Priory Green Estate, King’s Cross
Designed by Tecton, the groundbreaking architectural practice of Georgian-born émigré Berthold Lubetkin, the estate is a gleaming pillar of modernism built on the post-war ashes of Pentonville’s slums.
Tecton, which means ‘carpenter’ or ‘builder’ in Greek, was Lubetkin’s platform for pushing his own ethos of architecture as a social practice, aiming to radically improve and enhance the lives of the ordinary people who would reside in his buildings. He believed in the transformative power of architecture, designing structures like Priory Green that would foster community, boasting services from laundry rooms and landscaped garden spaces to art works and the suggestion of a sadly never-realised estate pub.
The Persian carpet pattern-inspired Priory Green is one of the few Lubetkin buildings in London not to be listed, and luckily, one of the few social housing estates to receive extensive refurbishment. This generous act on behalf of the council was in part prompted by the disillusioned tenants, who issued a mock-obituary notice mourning ‘the sad death of a once-loved friend, their housing estate’.
While the social model of the estate has seen a return to its former glory, not all of its original artworks were so lucky. An experimental series of murals by Polish artist and Royal Academician Feliks Topolski were somehow ‘lost’ during the estate’s darker years. The murals depicted the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the eighteenth century - including images of Pentonville resident Joseph Grimaldi - and what was then the present day.
How one loses more than one mural is a question for another day, but what does remain is the sculptural relief of a ‘Finsbury family’ over the Wynford Road entrance. Created by Kenneth Hughes, it depicts a family group, father, mother and three young children. This choice is perhaps a hint towards Lubetkin’s interest in Constructivism - a Russian movement that was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes. Essentially, the image was there to hammer home the importance of the nuclear family, lest the residents eyes should begin to wander.
Nowadays access to the estate and the modernist delights it offers is strictly guarded, gained through the cerulean Hugh Cubitt Centre - a RIBA Design Award-nominated work of art in its own right.
Images by Tian Khee Siong.