Revolutionary thinking … the £4m Spring Gardens centre, Lewisham. Photograph: Morley von Sternberg/Peter Barber Architects

At first glance, you could easily mistake Spring Gardens for a fashionable new micro-hotel, or a chic health resort, tucked away behind some Edwardian terraces in south-east London. In fact, it is a new hostel for the homeless – and it’s better looking than most private housing schemes. A long, low building snaking around three sides of a garden, the hostel’s clean lines and white walls hark back to the work of early modernists such as Le Corbusier or JJP Oud. But then what should a homeless hostel look like anyway? Before Spring Gardens, the first purpose-built homeless hostel in Britain, it was a question no one needed to ask.

Homelessness was a high-profile problem in Britain in the late 1980s. The number of rough sleepers became conspicuously higher in the UK, especially in London, giving rise to “cardboard cities” – and bringing the beneficiaries of Thatcherite Britain into uncomfortable proximity with its victims. It was partly in ­ response to this, and the notion that the government should do something about it, that Margaret Thatcher made her infamous declaration that there was “no such thing as society”. In 1998, Tony Blair took a different line, pledging Labour would reduce by two-thirds the number of people sleeping rough in Britain by 2002. According to its own statistics, that target was met early, through joined-up social services and extra funds. In 2006, the government vowed to pump another £90m into raising the standard of the UK’s homeless accommodation. Spring Gardens is one of the results.


Steve Rose