Nights at the Circus

Unless your home really is a castle, it's unlikely you'll have been confronted with an image of your own flat in an exhibition, but that's what happened to me at Riba's "A Place to Call Home", which traces the history of British homes from Georgian times to the present. Then again, I do live in the world's first-ever council housing, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, built in 1899 by London County Council on the rubble of east London's "blackest streets" (its original inhabitants were nurses, clerks and, oddly, cigar-makers).

There it is, my block, in a grainy photograph taken some time in the 1970s. The tree in the courtyard looks a bit less bushy and the car parked outside is one of those boxy Austin Allegro types but otherwise not much has changed. I wonder who's living in the flats: they would certainly have all been council tenants back then. This was at least a decade before "Right to Buy" and the windows on every floor are still uniformly net-curtained. I imagine the residents being anything from cockney to East End Jewish, or Bengalis who had fled the Bangladesh liberation war and whose offspring are many of my neighbours today.

In 1900 the LCC invited the mairie of Paris to London to show off the completed Boundary. And with good reason - everything was fully integrated here: shops, schools, workshops, laundry, the wonderfully "improving" bandstand and, of course, the flats themselves. The seven streets that radiate off the Circus are wide and tree-lined; the red-brick blocks are handsomely proportioned and in a Dutch-gabled or arts and crafts style, no two exactly the same.

Inside, the rooms are generously proportioned, with sash windows, high ceilings and wooden floors. There are black, cast-iron rubbish chutes, but they were designed for Edwardian potato peelings, coal ash and the odd torn petticoat rather than modern-day waste.

Today the primary school still resounds with childish chatter, while the secondary has become an arts centre. The workshops house graphic designers as well as carpenters, and the central bandstand and gardens have been refurbished thanks to the active Friends of Arnold Circus.

Hip replacement

Despite gentrification of the surrounding streets, much of the Boundary (for now) remains defiantly council-owned. But as flats have been sold off, the make-up of the estate has changed again. Hipsters and students abound, estate agents circle hungrily, yet a community spirit remains.

There is a sense of history here but the founding principles of the Boundary remain modern - this is a template for living that has been much replicated but seldom bettered. Those early planners and architects understood the right formula for happy inhabiting and people still want to live here now.

As witnessed in the Riba show, many postwar high-rise schemes perhaps proved a utopian vision too far - designs that look great on paper (or in Marseilles) translate to depressing, isolated hulks in the drizzle and poverty of Glasgow. The Boundary is social engineering at its most human.

Riba, London W1, until 28 April

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex