“I was lucky’, said 21-year-old art student Jill Smith in 1963 in the Gloucester Citizen, “I couldn’t have done it on my own.” The it that Jill was referring to was a vast mural she made with four colleagues for the entrance hall at the newest addition to Gloucester’s skyline: Clapham Court. An abstract design composed of ceramic tiles, the mural would have been one of the first things that greeted residents as they arrived at their new homes. Sixty years on, the mural has disappeared, and with the demolition of Clapham Court scheduled for 2024, the tower will soon follow suit. So, it feels very fitting that artworks will once again fill the building as Clapham Court opens its doors to the public for one last time as part of a project to mark the tower’s imminent demolition.
View of now missing mural in the entrance lobby to Clapham Court (source: Architects’ Journal, 1964)
If you know Gloucester, you probably know Clapham Court, even if you don’t know it by name. An eleven-storey residential tower block opened in 1963, it was designed by J.V. Wall, Gloucester’s City Architect (when such a role existed), and is the centrepiece of the Kingsholm estate, which was constructed in the 1960s. It’s a tower that stands confidently, having an almost totemic quality, reminding us of a particular period in the history of housing in Britain when local authorities built homes and built them high!
View of Clapham Court (source: author’s photo)
As tower blocks go, Clapham Court has exhibits considered architectural detailing (unlike many later tower blocks, when tight budgets led to cheaper designs). In its use of materials, it blends the vernacular and the modern, combining brown bricks (clearly visible at both ends of the block) and exposed bands of structural concrete (that speak to the tower’s modern construction method). This design is repeated in the low-rise blocks surrounding the building, unifying the estate and giving a strong sense of coherence and ‘place’. At its base, the tower experimented with shuttered concrete, a method in which concrete is poured into wooden moulds, with the grain left visible in the concrete when the moulds were removed (it’s been painted over since, but you can still see the grain of the wood). Famously used at the (Royal) National Theatre, I like the idea that the architect also felt it was good enough for the people of Gloucester!
External stairwell and shuttered concrete at the base of Clapham Court (source: author’s photo)
The tower contains 80 one-bed flats, each with a balcony and each having the same layout, as can be seen in surviving architectural plans accessible at the Gloucestershire Archive (located at the Heritage Hub, opposite the tower). The standardised flat layout enabled the architect to squeeze in eight flats per floor, with access via a long central corridor served by two staircases (at either end of the block) and two lifts (at the tower’s centre). Why only one-bed flats? With larger maisonettes for the families in the low-rise blocks below, it seems that Clapham Court was primarily designed for single people or couples without children. And come and go did those people for almost thirty years until the tower was eventually converted in 1991 to become sheltered housing, enabling older people to live independently but with support.
Detail of plan showing the standardised flat layout (source: Gloucestershire Archives, GBR L2/1/2/4)
In June 2021, Gloucester City Homes (GCH), an independent housing association to whom housing stock was transferred from the council in 2015, announced their intent to demolish Clapham Court. GCH says it “reluctantly made the difficult and sad decision” and acknowledged the “devastating impact” on residents. Marking this moment, Creative Solutions approached GCH to suggest a project that would bring together a team of artists to work with former and current residents to create original artworks that explore and celebrate the tower and its residents.
Working with residents has provided an opportunity to take stock of what it means to see your former disappear. But many of the tower’s residents have been keen to recognise that the existence of Clapham Court was only made possible as a result of earlier homes also being demolished, as a result of Kingsholm being designated a Comprehensive Development Area (CDA) in the 1950s. A type of spatial intervention that stems from the theory that progress was only viable with comprehensive (rather than ad-hoc) change, a CDA allowed a local authority to acquire property in a designated area, using special powers of compulsory purchase to replan those areas. The areas in question were almost described as suffering from ‘urban blight’ and containing ‘slum housing’.
Plan from 1954 showing the proposal CDAs in Westgate and Kingsholm (source: Gloucestershire Archives, GBR L2/1/2/4)
Of course, a ‘slum’ is far from what many people remember of those earlier homes. In Donald Bullock’s biographical account, The Legend That Was Clapham, he paints a vivid picture of a thriving community in the area that would eventually be demolished. Born in Alvin Street in 1932, Donald grew up playing with his mate on the streets and witnessed first-hand the violence inflicted on a community that saw their homes disappear. That residents felt passive to the process is clear: “Nobody asked them whether they wanted their ancient culture ravaged, whether they wanted its study humanity uprooted and dispersed to unknown and rootless localities with which they knew no affinity” (p. 116). Undoubtedly traumatic for its former residents, the Clapham Court project has been working with residents to reflect on the area’s past and acknowledge its multiple histories.
Coronation festivities in Clapham’s former Union Street, 1953 (source: Donald Bullock, The Legend that was Clapham)
As a PhD candidate in architectural history, it’s been fascinating for me to apply to undertake research in a ‘live’ context and to reflect on history with residents, who are the ultimate experts in the lived history of the tower. For many residents, the postwar period feels like recent history. For this reason, postwar history is often dismissed, especially in a place like Gloucester, which is proud of its long history stretching back to the Romans. Modern history, it seems, is not as important or interesting as ‘real’ history. But the story of Clapham Court feels pretty important to me and is nothing if not interesting. So, I hope you can join us at Clapham Court to say goodbye to the tower, experience art in a unique setting, honour the change experienced by those for whom it has been home, and mark another dramatic chapter in the urban history of Gloucester.
Adam is a p/t PhD candidate in the History of Art department at the University of Warwick, where his research explores the planned expansion of towns and cities in postwar Britain. Alongside this, he works in research and strategy for children and young people at Arts Council England.
For further information about the Clapham Court project, click here.