Simon Jenkins: Save Excalibur Estate

Lancelot: Your rage has unbalanced you. You sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.
Arthur: So be it. To the death!
- Excalibur

The Guardian's Simon Jenkins has today devoted his column to the fate of the Excalibur Estate in Catford, which Lewisham Council is planning to redevelop. He introduces Catford thus:

As history, south London's Catford lacks pzazz. It has none of the raw brutalism of its neighbour, Lewisham, or the old world charm of Peckham. Sandwiched between Hither Green cemetery and the Ravensbourne ditch, it is one long aesthetic groan.

He goes on:

But it nurtures in its bosom the largest surviving 1940s prefab estate in Britain, admirably named Excalibur. Lewisham council wants to throw it, like the fabled sword, into the lake of oblivion. This week Excalibur was declared fit only for demolition...

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...

We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities...

The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history, no less worthy for not being conventionally beautiful. It is a chapter in the nation's story, when misguided, utopian bureaucrats came face to face with their own incompetence. Yet the result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised.

Jenkins is a guy who's never found a subject on which he doesn't know better than the experts, but on this occasion his argument rings true.

London's architectural variety is one of the things that makes it unique (which another reason why the Brockley Cross Beach Huts are to be welcomed) and the residents of Excalibur exhibit a lot of civic pride in their neighbourhood. On the other hand, they are low-density and Lewisham has big targets to hit in terms of creating new homes in the borough. They also have a slim majority in favour of their proposals, according to their own consultation.

Jenkins says that striking the right balance between preservation and progress is tricky. So too is balancing historicism with practicality. Should Excalibur be pitched in to the Ravensbourne or remain in the rock of Catford?

Thanks to Mike for spotting.