Category: Architectural Tours
Alton Estate, Roehampton SW15
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.
Hatfield 20th Century Society Tour
The highlight of a recent C20 tour to Hatfield in Hertfordshire was the opportunity to visit the Grade II-listed Cockaigne Housing Group development.
With the name deriving from the Middle English word ‘cokaygne’ (meaning land of plenty) and designed by architects Peter Phippen, Peter Randall and David Parkes in the mid-1960s, the 2.8 acre development was inspired by communal housing projects created in Scandinavia and consisted of a staggered terrace of 28 houses built around communal gardens containing a tennis court, a children’s play area and a community house with a self-contained guest flat for visitors.
Each of the the houses (which appeared relatively narrow from the street) were built with a deep plan with accommodation arranged around a series of enclosed courtyards designed to allow sunlight to flow through the interior spaces, assisted by full height glazing throughout.
The development has been described by English Heritage as “the leading English manifestation of the courtyard house” and the houses as “consisting of a perfectly judged series of interlinked spaces which flow naturally one into another”. These spaces consisted of a front courtyard, hallway, kitchen and bedroom at the front, the dining area, living area and internal courtyard garden in the middle of the house and then further bedrooms, the bathroom and back garden at the rear.
We were fortunate to be shown around four versions of the same house, which had each been altered and renovated to varying degrees over the years. Two were in relatively original condition (houses 1 and 4 pictured) while two of the others had been sensitively restored into modern homes (houses 2 and 3 pictured).
Only one of the four (house 2 pictured) had the original internal courtyard in its original uncovered form – the others (houses 1, 3 and 4 pictured) had been converted into additional indoor living/dining rooms. I understood the rationale for converting this space but personally thought that the internal outdoor courtyard worked best.
The houses were unusual and definitely did flow well from one living space to another. Residents described the development as an enjoyable place to live with a great sense of community but complained of issues with the flat rooves (prone to leaks) and how the houses feel the weather (hot in summer and cold in winter). A recently renovated example of a Cockaigne house is currently for sale via The Modern House.
Other sights on the C20 tour of Hatfield included a number of other 1960s housing developments and the Marychurch Roman Catholic Church.
Dulwich Oasis 20th Century Society Tour
Even though I’m pretty familiar with Dulwich and its housing estates (having lived in Great Brownings since 2019 and house hunted rather obsessively in the area for a few years before that), I couldn’t resist joining a recent C20 tour entitled “Dulwich: Mid Century Oasis” run by C20 chair and local expert Ian McInnes.
The tour was a companion piece to McInnes’ excellent book, a deep dive into each of the mid century housing estates scattered throughout the area (still available to buy in Dulwich bookshops and online) and was no less comprehensive: over the course of five hours, we visited most of the estates in the area, including some interior visits into a number of types of property that I was previously unfamiliar with.
The mid-century modern housing estates of Dulwich were planned by the architects Austin Vernon and Partners and built by Wates after the Dulwich Estate knocked down most of the Victorian houses that populated an almost 20 acre area in 1950s after they suffered extensive bomb damage in WWII.
The tour started at the Dulwich Wood Park Estate, a cluster of apartment blocks that I became very familiar with during our property search. Supposedly Dulwich’s answer to La Villa Radieuse in Marseilles (I didn’t see much of a resemblance!), the apartments were designed in a way that isn’t often seen in new-builds: only four apartments per floor, generous proportions, dual aspect, separate kitchen. Priced at £3,000-4,000 at the time, these were relatively premium apartments.
Each of the apartment blocks were named after Elizabethan explorers and all shared similar communal areas with colourful tiling and terrazzo staircases though Knoll Court, the first to be built, had a few more elaborate details including a tiled mural and what might have been a water feature. The landings and corridors in all of the blocks were originally intended to completely open to the elements (like a lot of social housing blocks) but the architects decided against it.
