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The ‘prison-like’ Brixton housing block is part of London’s failed ‘mega-motorway’ plan

The ‘prison-like’ Brixton housing block is part of London’s failed ‘mega-motorway’ plan
The ‘prison-like’ Brixton housing block is part of London’s failed ‘mega-motorway’ plan

Brixton’s Barrier Block, famous for its imposing geometric style and small windows, was built as part of plans for a ‘mega-motorway’ across the capital. Built in 1981 on the Somerleyton Estate in Brixton, the Barrier Block, or Southwyck House, was part of plans to build a Motorway Box, a 50-mile, eight-lane ring road that would have run through London, including Brixton.

It was designed by Polish architect Magda Borowiecka, with the aim of protecting the estate from the noise and pollution that would come from the new road, hence the small windows and wall-like facade. However, when the plans for the Motorway Box fell through in 1973, the design and preparation for Southwycke House had already been completed, so it was decided to continue building work.




This decision was reportedly approved by the head of Lambeth Council’s planning committee and future Prime Minister John Major. After the building was completed, urban legends circulated that the architect behind the project had committed suicide because of critics of the design, although this is untrue as she was only interviewed by The Guardian in 2021.

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The block was part of plans for a ‘mega-highway’ through London.(Image: Danny Robinson/Wikimedia Commons)

Darcus Howe, the late broadcaster and writer, told the New Statesman in 2003: “John Major was on the housing committee that approved this block of flats. I would like to see not only it demolished, I would like to see it blown up so that all of London could see the plume of smoke and the flames, so that they would know that nothing like it would ever be seen again.

“From the outside it looks like a prison. I’m sure that was in the architect’s mind when he designed it. I have friends who live there and I refuse to visit them.”

After the building work was completed, crime problems arose on the estate and after two major riots in Brixton, the council began to focus on improving the area.

According to the Southwyck House Tenants Association, the block was then split into three, with two new sections at each end of the building. New lifts, concierges and video intercoms were also installed to help monitor who was coming in and out of the block.