What can architects learn from London’s best social and urban housing projects?

The spectacular demolition of the high-rise Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in 1972 has been described as “the day Modernism died,” but a very different dynamic played out across the Atlantic. As documented in a beautiful new book by architect and historian Mark Swenarton, in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, London saw the creation of a wide variety of  low-rise, high-density public housing projects by young architects who adapted Modernist design idioms to the era’s intense need for low-cost housing. Focusing on the architectural output of single north London borough, the richly detailed and lushly produced new book, called Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, documents in vivid detail the design and construction of thousands of affordable homes in Camden, one of London’s wealthiest and most historic neighborhoods.

Created between 1965 and 1980 under the direction of Camden’s visionary chief architect Sydney Cook, the projects described in Mark Swenarton’s magisterial book constitute what he describes as “not just the last great output of social housing… but also arguably the most concentrated architectural investigation into urban housing undertaken in the last 50 years.” In the foreword to the book, Columbia University historian Kenneth Frampton concurs, describing Cook’s Camden as “an exceptionally thorough documentation and analysis of British achievements in the field of low-rise, high-density housing…. part and parcel of this international movement towards achieving denser, anti-suburban, proto-ecological patterns of land settlement.”

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