Brent approves demolition of Victorian landmark in Stonebridge

The Italianate Villa

A controversial new development has been given the go-ahead by Brent Council to re-generate Stonebridge in north-west London.

Brent Planning Committee has voted to demolish an 18th Century Grade II listed building known for its ‘handsome’ belvedere towers to make way for the new build development.

Image Credit: Curl La Tourelle Head – Front elevation

The Architects’ Journal reported that the firm Curl la Tourelle Head, has won approval for £43m council home development:

The practice was appointed to the project, which will replace an existing Victorian building, following a design competition in 2018.

Backed by Brent Start, Brent Council’s adult learning provider, the scheme received the local authority’s support in January and was approved by the council’s planning committee last week.

The scheme aims to help boost numeracy and literacy, expand digital skills and improve support for residents with learning disabilities in Brent.

The development, which the practice insisted had ‘sustainability at the forefront’, has faced local opposition due to the demolition of the listed Altamira Villa built in 1876. Designed by architect H E Kendall Jr, the house and its neighbour were described by historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘much-altered, but once very handsome, capacious, rustic Italianate villas with belvedere towers’.

Image credit: Curl La Tourelle Head – Courtyard

Curl la Tourelle Head provided the following statement about the development:

We have recently received planning consent for Morland Gardens, our 100% social housing scheme in the London Borough of Brent including 65 new council homes, a 2500m² state-of-the-art adult education centre with public café and 700m² of affordable workspace.

The project has been designed with sustainability at the forefront. An ambient loop heating system provides a 39% reduction in operational CO2 and extensive rooftop gardens and multiple sheltered courtyards give residents over 2200m² outdoor space, protected from pollution, promoting healthy living and biodiversity. The building will be constructed to the highest design and environmental standards and will create an exceptional building in the heart of the community.

The demolition of this locally listed landmark is so controversial that Cllr Amer Agha, must use the global pandemic to convince us otherwise:

Cllr Amer Agha, Cabinet Member for Schools, Employment & Skills said: “Given how Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Brent, both by case numbers and in its economic impact, this kind of new educational facility and the affordable workspace which will be provided, has never been needed more and so I’m very pleased that the committee voted in favour of the plans.”

Image credit: Curl La Tourelle Head – Hub

Modern and funky co-working spaces are more desirable than Victorian Architecture that has lasted well over a century and could easily last another:

Harlesden-based youth leadership consultant and member of the project’s Community Steering Group, Errol Donald, told the committee: “In providing real hope and genuine opportunities for people to access affordable housing, specialist skills, training and custom-built work spaces, I feel the scheme will undoubtedly play a key role in supporting a community that has shown incredible resilience for as long as I can remember.”

Local opposition has been reported in detail by Martin Francis, the author of Wembley Matters blog, here are excerpts from the post, though I recommend reading it in full along with the comments:

Brent Planning Committee tonight approved the Council’s own development plans for 1 Morland Gardens despite pleas to respect it as one of only two heritage buildings in the area.  The Italianate Villa will be demolished and replaced by the building above.

There had been 48 initial objections to the plans with a further 15 when plans review, a 330-signature e-petition against and a 36-person written petition from Willesden Local History Society.

There were just 3 comments on the Planning Portal in support.

Image credit: Curl La Tourelle Head - Courtyard
Image credit: Curl La Tourelle Head – Courtyard

In commenting against the development and arguing for the significance of the listed building; a member of Willesden Local History Society used the following quote by a Professor of Architecture:

‘1 Morland Gardens is not just any nineteenth-century villa, but a characteristic work by an architect of genuine and lasting significance. Its destruction would be a terrible loss, not only to the local environment, but also to the architectural heritage of Victorian Britain.’

Comments in favour of the development:

Errol Donald then spoke in favour of the development, a charity worker in Harlesden for the last 3 years and with family still in the area, he said that the development was essential to reinvigorate the area.  He did not mention the Bridge Park controversy by name but talked about the local and national political context. He said the scheme was not a direct response to that context but did contribute. It would provide real hope and training (in the form of the new college building) for a resilient community that deserved a chance to have the same chance to grow and thrive as other areas in Brent.

Image credit: Curl La Tourelle Head - Model of the scheme
Image credit: Curl La Tourelle Head – Model of the scheme

In support of the eradication of the Victorian building, an associate of Brent’s Adult Learning centre quoted Malcolm X:

Ala Uddin from the College quoted Malcolm X’s views on the importance of education. He said the current building was dysfunctional and that the new building would provide fantastic learning spaces with high tech facilities. It would be an aspirational a building that would provide high quality education and motivation to learn.  Cllr Denselow asked if the college could do outstanding work in a dysfunctional building despite the problems. Uddin said ye, but it would be even better in a new building.

It’s a shame that an architectural firm who could rise to the challenge of sympathetically redeveloping this listed building has not been appointed. Finding the balance where the Italianate features are preserved whilst delivering new homes and services to the community would be a vision that is more long-term thinking and in better taste. During the planning process there was no serious consideration in preserving the listed building:

There was a revealing exchange with Brent Council’s agent and architect when Cllr Robert Johnson asked if they had looked at keeping the Altimira building.  The architect said they had looked at numerous reasons why a new building would be better.  The college spaces would be 50% bigger with demolition and 30% bigger if it was retained. A new building would not be constrained by the site’s hilltop position Its quality would be greater if they did not have to work around constraints of keeping the building. Retention would reduce the number of housing units from 65 to 27. He admitted that early options did not go through a thorough planning process but said a crowded site with housing would have over-shadowed the present building.

Could Brent Council come to their senses and save these Belvedere towers? Don’t hold your breath, as this local authority has a history of demolishing iconic towers.

David Goodwin has been blogging since 2010 and is the author of Blog on the Block where he covers civic & social topics. Goodwin hosts the podcast, Pod on the Block. He is the founder and company director of user experience consultancy Uxfam Ltd.

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