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Branch Hill Estate

A Grade II Listed Building in Frognal and Fitzjohns, Camden

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Latitude: 51.5592 / 51°33'33"N

Longitude: -0.1843 / 0°11'3"W

OS Eastings: 525962

OS Northings: 186039

OS Grid: TQ259860

Mapcode National: GBR D0.D6X

Mapcode Global: VHGQR.R2DK

Plus Code: 9C3XHR58+M7

Entry Name: Branch Hill Estate

Listing Date: 9 August 2010

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1393895

English Heritage Legacy ID: 502604

Location: Frognal and Fitzjohns, Camden, London, NW3

County: Camden

Electoral Ward/Division: Frognal and Fitzjohns

Built-Up Area: Camden

Traditional County: Middlesex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Greater London

Church of England Parish: St John Hampstead

Church of England Diocese: London

Tagged with: Housing estate

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798-1/0/10352 BRANCH HILL
09-AUG-10 Branch Hill Estate

Twenty-one semi-detached houses, 1974-6, by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth of the London Borough of Camden's Architects' Department. Minor later alterations.

PLAN: the houses are arranged in three rows stepping down the slope of Branch Hill. There are two blocks of houses, one (three houses wide) set further down the hill from the other (which is four houses wide). The two are linked by the orthogonal grid of brick-paved pedestrian passageways which governs the estate's planning. Parking is provided in a row of garages set into the hill side at the top of the slope. There are two types of house on the estate. The four bedroom properties are located in the first row, at the top of the slope, with two rows of three-bedroom houses below.

MATERIALS: The houses have a reinforced concrete frame with reinforced concrete roof slabs and beams and rendered block cavity walls with load-bearing inner skins.

EXTERIORS: The aesthetic is pure modern in materials, detail and overall form. The bright white, smooth-finished concrete contrasts with dark-stained timber frames and the grey concrete exposed faces of the structural beams and slabs. The latter have rough-sawn board-marks and chamfers, finishes also used for the gangway slabs and the courtyard and terrace walls. The directions of the board-marks are logical: horizontal for the slabs, vertical for the walls and add texture to the elevations, while the chamfers define the edges. The living rooms are completely glazed on one side; the return elevations have long horizontal windows placed high up for the sake of privacy, some wrapping around corners. The arrangement of two rows of wide windows (with some taller casements on the upper storey and wrap-around corners on the lower) on the rear elevation of the four-bedroom houses is a hallmark of the Camden Architects' Department style, as also seen at Dunboyne Road. This is the first view of the estate as one enters from Spendan Close and establishes some of the motifs used throughout, such as the stepped profile of the blocks with their projecting upper storeys. The whole estate is ordered by the strict geometry of the orthogonal plan, which admits little variety of perspective, although the slipped grid to the north of the site interrupts the regularity a little and the plentiful greenness of the garden terraces softens its effect. The brick paving of the paths is also highly characterful.

Each house has a garden terrace on the roof of the next house down the slope, accessed from the living room's French door via a gangway over the horizontal passageways and courtyard. An outdoor metal spiral staircase in the courtyard provides additional access to the gangway and thus the garden terrace and living room too. Each terrace has a top soil, to allow residents to plant a garden, and utilising the full load-bearing capacities of the reinforced concrete roof slabs; there are also window boxes incorporated into the roof slabs along the front of each living room window. Only the bottom row of houses has ground-level gardens. The garden terraces project slightly from the storey below which, given this is the living room of another property, creates a sense of privacy, something further enhanced by the concrete walls shielding the more exposed corners of the terraces.