We were invited to take a look around two stylish examples of apartments on the estate. Both had the standard layout with the large living area, two connected bedrooms and separate kitchen. Both apartments had the original screen dividing the hallway and living area removed – the correct design choice in my opinion. One of the apartments was on the 8th floor of one of the blocks and had almost floor to ceiling windows in the living room (albeit with bars across the bottom section of the window). We learned that these top floor apartments were something of an afterthought – the 7th floor apartments were originally going to be extra luxurious with a conservatory on the upper floor but it was decided that the 8th floor could be better monetised as a further four apartments. This explained why the lift only went up as far as the 7th floor with residents on the 8th floor needing to climb the final floor.
Next, we moved onto Rockwell Gardens, a terrace of three-storey townhouses with “caged” front gardens and tiled front facades. I recall viewing a house with this exact layout during our property search except that one was opposite the Horniman Museum on a very busy (and noisy) road. Like the one we saw, this house on Rockwell Gardens had four bedrooms (one of them up in the loft on the second floor), a separate kitchen and living area and a staircase that was closed off from the living area to allow residents to come in and out of the house without having to cross the living area (like you have to in a standard three-storey Wates townhouse with an open plan living area and staircase opening onto the living area). These houses were reportedly inhabited by a lot of diplomats when they were built (this was something to do with the ease of getting into Whitehall) and came with warm air central heating and a fireplace. These originally sold for £6,000.
The Whytefield Estate was a bus ride away. I was familiar with the townhouses on this estate, having viewed one during our property search, but not the intriguing one and two-storey courtyard houses.
We had a look inside one of the three-storey townhouses, this one with the zigzag windows on the first floor. These windows were installed, reportedly as an afterthought, in the townhouses on the estate that faced onto other townhouses so that the residents wouldn’t be able to see into one another’s houses (somewhat unnecessarily given that there gap running between the two facing rows of townhouses appeared to be about 20 metres wide).
This townhouse (like the one that I viewed during our property search) had its original ground floor layout intact – a utility room and a bedroom/study opening out onto a small courtyard garden, which in turn opened onto a communal courtyard. We were told that a lot of residents had converted this ground floor living area into an open plan kitchen living area with obligatory bifolding doors. Upstairs on the first floor was the living area and kitchen and three further bedrooms on the top floor.
Next, we were treated to a visit into one of the single storey courtyard houses. This intriguing bungalow had an unusually wide hall with the sleeping quarters straight (three bedrooms) ahead with a short flight of stairs on the left leading up into the living area with patio doors onto a courtyard garden. The courtyard garden also provided access to one of the bedrooms. These single-storey houses apparently sold better than the two-storey pyramid style houses (which we unfortunately didn’t get to see inside) due to the fact that the pyramid houses had upside down layouts (bedrooms on the ground floor and living area/kitchen upstairs).
I was also familiar with the next estate, Lings Coppice, having been inside a couple of the houses during our property search and also as part of the Dulwich Artists’ Open House event.
These two-storey terraced houses were designed by German designer Manfred Bresgen and had a distinctly European look. The original plan was to build more traditional-looking three storey townhouses in the Lings Coppice site but Waite was keen to minimise costs by building houses with two storeys rather than three. The estate was built on Radburn principles with the houses arranged around a central courtyard. These houses were to be designed to be deceptively spacious with deep floorplans and a skylight/double height atrium in the centre of the plan to allow light to reach all corners of the house.
The houses in Lings Coppice that we saw during our property search had been updated to varying degrees but this particular example had been radically transformed. The original galley kitchen had been completely removed and the living area/double height atrium area had been completely opened up to accommodate a kitchen area that was almost entirely comprised of a sleek kitchen island. The original garage had been replaced with a utility room though the original garage door on the front of the house remained intact to comply with estate rules. Upstairs, however, the floorplan had been left in its original configuration with four bedrooms, a bathroom and a strip landing overlooking the kitchen island below.
After passing through a number of other estates (Valiant Close, Loggets and Morkyns Walk), we ended up at the brutalist concrete part of Dulwich College, designed by WJ Mitchell in 1966 and completed in 1968. Originally intended to be a memorial hall, it is now used as a dining hall and occasionally as the venue for mid century modern furniture shows.
