A town for tomorrow: Thamesmead’s utopian history

A town for tomorrow: Thamesmead’s utopian history
Modernist memories — Despite providing the dystopian backdrop for A Clockwork Orange, Thamesmead was originally envisioned as a bold new future for London housing. Now, a new book is celebrating its futuristic beginnings – and looking ahead to what comes next.

Evidently, there’s something dystopian about Thamesmead. Stanley Kubrick used its backdrop to ominous effect in A Clockwork Orange, while Chris Cunningham picked it as the nightmarish location for the Scariest Music Video Of All Time (Aphex Twin’s ‘Come To Daddy’).

Funny then, that the thinking behind its creation was distinctly utopian. Envisioned as a daring new chapter in London housing, the district rose out of the Erith Marshes in the late ’60s, heralded as a ‘town for tomorrow’ due to its bold and experimental design. For many, with its modernist concrete structures, it signalled the future of residential architecture.

But by the ’80s, opinion had turned against the ideas that drove Thamesmead’s inception. The modernist designs – elevated homes, high-level walkways, the prominence of surrounding water as a “calming influence” – were replaced by traditional red-brick homes and the original buildings fell into disrepair. In the ’90s, blocks of private flats followed, completely changing the face of what had previously been a council-run town. And that’s where the dystopian stuff started to come in. 

Children’s playground and the Lakeside Health Centre, Tavy Bridge. 1973 © Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre

Today, however, things are changing. Peabody – the new housing association behind the running of Thamesmead – are embarking on an ambitious regeneration plan, which will see the original modernist areas redesigned and reconnected with the rest of the town. In conjunction, a new book – titled The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead – is celebrating its forgotten history, as well as looking ahead to what comes next.

“The aspirations of the GLC [Greater London Council] from the outset championed a new healthier utopian lifestyle,” explains co-editor Peter Chadwick. “From the first stages of homes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, to the location of the development – which sits directly on the Greenwich and Bexley borders surrounded by an abundance of green spaces.”

“Add in the new lakes, canals and its proximity to the River Thames, and it was clear they aspired to design and build a new town for tomorrow.”

Sheniz Bayraktar (née Mehmet) with her brothers at a celebration of The Queen’s
Silver Jubilee in South Thamesmead. 1977 Photography © George Plemper

Combining archive imagery with newly commissioned photography shot by Tara Darby, the book operates as a social history of Thamesmead and its futuristic beginnings. Presented alongside original plans, models, postcards, reports and interviews with residents new and old, it’s an illustration of the links between people and the architecture that surrounds them.

“Separated by a couple of decades, it would be fair to say Kubrick was initially attracted by the stark utopian backdrop and Chris Cunningham by its 1990s dystopian decline,” Chadwick adds.

“But Thamesmead is now managed by Peabody housing, plans are in place that include the remodelling of areas of south Thamesmead in and around Southmere lake. With a Crossrail station opening nearby at Abbey Wood, I think it has a bold new future.”

Thamesmead: A Place in London’s Future. Fold-out leaflet, published by the GLC, 1982. © London Metropolitan Archives

Open space available for development in Area 3, with Beveridge Court, The Moorings, on the left. 1977 © London Metropolitan Archives

Ellie (third left) with Brandon, Luke, Richard, Tayler and Killian outside The Link, a youth and community centre in the arches under Harrow Manorway. 2018 Photography © Tara Darby

Lensbury Way. 1970 Photography © Tony Ray-Jones / RIBA Collections

Yarnton Way, looking east from Eynsham Drive, before the large roundabout was added. 1970 Photography © John King

The southern end of Coralline Walk, viewed from Lensbury Way. 1969 © London Metropolitan Archives

Sailing boats on Southmere Lake with Area 1 housing in the distance. Fold-out cover of the annual report Thamesmead 1970–71, published by the GLC. © Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre

The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead is available now from Here Press

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