The lost Architect of London’s Aylesbury Estate.

He designed one of Europe’s largest public housing estates and then he just disappeared into thin air. Where is he? Where did he go? Did he ever design again? And if he did not, why?

Austrian Architect Peter Hans Felix Trenton built my childhood home, The Aylesbury estate. 

The Aylesbury estate is a post-war modernist council estate in Walworth, southeast London, built on a 60-acre site, and designed to house thousands after the devastation of the Second World War. However, during the end of completion, the monolithic builds were already referred to as ‘slums in the sky’ and gained a reputation for crime and poverty. Soon after this, during the early years of Blairism, Southwark Council decided to demolish the estate and replace it with private and mixed-tenure schemes, typical to the ‘gentrified’ schemes we see all over London.

Authors own, 2018

I am one of thousands of people who have lived on the Aylesbury. After the regeneration scheme was introduced, I always wondered how Peter Trenton would feel about his design now becoming close to a near-distant memory, and the same goes for many other post-war housing architects like him, who have or are having to see their work demolished (let’s not forget the Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens). I, for one, am completely devastated by the loss of my estate, so surely Trenton feels the same about his own work being demolished? 

Trenton’s post-war utopian dream has now been deemed as the definition of dystopia by architectural critics, but maybe he knew all too well that this was going to, or in fact, bound to happen? One of the earliest residents of the estate considers this to be so.

Authors own, 2018

‘The architect don’t live here, that’s the reason here, he wants to come and live here for a week, see his mistakes but he won’t’. – Taken from Oscar Newman’s documentary Defensible Space

Perhaps Trenton criticised his own design before completion, prior to the ridicule from the government, Southwark council and the media. Maybe he knew his mistakes and made a run for it? There seems to be no trace of the Austrian Architect, not even an illustrated drawing of him. In fact, typing in ‘Hans Peter Felix Trenton’ only alludes to the existing images of the Walworth Estate, its historical revolution and sadly, the early renders of the regenerated proposal. The identity of Hans Peter Trenton is mysterious, similar to many post-war council housing architects who introduced council housing. 

Did he want to escape from the housing aesthetics of its time? Well, British Post-War Council housing follows the recognisable principles of Le Corbusier’s work, notably Unité d’Habitation, and Aylesbury takes homage to this work in particular. Trenton’s work explores the repetition of clean, symmetrical lines and the centralisation of concrete. Almost ‘Alien’ to the old Victorian maisonettes which surrounded it. It was the definition of Post-war brutalism, a new design age of public housing in Europe. He followed a long list of public housing architects during the post-war reconstruction phase such as Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith who both designed the initial Park Hill council housing estate in Sheffield. In additional reading, Trenton appeared to have shared a similar aesthetic to the architects of the late Heygate Estate and the old Ferrier Estate. Both of which, oddly enough, have also vanished since the creation of their estates. Why was this the case?

The use of Large Panel Systems (LPS) and the undoubtable inaccuracies that came along with its construction directed to years of difficulty. The Aylesbury Estate was built in the midst of the Ronan Point building collapse (1968), which killed four people. The casualty governed red flags with this construction system in large scale public housing especially within the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark where the Aylesbury is situated and more so where LPS was prominent. LPS led to decades of anxiety in the safety of housing and for its residents too. I believe local councils and architects during this period shared mirroring apprehensions, a quiet doubt at the back of their minds that possibly there would be a repeat of Ronan Point. I can only assume that Peter Trenton felt the same too and fled?

‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job…There are estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry’ – Taken from Tony Blair’s inaugural speech on the Aylesbury Estate. 

Weirdly, Trenton did not visit the Aylesbury Estate after its fruition, but maybe he was scared to? Perhaps not by the inaccuracies of the architecture but the judgement of the ‘working class’ people who inhabited the estate? On personal reflection, I felt safe living on the estate and have fond memories of playing outside with my friends after the end of a school day but reading articles suggests the opposite, a more negative illusion of antisocial behaviour resulting from the early years of the estate’s birth with references to the history of council housing. Established by Tony Blair’s inaugural discourse which ultimately grouped the residents as delinquents and created a belief of poverty itself or coming from a working-class family being a crime (Ravetz, 2002, p.13).