The final stop on the tour was Ferrings, part of the College Road Estate and arguably the most architecturally accomplished of the developments on the Dulwich Estate. While the original plan was for the College Road Estate to consist of four premium apartment blocks, there simply wasn’t the demand for flats at this higher price point in this area. As a result, only one of the four apartment blocks was built (Gainsborough Court on College Road) with interlocking single and two-storey houses (each of which cost around £15,000, a large sum in the 1960s) making up the rest of the development.
We were invited to see inside one of the single-storey ranch houses, which had a courtyard front garden at the front (onto which the front hall and dining room opened) and a walled garden (accessed via the 30ft long living area) at the rear. The house still had its original layout (many houses on the estate have been reconfigured) with a clear division of public and private living quarters and a number of original features as well, including the timber-clad double-height mono-pitch roof in the living room and an abundance of sky lights.
Modernist pilgrimage to Rotterdam
We recently decided to spend a long weekend in Rotterdam because: a) you can get there in about three hours from London on the Eurostar; and b) I really wanted to visit Sonnenveld Huis, which explains why the majority of this blog entry is dedicated to it.
Sonnenveld Huis, a stunning 1930s residential property, has been open to the public since 2001. Designed by architects Brinkman and Van der Vlugt for Albertus Sonneveld and his family, Sonnenvleld Huis was built between 1929 and 1933 and is reportedly one of the best-preserved private houses in the Dutch Functionalist style in the Netherlands.
Functionalist architects prioritised light, air and space, designing efficient and hygienic buildings using modern techniques and materials such as steel and concrete. Floor plans were designed to make internal spaces open and light, enhanced by balconies and terraces. Sonneveld Huis, which felt staggeringly contemporary for a building from the 1930s, was clearly built with these principles in mind. This feeling of modernity was enhanced by Albertus Sonnenveld’s installation of state of the art mod cons throughout the house including telephones in the bedrooms, wall-mounted climate control units, a massage shower with multiple shower heads and a system of music speakers throughout the house which could be controlled from certain rooms (a 1930s version of Sonos, if you will).
The house was split over three floors. The ground floor contained the servants’ quarters, garage and a charming bright studio room for the Sonneveld daughters to receive guests.
The curved main staircase led up to the first floor, which contained the living areas, starting with the kitchen (which was mainly used by the servants) and serving area from which food was passed into the dining room through a beautiful built-in shelf cum serving hatch.
The dining room flowed though into a very spacious living room which could be divided into two using a sliding partition wall. One end of the room opened out onto a large terrace at one end and the other end housed a library and an additional seating area (the high-backed orange chairs were for the men and the lower-backed orange chairs were for the women and their voluminous hairstyles).
The second floor contained the bedrooms: a guest bedroom (in which the colour scheme reminded me a little too much of a sanatorium), a separate walk-in linen room with extensive built-in storage and the daughters’ bedrooms which had a shared jack-and-jill bathroom in between them.
At the end of the hall was an impossibly glamorous master bedroom with a wraparound terrace, a large en-suite bathroom and a separate dressing room. The staircase on the second floor continued up to the roof, which was also used as a terrace.
This really was a very luxurious and expensive house. Clearly, no expense was spared at time on the design, furnishings and fittings (the carpets alone were ridiculously sumptuous). The unconventional use of colour was also stunning – I’ve never seen anything quite so glamorous as that bronze paint used on that curved wall in the library area and in the master bedroom.
Sonneveld Huis is absolutely worth making the trip to Rotterdam to see in person. The audio tour (informative but also quite irreverent) was excellent and the freedom to peruse almost every inch of the house at will was refreshing – you were even allowed to sit on most of the furniture!
Chabot Huis, a stunning modernist villa designed in 1938 by architects Gerrit Willem Bass and Leonoard Stokla, was a few doors down from Sonnenveld Huis. The villa was initially built as a private house for the Kraaijeveld family but has been used since 1993 as a museum dedicated to the painter and sculptor Hendrik Chabot.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the interior of Chabot Huis because the galleries were closed for a re-hanging and when I tried to access the parts of the building that did appear to be open, I was unceremoniously thrown out after failing to produce a pre-booked ticket. I did, however, find some photos of the interior online.
The much photographed yellow Cube houses were an intriguing oddity; more interesting than actually impressive.
