Thamesmead: a 21st century town

  • Jess Fawcett
(Originally published on the Journal, 2nd June 2016)
The Brutalist backdrop to our UMd White Label campaign shoot may have caught your eye. Shot at Thamesmead, a 'Utopian dream' of a housing development built in the 1960s, we delve a little deeper into this iconic London landmark, exploring the grand designs behind its inception and explain why we chose it as the location of our first campaign shoot.
Thamesmead was part of a huge wave of housing developments built after World War Two, with cities seeking to reinvent themselves and define their new identities. The Brutalist style, championed by architects like Le Corbusier, was typified by 'streets in the sky', clusters of high-rise concrete towers designed as modern, urban housing with a Utopian vision. Developments were designed on the principle that people should be able to walk from place to place within the complex, and buildings were constructed using modern technologies and materials that replaced or improved upon nature, rather than being dictated by it. 
Built by Greater London Council, the chief architect for Thamesmead, Robert Rigg, travelled far and wide to recruit the best design minds to engineer his vision. Shops and social clubs were on-site, walkways joined the buildings, and waterways and lakes (which had been seen to reduce crime and vandalism) were in copious supply due to the surrounding marshland. The housing units featured all the mod-cons including central heating and indoor bathrooms. Full of potential, they were a blank canvas for individuals to make their own mark on - a fresh new start, typifying the era of social mobility from which Brutalism sprung. In the spirit of democracy, the name ‘Thamesmead’ was voted for by the local community and demand for the homes was high, with residents having to meet strict conditions. Upon completion Thamesmead was proclaimed a model of the '21st century town' and even enjoyed a visit from the Queen.
However this Utopian dream was not without its problems. The location of Thamesmead was isolated, with poor transport links and few amenities on-site, and the pollution from two nearby power stations limited the heights of Thamesmead's towers to 200ft, scuppering plans to build a full-scale town. In spite of a series of promotional videos designed to showcase its desirability, the most enduring image of Thamesmead on film was made in 1971 when Stanley Kubrick cast it as the backdrop for his adaptation of the dystopian nightmare, A Clockwork Orange. It was this vision that remained cemented in the public conscious. Fiction eventually became reality and by the late 1970s Thamesmead had become one of the UK’s most notorious housing estates, with residents afraid to walk the walkways or swim in the lakes.
Though it fell short of its Utopian ideologies, Thamesmead has undoubtedly become an iconic London location. As well as featuring in A Clockwork Orange, the Southmere Estate features in the music video for Aphex Twin’sCome to Daddy and the 1989 film The Firm, which takes its name from the Thamesmead gang who terrorised South East London during the late 80s and 90s. More recently the estate was the stomping ground of the Misfits in E4’s award-winning drama - cue the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding BMX bikes alongside Southmere Lake - and the recent film adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise takes inspiration from several Brutalist masterpieces, Thamesmead included.
Based in Somerset House, Unmade's HQ is a stone's throw from two of London's most celebrated Brutalist buildings: the Hayward Gallery and the Barbican. Shooting our first campaign in London was really important, as the city is very much part of Unmade's identity. We looked at other Brutalist developments around the city - including Brunel University's Uxbridge campus and Robin Hood Gardens in East London - but we were particularly inspired by the scale of the initial concept of Thamesmead as a Utopian city dream. It encapsulated the visionary appetite and enthusiasm for 'the future' that was prevalent in the Sixties but that we now seem to have lost. Visually strong, the vast expanses of concrete really made the colours and patterns of the collection stand out. Visit Thamesmead on a sunny day, as we did, and with a little blue-sky thinking the Utopian dream of the future doesn't seem so crazy at all...

Photography: Luke Bennett // Models: Dennis Okwera and Annie Walker Trafford