-Tudor paint jobs, facades fortified with rustic crazy paving, porches jollied up with porthole windows. Pastel-painted pebbledash jostles for attention with swirling roughcast render, both outdone by a sculpted plaster relief of a squirrel emerging from a decorative roundel.
Turn the corner and you find front doors framed by Corinthian columns and dangling plastic topiary balls, along with gates guarded by a pair of golden cement lions. One whole crescent, built from timber by Swedish carpenters in the 1920s, has the rustic treehouse aesthetic of Sylvanian Families. Another street sports streamlined art deco sun-trap windows, like something straight out of Poirot. The closer you look, the more Becontree reveals itself to be a wonderfully rich catalogue of curious domestic details. It is an open-air museum of the impact of successive housing policies, the different tastes of council maintenance departments and generations of right-to-buy owners wrought in plaster and paint.
“Some people think it’s a real mess when they finally come here,” says Keefe, as we stroll the streets, marvelling at the range of door types, porch shapes and other inventive add-ons. “Becontree is always shown in bird’s-eye views as this perfect vision of identical ‘homes for heroes’ with neat privet hedges. But the reality is a place made up of thousands of individual choices and adaptations over time.”