Built in 1984 by the architect Piet Blom and located on Overblaak Street above the Blaak metro station, the complex of homes, shops and a pedestrian bridge consisted of a hive of 51 cubes, all attached to one another. Blom’s innovative design involved tilting the cube of a conventional house 45 degrees, and fixing it on top of a hexagonal post. Each house had its entrance at the base of this post, which contained a staircase leading up into the cube itself.
An owner of one of the cube houses had opened his home to the public as a “show cube”, which allowed us to see inside an example of one of the houses with most of its original features intact.
Inside, the first floor of the house consisted of a living room and open kitchen, the second floor contained the sleeping area and a bathroom and the apex of the cube contained a further living area.
The house did not seem like a very practical space to live in. The apex room at the top of the cube was stiflingly hot and all of the walls and windows were angled at 55 degrees which meant that about a quarter of the 1000 sq ft floorspace was unusable, giving the house a slightly claustrophobic feel. I must say that the colour scheme and sharp-angled built in furniture (futuristic through an early 80s lens) probably did not help.
I didn’t have much luck on the shopping front in Rotterdam despite the abundance of appealing independent stores.
Pannekoekstraat was a lovely street of boutiques and cafes just a short walk away from the super commercial Blaak area.
Hutspot, which I suppose would be described in pretentious retailspeak as a “lifestyle concept store” offered a combination of tasteful clothes, design objects and local art from a mix of established brands and young designers and artists. The stuff wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t ridiculously expensive either and the store reminded me of a more grown up, more premium version of Urban Outfitters.
The flea market at Blaak Maarkt in the centre of Rotterdam was a complete let-down. Though I’d read online that it hosts all sorts of vendors selling food, textiles, plants and antiques, it ended up being 80% food and 20% everything else. There were only a handful of antique stands selling the sort of tat that I tend to seek out when visiting flea markets abroad and I struggled to find anything interesting on any of these stands to photograph for this blog entry, let alone to buy and take home.
1970s/1980s-looking apartment complex
Given that the majority of Rotterdam was destroyed in the 1940s, a lot of the residential architecture was the sort of interesting, debatably ugly post-war stuff that I like. I know nothing about this 1970s/1980s-looking apartment and retail complex built around a waterway but the design was interesting enough for us to stop and take notice – look at those pull-down canopies for the slanting balconies!
Turn End house and garden
We spent the recent August bank holiday Monday visiting Turn End house and garden, the architect Peter Adlington’s family home in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire.
Peter Adlington designed and built a small development of three houses (The Turn, Middle Turn, Turn End) in the 1960s. They received a Royal Institute of British Architects Award for Architecture in 1970 followed by a Grade II* listing in 2006 and have been described as some of the most beautiful houses built in England since the war.
While Turn End is still occupied by the Adlington family (and open to nosy members of the public to visit twice a year), The Turn is currently let out and The Middle Turn is privately owned and occupied.
Turn End, as far as I could tell, was a mostly single storey dwelling arranged around a central courtyard. The main entrance opened almost straight into the kitchen and dining area from which the living area branched off at one end of the house and a large home office at the other. Each of these three areas opened out onto the aforementioned courtyard.
A very mid century wood panelled bathroom and three bedrooms were located behind the kitchen, accessed by a short flight of stairs. There also appeared to be a mezzanine level of sorts above both the living and home office areas, accessible via a wooden ladder.
Turn End, like all of my favourite modernist houses, had a distinctly European flavour. Certain elements, such as the wooden beams and mezzanine levels reminded me of Villa Aalto in Helsinki whilst the use of exposed stone, breeze blocks and terracotta floor and roof tiles were more Mediterranean in style. With temperatures reaching 33 degrees on the day that we visited, it felt like we were in Southern Spain at times.
This was particularly the case when walking around the garden, which at just under an acre, was rather large relative to the house. Designed by Peter Adlington as a natural extension to the house, the space contained courtyards with pools, a small woodland around old apple trees and a curved glade leading to a series of garden rooms. I would love for our rather sad-looking garden to look more like this.
