Catford, Lewisham - save the Excalibur Pre-fab Estate
Largest postwar prefab estate to be demolished . Campaigners say key piece of history will be lost after only six of 187 houses built by German and Italian PoWs listed
Excalibur estate in Catford, London. The local council says it would be virtually impossible to bring the prefabs up to modern standards. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
The UK's largest surviving estate of postwar prefab houses, described by conservationists as a unique slice of 20th-century social history, is set to be bulldozed and replaced by modern housing
Only six of the 187 compact bungalows, erected from factory-built panels by German and Italian prisoners of war in 1945 and 1946, will be saved, after they received Grade-II listing last year. The remainder of the Excalibur estate in Catford, south-east London, will be demolished, along with its tin-roofed prefab church, St Mark's, believed to be one of a kind.
Campaigners say the planned redevelopment, formally approved by Lewisham council in September, will destroy a key piece of history from the aftermath of the second world war. The estate is the biggest surviving remnant of an ambitious project which saw 160,000 prefabs hurriedly erected during an acute housing shortage. Keeping just six, surrounded by hundreds of brand new houses and flats, would be pointless, they argue.
"This case shows a real gap in the historic protection legislation for 20th-century buildings," said Jon Wright from the Twentieth Century Society, which is urging English Heritage to step in and declare the entire estate a conservation area. "The overall planning and layout is far more important than just a few individual buildings. This is the only place in the country where you can still see an estate like this. It is very significant."
The local authority has long argued that the 55 sq metre (600 sq ft) houses, originally intended to last no more than a decade, are so basic it would be virtually impossible to bring them up to modern standards, a view shared by a number of residents, who are mainly council tenants.
But after a campaign by other locals to preserve the Excalibur, so called as the roads were named after characters from Arthurian legend, English Heritage recommended 21 homes be listed. The Department for Culture granted protection to six. Under current rules for 20th century properties, listing is reserved for buildings with few modifications while most Excalibur homes have – at the very least – replacement doors and windows.
English Heritage argued that the whole estate should be preserved by being named a conservation area. Officially, the organisation has the power to do this but is extremely wary of doing so against the wishes of the local council.
"It's a difficult situation," said a English Heritage spokeswoman. "Any conservation area would be administered by Lewisham and imposing our view from above would be quite drastic, particularly given the split of opinion among the residents."
But English Heritage was uncomfortable with the redevelopment, she added: "The estate is of huge historical significance overall, it's not just the individual listed properties. It will feel quite odd to just have a small group remaining, surrounded by modern houses. It would not be particularly rosy from a conservation point of view."
The Department for Culture said it could do no more. A spokesman said: "Apart from the listed houses, if it's the decision of the local authority to demolish the estate, that's pretty well it. It's local democracy and there's only so much central interference you can do."
Lewisham polled Excalibur residents earlier this year and 56% of them favoured redevelopment. The issue has polarised local opinion, with pro-conservation householders claiming a "yes" vote was inevitable as there was no prospect of the council spending money on modernising the prefabs, leaving tenants with a choice of accepting demolition or remaining in a damp, cold, outdated home.
For English Heritage the situation is reminiscent of the 60s and 70s when thousands of Victorian homes were demolished, dismissed as impossible to renovate for modern life.
"The difference is, there were still lots of Victorian buildings left but there are not many prefabs. It's possible that in 20 years' time people will think differently about them. But that's going to be too late for the Excalibur," said the spokeswoman
Peter Walker The Guardian , Sunday 2 January 2011
Excalibur's castles built from postwar dreams must not be demolished
If this was Camden or Kensington or Islington such demolition would be unthinkable. Conservationist armies would rally round this eccentric enclave of 187 houses, complete with dig-for-victory outhouses and a curious tin-roofed church. But then if there were prefabs in those boroughs, they would have been demolished years ago
This is today an extraordinary place. The demure terraces of south London give way to what might be a shack estate on Canvey Island. Both council tenants and owner-occupiers have decked their facades in fanlights, coaching lanterns and fake rustication. Gardens are crammed with gnomes and some have smart cars parked in front. The estate's champion, Jim Blackender, whose website is a model of community action, has bedecked his home as if expecting the England football team to arrive.
Lewisham council wants Excalibur gone. Residents were recently offered Hobson's choice, of agreeing to demolition and rehousing or the estate being sold to a private developer – and demolished. Even under such pressure only 56% opted for the first choice. The government has meekly listed six of the 187 for preservation, but none is worth preserving on its own. It would be like listing six houses in Belgrave Square. English Heritage has also refused to introduce conservation area control, on the strange grounds that "this would be imposing our view from above". Surely that is its job.
All historic buildings might be moved to museums to make way for something more profitable, or merely new. We could move old theatres, pubs, council chambers, even Shakespeare's birthplace. The whole of historic Britain could be dumped in a museum. Prefabs have already been moved to the Chiltern Open Air Museum and Avoncroft Museum in Worcestershire, where they look most odd.
We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities. I suppose the back alleys of Mayfair and the City of London, its churches, parks and squares, all get in the way of development. They serve no profitable purpose that cannot be supplied by a gherkin, a shard or a piazza. Yet we preserve them because we know they enrich the life of the city. They relieve its monotony and protect qualities of surprise and repose that modern design can no longer supply. There are no curved alleys or intimate lanes in today's architecture.
The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history. It is a chapter in the nation's story. The result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised. They had lost the castles of their dreams, and now found them again. To walk around Excalibur today is to know this is still true. It is a passing moment made permanent. It should not be demolished.
Simon Jenkins Guardian 6. Jan 2011