Authors own, 2018

I suppose the history of the estate was not all sunshine and rainbows as I assumed it was whilst I was a child and even now as an architecture student. The damaging critique of the ‘working classes’, the ideologies of resident behaviour, construction failures and the ‘marmite’ opinions of the aesthetic and so, to design public housing and being considered as a council housing architect at that time immediately came with decades worth of architectural ‘baggage’. I believe these ideologies and issues are still following housing architects today, and with clear reasoning, look back three years to the tragedies of Grenfell. There’s almost an unspoken caution with council housing for architects and, I believe, funnily enough, the council. So, there is a lot to suggest that possibly, Trenton felt the baggage whilst designing one of Europe’s largest public housing estates and never designed again? 

Nonetheless, I suppose the search for Peter Hans Felix Trenton still continues…

  1. I lived on this estate for 25 years, Wendover Thurlow street until myself and my family were forced to move due to the regeneration. Despite the crime and decay around I had a colorful childhood and felt part of a community, I knew a lot of people which gave me reassurance and sense of safety as to where I currently reside I cannot say the same. Growing up on the estate I did always wonder why the Government couldn’t just invest money and fix the issues such as security doors and functioning cameras which are pretty standard everywhere else but as time went on I gave up on wishful thinking. We had mixture of good memories and some bad ones too but I will never forget all the lessons taught and memories I had growing up on Aylesbury Estate. One thing I could add to the mystery behind what happened to P.H Trenton, one day whilst hanging out with a group of friends a police sergeant approached us for a chat regarding the estate and what it was like living here, he went on to explain that the architect that designed the estate was Austrian and years later when he returned to visit the estate he was devastated by what he had seen and shortly committed suicide. How accurate this is I will never know but I thought I’d share it anyway. Thank you
  2. As a young architect I worked for a short while for another architect who had worked on the Robin Hood estate … 20+ years on from that project, he was completely disillusioned with the Modern Movement … personally, I find both such estates and his delayed reaction manic … 1) public housing when such esates wer built was a pile ’em high game, with politicians of all colours bragging about numbers they’d built (never mind the quality, feel the width) … the essential elements of e.g. Unite D’habitation (e.g. shops, communal recreation facilities) were purged, as were building standards (no insulation, cold bridges everywhere, esp. where structure was ‘expressed’ thereby wicking cold from outside to inside, softwood windows 10/20 storeys up [good luck getting decent access to repaint/fix them] etc … 2) architects too often have a herd mentality, so the daft “let’s relocate e.g.Corb’s Unite from the benign Med, climate to greyer, colder, windier England”, where the Unite’s wide access decks (“Streets in the sky”) and open space around the pilotis columns become howling wind tunnels, and stained, grey concrete too often looks like a physical manifestation of Depression … 3)e.g. lifts were not maintained, so good luck walking up 10+ flights with shopping, kids & pushchair … 4) as soon as such weaknesses became apparent, local authorities decanted struggling (‘problem’) families into such estates (to protect other areas), & the estates became social sumps … road to hell paved with good intentions ..! Would that architects spent less time slavishly following style (design as appearance) and more on substance, with design conceived from the user (human beings!) outward … the latter being EXACTLY what Corb was doing with Le Modulor …
  3. I will say this. IMO, if Aylesbury Estate was built on a parcel of land in Manhattan and was maintained at the same level as any typical market-rate urban high-rise apartment building it would simply blend into a “scenery” or “urban landscape’ full of elevator apartment buildings that are NOT slums, NOT falling apart and highly valued by the real estate holdings industry. Functional, secure large light-filled apartments? What’s not to like? Most US public housing of this period was build, NOT maintained, and NOT furnished with maintained and managed public amenities. It was felt that the poor did not deserve these things and that taxpayers should not support this tiny bit of “socialism” in an otherwise homeowner focused nation.

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