Turn End is usually open for visitors twice a year but we were told that all three houses might be open next year as a special anniversary treat. If that’s the case, I’ll definitely be coming back.
Span Blackheath 20th Century Society Tour
I recently attended another 20th Century Society architectural tour, this time an almost ludicrously comprehensive perambulation of Span developments in Blackheath. The four-and-a-half hour tour took in the full range of Span housing types, of which there was a unexpectedly wide variety.
The Priory (1956), The Hall (1957), Spangate (1964) and Hallgate (1958) were examples of classic Eric Lyons-designed low-rise 1950s and 1960s apartment blocks, containing apartments filled with light (thanks to extensive glazing to the front and rear of each apartment) and looking/opening out onto perfectly maintained landscaped gardens.
I’ve previously been to view an apartment in Hallgate and while I admired the setting and the development (particularly the glazed open porches and that unusual sculpture), I wasn’t overly taken with the flat itself due to the slightly tired decor inside.
The two sympathetically modernised apartments that we given access to as part of this tour (one in The Priory and the other in The Hall) were far better examples, showcasing the features of these bright spaces to their full potential.
We were also shown around some classic 1950s and 1960s Eric Lyons developments made up of two-storey terraced houses, including The Lane (1964), The Keep (1957), Hall II (1958), Corner Green (1959) and The Plantation (1962). Like the apartments in his apartment blocks, Lyons’ houses were designed to maximise the qualities of light and space and to enhance the relationship between the buildings and the surrounding landscape. Care was taken to design and build houses around existing mature trees, supplemented with new planting and the creation of communal areas that encouraged residents to mix.
Some of the developments stood out as being particularly successful (for me, The Plantation and Corner Green, the latter of which was reportedly Eric Lyons’ favourite), due to their design and colour schemes coupled with the positioning of the houses around a large central open grassy space set back from the road.
Other developments, whilst equally well designed, felt slightly compromised by the size, shape and/or condition of the sites upon which they were built (the houses on The Lane, for instance, were built around a snaking tarmac drive whilst the grass and vegetation in The Keep looked like it could do with being watered in places).
There were some interesting outliers along the way. The Foxes Dale Houses (1957) were a trio of larger townhouses, unusually set over three storeys with a striking spiral staircase at their centre.
These houses had both paved gardens to the front and rear and a balcony screened by glass and roofed by a pergola on the first floor. House & Garden were enlisted at the time to decorate these houses in seemingly flamboyant mid century style, judging by these images from the publication at the time.
Designed with a more affluent customer in mind (House & Garden referred to an imaginary retired Royal Navy commander working at Greenwich, aged about 40, married, with a son of ten), the developers apparently had a tough time shifting these houses as they were too expensive for the area at the time, which seemed to put the developers off from building any further premium housing of this type in the area.
Southrow (1963) also had a slightly different look and feel.
This development, comprised of 10 two-storey maisonettes and 23 apartments set around a large rectangular quad with one side of the development and the communal roof terrace looking out onto the heath, was also seemingly built with a more affluent customer in mind.
The houses, one of which we were given access into, originally contained a pointlessly large upstairs landing area, which the owner of this house had sensibly converted into a third bedroom and the flats, one of which we also saw inside, were extremely generously sized and quadruple aspect, with striking views from every window.
The 13 sand coloured terraced houses on Hall IV (1967) were another outlier. These houses had a decidedly brutalist aesthetic not seen in any other of Eric Lyons’ estates in Blackheath.
The tour also took us to some post-Eric Lyons Span oddities from the late 1970s and 1980s, including Streetfield Mews (1984), Corner Keep (1979) and Birchmere (1982).
While the use of materials and certain design choices (a weird faux Medieval typeface on the signs, red-brown Brookside-style brick, circular windows) on these estates were typical of the era, other features (seclusion from the road, immaculate landscaping and extensive glazing) were classic Span.
Note: I am certainly no Span expert so may have mis-identified any number of estates pictured above – let me know if you spot any and I will amend accordingly!
Concrete Futures architecture walking tour
I joined this RIBA walking tour last year which took me around the areas surrounding (but unfortunately not into) Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens.
