An in-depth tour of the Alton Estate, a large council estate situated in Roehampton, southwest London, was a new entry on the 2022 Open House programme. Designed by a London County Council design team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt, the estate consisted of a variety of low and high-rise apartment blocks divided into Alton East (completed in 1958) and Alton West (completed in 1959).
The Alton East Estate consisted of point blocks and low-level housing (e.g. wide townhouses) designed for the 1950s demographics of the time: a lot of single people and daughters (who had lost their partners in the war) living with their mothers with less of an emphasis on families with children.
Notable sections of the Alton East estate included Horndean Close, a cluster of staggered houses around a communal green, a fashionable idea in the 1950s designed to evoke the feeling of a village green in which the local community could gather. This layout was also cheaper to build because there was no need to factor in a roadway, which wasn’t a problem as most people didn’t own a car in the 1950s before mass car ownership caught on. The use of timber and concrete (used to material shortages in the 1950s) combined with the trees (the original Victorian trees were retained and further trees added at the time the development was built), gave the close an almost Scandinavian feel.
Other notable parts of Alton East were the Swedish-inspired ten-storey tower blocks built atop a hill on the estate, emphasising the steepness of the hill and contrasted with staggered two storey blocks in a different colour. Oliver Fox, the chief architect, based the design of these tower blocks on similar blocks built in Gothenberg and Stockholm and the Lubetkin-designed Highpoint in Highgate: four flats per floor built around a central staircase and lift with internal bathrooms (by the 1950s, electrics lighting was good enough to light internal bathrooms) and sticking out external balconies (like Highpoint but not Alton West – see below). The planting around the blocks was intended to give this part of the estate a northen European/Scandinavian flavour and the differing tile patterns at the entrance of each block was intended by Cox to give each block a distinctive identity.
Moving onto Alton West, this part of the estate was considered by many British architects to be the crowning glory of post-World War II social housing at the time of its completion in 1958, largely as a result of its response to its unique setting. Built on a large expanse of parkland on the edge of Richmond Park, Alton West contained a number of different housing configurations: twelve-storey point blocks with four flats per floor (these had internal covered balconies unlike the towers in Alton East); terraces of low-rise maisonettes and cottages (including a terrace of striking bungalows built to accommodate pensioners, a relatively new social group from the 1950s onwards – before, elderly people would either live with families or, more depressingly, in work houses) and, perhaps most recognisably, five eleven-storey slab blocks, heavily influenced by the Unité d’Habitation buildings by Le Corbusier, completed in 1952 and now Grade II-listed. I understand that Alton West (and more specifically, Minstead Gardens, one of the terraces of pensioner bungalows) was used as a filming location in the 1966 dystopian drama film Farenheit 451.
The five eleven-storey slab blocks turned sideways to Richmond Park (they were originally meant to face out onto park but it was decided that this would look like a vast wall from a distance). Housing inside consisted of flats and maisonettes, many double height with bedrooms on the upper floor (people in the 1950s still insisted on going upstairs to bed) just like in Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation buildings. Unlike the Unite d’Habitation buildings, however, these were just residential blocks with none of the communal “streets” of shops and facilities (or a rooftop paddling pool) in Le Corbusier’s designs.
Set apart from the five slab blocks built on the park land but very similar looking was Allbrook House, the very last building built on the estate in the early 1960s when economy was at its height. Allbrook House had a library with a distinctive curved ceiling at the bottom. This building has not been protected by the Grade II-listing and is scheduled for redevelopment in the near future.