INTERIORS: The interiors were not inspected but much can be gleaned from contemporary accounts of the estate. The front doors are all on the vertical passageways, which are paved in red brick. In the three-bedroom houses the front door leads to the kitchen and dining room area, on a split level, with steps going down to the bedrooms (which open out onto a small courtyard) or up to the living room and master bedroom (which cantilever slightly above the bedrooms so as to take advantage of the natural light and views). The arrangement is roughly the same in the four-bedroom houses, but because these are located in the first row an extra storey above the kitchen and dining room can be included where the other rows have the next layer's garden terrace. The absence of the terrace permits a large west-facing clerestory bringing light into the double-height kitchen and dining area and the living room is larger too. In each house, the kitchen counter was a permanent tiled concrete shelf and so these are likely to have been retained. Originally there would also have been storey-height doors, sliding partitions between rooms, built-in cupboards and shelves and chipboard and softwood purpose-crafted staircases. Interior fittings designed by Camden Architects' Department were always good-quality. All the window joinery survives but some of the front doors have been replaced.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: also of special interest are the hard surfaces, including the brick and concrete pathways and entrance drive, and a row of concrete garages with semi-circular-headed ventilation shafts at the northern edge of the estate. Its cantilevered roof slab is in board-marked concrete and extends to form a boundary wall to the drive where the slope of the hill steepens; this is also included in the listing.

HISTORY: In 1965, Camden had purchased an Edwardian mansion, Branch Hill Lodge, and its four plus acre grounds. The former was converted into an old people's home; the latter allocated for social housing, despite protestation from locals about building on undeveloped land. Benson and Forsyth, protégés of the Architects' Department's Neave Brown, received the commission in 1970 and decided to retain the mature wooded areas of the grounds by only developing the house's former lawn and gardens, just over half the acreage of the plot. The Department's preference for high-density, low-rise housing was perfectly suited to the limited site, which was also governed by a covenant that stipulated new buildings must be semi-detached and of no more than two storeys. Benson and Forsyth designed a clever scheme of forty-two houses (fourteen 4-bedroom, twenty-eight 3-bedroom) that respected these restrictions but maintained Parker Morris standards of room size and storage capacity. Each house also had a small yard and a roof top garden. Essentially, the model was terraces of houses, as Neave Brown had adopted on early estates, but with narrow walkways in between pairs so that the scheme qualified as semi-detached. In Brown's schemes at Dunboyne Road and Alexandra Road, each floor is stepped back and the living areas placed above the bedrooms so that they open out onto a private balcony and take advantage of extra light. A similar concept is used at Branch Hill, with even greater utility and effect given the sloping topography of the site. The flat roof of each house is the roof terrace of the next house up the slope, such that from above the estate appears as terraced gardens, not too different to the Edwardian gardens they replaced. The density of a multi-storey block was achieved, but the stepped-section plan fulfilled the covenant's requirement for low-storey, semi-detached houses without adopting the suburban layout that such a stipulation would appear to demand.
Yet while the design met the brief architecturally, it was a disaster in terms of cost. The land had been purchased at a high price (£464,000 in 1965) and costs of construction escalated in the difficult economic climate of the 1970s. The houses were built on spoil from the construction of the Northern Line in the early 1900s which turned out to require a modified piling system mid-construction. When the new residents finally arrived in 1978, the cost was calculated as over £72,000 per dwelling. By this time, the idealism of the post-war welfare state was on the wane and the reaction against state spending of the Thatcher years was close at hand; the estate, dubbed 'California beach style' by the Evening Standard, attracted negative press coverage. Architectural critic Christopher Knight in the Architects Journal (AJ) was the most scathing. He wrote: 'this bright young architect's vision realised is now notorious and a favourite target for politicians and furious ratepayers ... conceived as a social time-bomb it is an economic nonsense ... it is financially irresponsible, a slap in the eye to the affluent neighbours whose view has been transformed'.

Knight's vitriol in the AJ about the politics of Branch Hill extended only in part to criticism of the architecture. His tone is more equivocal, commenting on but not condemning the estate's old-fashioned style: "window walls, raw concrete, split levels and roof terraces take one back a long way further in psychological distance than the current neo-vernacular: Brave New World in contrast to Loss of Nerve. Branch Hill defies all the rules now laid down by Camden for its housing but it does attempt to make architecture out of the dreary bureaucratic provisions for human life in the 1970s". In Knight's article and another by Jos Boy in The Architect, the estate received some criticism: the grid plan lacked variety and the latitudinal passageways were bleak; the estate ignored its surroundings; some elements of the plans within the houses were unhelpful, for example each bedroom courtyard was too far away from the living areas for infants to play there without parental supervision and too small to be useful. Yet in both critical appraisals, the interiors received praise: Knight described them as 'positive, interesting and generous in spirit'; Boys thought 'the inside of any house at Branch Hill is a real treat'. Elsewhere, the response was more glowing. Building Design considered that 'the sloping site has been used to great advantage by the architects who have produced a scheme of great sophistication and pleasantness'. The AJ noted: 'Camden have arguably succeeded in building some of the highest quality council accommodation in the country'. Official Architecture and Planning praised the idealism of the architects: 'I suspect lesser or wiser designers would not have got this far ... a matter for reflection for all those that want to do the thing that is right rather than what the unthinking system tells them to do'. The estate received some international attention, an Italian journal arguing that 'design by Benson and Forsyth is undoubtedly a noteworthy one that indicates the high professional standard of English architects expressed in the technical accomplishment of the detailing'. Aside from the notoriety of the politics and the cost, the response to Branch Hill was broadly positive; criticism of the architecture, mostly to do with the orthogonal plan and the arrangement of some of the rooms and outdoor spaces, appeared only in the more thorough appraisals where more detailed commentary was given.

The 1960s and 1970s Camden Architects' Department is renowned for its bold and innovative approach to public housing design. The Borough Architect, Sydney Cook, refused to build high-rise tower blocks favoured by outher local authorities (not a single one was built during his tenure) and shunned standardised plans and industrial building techniques. Instead, Cooke favoured low-rise, high density housing and a distinct 'Camden style' emerged from the office, inspired by the architecture of Denys Lasdun and Patrick Hodgkinson at Brunswick Square (with whom Cooke worked when the housing there passed to Camden in 1965). Branch Hill is one of the best examples. Others schemes by the Department are Alexandra Road (Neave Brown, 1973-8, Grade II*), Maiden Lane (Benson and Forsyth, 1979-82, unlisted) and Dunboyne Road (Neave Brown, 1966-9, unlisted).

SOURCES: 'Downhill Struggle', Official Architecture and Planning (January 1972) 16
'Value for Money?', Building Design (26 May 1978) 36
'Camden's Cream' The Architects' Journal (Vol 167, 31 May 1978) 1030-2
Christopher Knight, 'Housing at Branch Hill Hampstead', The Architects' Journal (Vol 169, 20 June 1979) 1261-76
Jos Boys, 'A Tale of Two Schemes', The Architect (October 1979) 19-22
Fabian Watkinson, 'The most expensive council housing in the world: Camden's public housing of the 1970s'; notes from a Twentieth Century Society walk, 23 June 2001

REASONS FOR DESIGNATION: Branch Hill Estate is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* special architectural interest of this bold, modernist design of 1970 by Benson and Forsyth;
* complex stepped-section, which works brilliantly on a sloping site governed by strict covenants;
* the use of materials is sophisticated and the smooth-finished, white concrete contrasts with the dark-stained joinery and exposed structural-skeleton, the latter immaculately-detailed with board-marking and chamfering;
* one of the best estates designed by Camden Architects' Department, pioneers of low-rise, high-density housing in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reasons for Listing

Branch Hill Estate is recommended for listing at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* special architectural interest of this bold, modernist design of 1970 by Benson and Forsyth;
* complex stepped-section, which works brilliantly on a sloping site governed by strict covenants;
* the use of materials is sophisticated and the smooth-finished, white concrete contrasts with the dark-stained joinery and exposed structural-skeleton, the latter immaculately-detailed with board-marking and chamfering;
* one of the best estates designed by Camden Architects' Department, pioneers of low-rise, high-density housing in the 1960s and 1970s.

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