The two social housing projects had been selected for the tour due to their contrasting fates: whilst Balfron Tower was undergoing a glamorous refurbishment at the time, Robin Hood Gardens was facing imminent demolition.
Balfron Tower was designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 for the London County Council. Stylistically similar to the later Trellick Tower, Balfron Tower was Grade II* listed in 1996. The refurbishment works, undertaken as a joint partnership with luxury residential developer Londonewcastle, have been going on since 2011. All properties in the tower will be sold off once the refurbishment is done with none of them going back to the social housing tenants who lived there before.
Due to the refurbishment works, the tower had been wrapped in a rather Javacheff Christo-style chrysalis on the day of the tour so it wasn’t much to look at. We had to make do with Carradale House instead, an adjacent, lower rise 11-storey building designed by Goldfinger to complement the 26-storey tower. Carradale House building had a similar look and feel to Balfron Tower with the same sky bridges and access at every third floor.
While the tour didn’t extend to going inside either building, I understand that all flats in Carradale House have dual window aspect and large south facing balconies, letting in plenty of natural light, with natural wood panels on each side.
The above pictures of Goldfinger’s former flat in Balfron Tower, which designer Wayne Hemingway restored in 2014 as part of a National Trust exhibition on brutalism (I recall trying and failing to get tickets for this) give you an idea of what the flats in Balfron Tower and Carrdale House were/are like.
The next stop on the tour was Robin Hood Gardens, or rather the remaining sections of the estate that hadn’t yet been demolished.
Robin Hood Gardens was designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. It was built as a council housing estate consisting of two long curved blocks made of precast concrete slab blocks facing each other across a central green space.
The blocks contained 213 homes connected by broad aerial walkways on every third floor (so-called “streets in the sky”) which the architects hoped would encourage interaction between residents. In addition, alcoves called “pause spaces” were provided next to the entrance doorways on the “streets” which the architects hoped the residents would personalise and where children would play. The flats themselves were a mixture of single-storey apartments and two-storey maisonettes, with two to six bedrooms.
Unfortunately, it transpired over the years that the design of the estate was inherently flawed. The exposed concrete slab blocks weathered poorly and the location meant that the estate was cut off from its surroundings by roads, exacerbated by its inward-facing design. The “streets in the sky” and the pause places outside the doorways were not used by the residents for their intended purpose and only served to create numerous blind spots for muggers.
Visiting the remaining parts of the estate in person, it was still a very striking piece of architecture and I could see why so many renowned architects and heritage bodies campaigned against its demolition. However, it was also undeniably bleak. I was unsurprised to hear that the majority of the former residents – the people who actually had to live on the estate – supported its demolition.
In a slightly bizarre twist, the V&A Museum salvaged a large three-storey section of the estate, including the gutted interiors of a maisonette flat, sections of concrete stairway and part of an elevated walkway, on the grounds that the estate was a nationally important and internationally recognised work of Brutalist architecture. This was recently reconstructed for display in Venice.
Elephant and Castle 20th Century Society Tour
I recently attended a 20th Century Society walking tour around Elephant and Castle, taking in the various housing estates, the much maligned shopping centre and the interiors of Draper House and Metro Central Heights (aka Alexander Fleming House) by Ernö Goldfinger.
Seemingly one of the last areas in zone 1 to undergo complete regeneration, Elephant and Castle has (regrettably in my opinion) seen major change in recent years to revamp its down-at-heel, brutalist image. The 42-storey Strata tower (the one with that hideous fan thing on top) was completed in 2010, One The Elephant (another rather bland 37-storey tower) was completed in 2016 and a number of further new high rises have planning permission. The shopping centre, which has been scheduled for redevelopment for about 30 years, is apparently (finally) going to be demolished later this year.
This was where the the walking tour started. Designed by Boissevain & Osmond and opened in 1965, the shopping centre was one of the first US-style indoor shopping malls in Europe with enough space for over 100 retail units spread across on three levels surrounded by public space and incorporating the railway and tube stations. Unfortunately, it never really took off as a retail destination and fell into disrepair over the years. Walking around it on the tour, there were glimmers of the architects’ vision for a shopping centre of the future: light and airy concourses with daylight reaching deep into the building (not something that could be said of either Westfield shopping centres), neat design touches such the rainbow panelled ceiling, terrazzo marble flooring and striking red staircases.
Next on the tour was Draper House, a 25-storey tower forming part of the Draper Estate. Designed on 1958 and completed in 1963 under the principal housing architect HJ Whitfield Lewis, it was constructed with a reinforced concrete frame with pre-cast floor and cladding. We were invited in to walk across a striking if rather austere and prison-like walkway on one of the upper floors but unfortunately not inside any of the flats, which I understand to be spacious and split level in a lot of cases.
Other sights on the tour included the Lubetkin-designed Dorking House (unremarkable but for a great “1965” sign), the slightly overwhelming Symington House (a fortress of ice white and blue) and an strange pale-coloured structure (I’m not entirely sure what purpose it served – a communal seating area? Parking?) attached to a towerblock that looked an awful lot like La Villa Savoye in Poissy.
The last stop on the tour was Metro Central Heights (previously Alexander Fleming House), a vast concrete complex built between 1959 and 1967 by Hungarian-born modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger (also responsible for Trellik Tower). The multi-winged, multi-storey building (55 metres at its tallest point) housed the Department of Health and Social Security until 1989 after which it sat empty until 1997 when it was converted into around 400 residential apartments and renamed Metro Central Heights.
I’ve always had the impression that the conversion wasn’t particularly well executed: flats in the building that I’d seen online looked oddly proportioned and fitted with ugly late 90s kitchens and bathrooms inconsistent with the era of the building. In addition, while I can understand why they decided to freshen the original and very brutal concrete facade by painting over it, I’ve never liked the rather hospital-like white and blue colour scheme.
My negative impression of the building was mostly dispelled after the tour. The internal courtyard, with its unexpected Japanese garden was striking, the communal areas were well kept (the lift lobbies featured the original stained glass windows) and we were told that management has plans to paint the blue exterior panels a more appealing colour in the near future (the options were various shades of putty).
Unlike the ugly examples I’d previously seen online, the flat that we were invited in to see was light-filled and well-proportioned though the owner did concede that it took a while to find a flat in the building as good as this one. The Modern House currently has a similarly nice example for sale on its website.
Historical photos courtesy of a Google search…
Modernist pilgrimage to Helsinki: Architecture
A quick tram ride from central Helsinki brought us to the Tiilimäki neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi. Home to both the studio and former home of one of Finland’s most famous exports, Alvar Aalto, Munkkiniemi also appeared to contain a lot of very attractive modernist housing stock: on our walk over from the tram stop to Studio Aalto, we walked past countless interestingly designed apartment blocks that I wished I could pick up and transplant into London somewhere.
Alvar Aalto designed the Studio Aalto house during 1955–56 to be the studio of his architect bureau. Though from the street it had a rather plain, unassuming-looking façade comprised of white-painted, lightly rendered brickwork, the closed-in mass of the building concealed a garden shaped like an amphitheatre in its inner courtyard and some spectacularly designed interior spaces.
The working space upstairs was broadly split into two main areas, one of which Aalto intended to be used for technical work and the other for dreaming up ideas. The technical work space was a vast hall of a room, which narrowed slightly at the end to make it look even longer and was flooded with light from windows on both sides giving views to both east and west.
The dreaming room was altogether more unusual with curved walls, double height ceilings, climbing plants and pieces of Aalto’s signature furniture dotted about. This room also overlooked the amphitheatre space outside – we were told they used to project banned films onto the wall outside, which the team could watch from the comfort of the the dreaming room.
Aalto’s house was a ten minute walk away from the Studio Aalto. Built in 1936 as a joint project with his first wife, it was Aalto’s first house in the city and his home until his death in 1976. The house was a relatively modest two-storey structure which, like the studio, didn’t look like much from the street but contained a wealth of characterful features round the back and inside.
The ground floor contained a double height brick and jute clad study featuring high windows and steps up to a library area and gallery.
Sliding doors separated the study from the warmer, wood and suede-lined living room which contained a range of original Aalto-designed furniture and a grand piano, which had a rather severe portrait of Aalto’s wife propped on it.
