Freddy Mardlin looks at the Maida Vale's 'mansion blocks' of apartments, and whether they could be part of the solution to the city's need for more housing.
Maida Vale, occupying the northernmost reaches of the City of Westminster and lying just to the south of Kilburn is not, perhaps, the best known of London’s many subregions. What this relatively unknown part of Westminster offers, however, is one of London’s most successful urban planning projects. Through the Victorian and Edwardian eras, mansion blocks were built across London, with by far the highest density in the Central Western boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster. Maida Vale, developed through this period, is built almost exclusively out of such mansion blocks and as a result provides a perfect case study for this style of construction.
This unique architectural style was designed to allow the wealthy to maintain a London home (often in conjunction with a country one). Compact and practical but without sacrificing luxury and aesthetic value, these blocks were an ideal solution for the housing crisis of the time. Apartments had long been associated with the working classes but with the rapid expansion of London, townhouses had become increasingly scarce. The rebranding of the apartment in the building of these mansion blocks, making it into a fashionable and luxurious housing solution, encouraged the wealthier residents of London to embrace higher density living. As a result, Maida Vale’s population density is higher than the Inner West London average even now, at 11300 people per square km compared to the average of 10700. Indeed, right up to the present-day, areas such as Maida Vale are traditionally affluent and populated largely by working professionals. The average household income in Maida Vale ward in 2018 was £42600, a full £6000 higher than the London average of £36421. This figure is, of course, on par with surrounding areas, yet is demonstrative of the fact that such properties still do not deter wealthier buyers.
This then leads to the question of what could be learned from construction projects such as this. Granted, mansion blocks have issues of affordability (average property prices in Maida Vale being around the £800000 mark) and also by the upkeep costs (service charges etc). What such blocks do manage to do, however, is entice wealthier Londoners to embrace apartment living rather than buying or renting larger properties, allowing for a more inexpensive way of living (since flats are accepted to be cheaper both to build and to heat and are a more efficient use of land). The communal gardens they often enclose, moreover, reduce the strain on public parks, which with the current Covid-19 pandemic, is a benefit that should not be understated.
To suggest that there should be any major building drive for Victorian style mansion blocks nowadays would, quite rightly, be met with derision from almost all sides. Victorian style mansion blocks themselves are antiquated constructions and can justifiably be accused of gentrification and classist building. If the mansion block can be adapted, however, as has been seen in recent regeneration projects such as Kilburn Quarter, so that attractive, desirable properties containing large amounts of social housing alongside parts for private sale are built, then this format could be one that significantly aids with alleviating London’s housing crisis, offering high-quality affordable housing to London’s residents.