A wooden staircase led up to a second living room with a freestanding fireplace as a centrepiece and three bedrooms, a large terrace and the bathroom (which contained those weird round sinks that Aalto designed for a sanatorium) branching off it.
Whilst relatively modest in terms of size and scale, the house was stunning down to the last detail and had a calming, almost Japanese aesthetic.
One of Aalto’s later buildings, the music venue Finlandia Hall was opened in 1971 in a picturesque location overlooking Töölö bay. With its high angled roof and white Carrara marble facade, it looked a bit like a huge, jagged iceberg and was significantly more dramatic in appearance and scale than the studio and house.
Having visited in person, I would say Finlandia Hall needs to be viewed from afar to be truly appreciated – apparently the best place to see it from is Sinisen Huvilan, a café across the bay, which gives you enough distance to see all of it at once, rising out of the water. I didn’t have this vantage point which meant that it was difficult to capture its vastness in any one picture but the view of the building from Mannerheimintie (I assume that this was the main entrance) was pretty impressive.
There weren’t any concerts showing on the day that I visited but I did manage to have a wander around the main foyer areas, which were lined in a combination of birch and stone – Aalto designed the interiors down to last details from lighting fixtures and furniture to the flooring.
I seem to have a habit of visiting strange-looking modernist churches when on holiday abroad. This late 1960s example, designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen was possibly the most unusual yet.
Excavated and built directly out of solid rock, the church’s bunker-like entrance led down into a subterranean oval space bathed in natural light entering through a glass skylight surrounding a central copper dome. A wooden staircase led to an upper tier of seating overlooking the James Bond-esque lair below.
The architects had incorporated the rough, virtually unworked bedrock into the design of the church and adapted the colour scheme accordingly with lots of reds, purples and greys with steel rendered bluish by hammering. Apparently the church is visited more by tourists than worshippers these days and is one of the most popular sights in Helsinki – the tour buses which appeared to arrive at regular intervals outside the main entrance confirmed this to be true.
The Homewood, Esher, KT10
National Trust modernist country house and garden
Architect: Patrick Gwynne
Year built: 1938
Built in the 1930s by architect Patrick Gwynne, the Homewood is a modernist masterpiece of a house surrounded by a picturesque woodland garden in affluent Esher, Surrey. The architect lived there on and off from its completion until his death in 2003 – his friends described the house as the great love of his life, presumably over and above his actual human partners. Sometime before he died, he bequeathed it to the National Trust on the condition that a family would live in it and that it would be open to the public for one day a week for six months of the year.
I’d wanted to visit for ages so I felt particularly aggrieved when I was struck down with some kind of mystery illness on the day of my pre-booked National Trust tour. Determined not to let a bit of nausea get in the way of my visit, I somehow managed to haul myself there and get through the majority of the very informative if rather militantly run house tour (no photography, no shoes and unfortunately for me on the day, absolutely no sitting down anywhere). Despite seeing everything through a fug of sickness, I found the house and the gardens to be absolutely breathtaking.
Like all great modernist architecture and design from the 1930s, the house and its furnishings seemed incredibly contemporary. The exterior was all modernist lines (the upper floor was partially supported by stilts – one of my favourite modernist design features), industrial materials and lots of glazing.
Inside, the space felt largely open plan, with living areas marked out by sliding partitions and furniture arrangement. The obvious highlight of the house was the spectacular living area on the first floor, spanning the entire length of the house and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto that woodland garden.
At one point during the visit, we encountered the tenant currently living in the house, as per the architect’s wishes. Though the tenant was clearly grateful for the opportunity to live somewhere so spectacular, some of his comments suggested that living in a National Trust period piece of a house had its disadvantages, namely having to keep everything exactly as is, no mod-cons, poor insulation during the winter and having complete strangers trample through your home every other weekend for a couple of months of the year.
Unfortunately, that was the point that I had to bail, my nausea depriving me of the opportunity to poke around the upstairs bedrooms, bathrooms and gardens: I will certainly be returning to complete my visit before the summer is over.
Interior photos courtesy of Dennis Gilbert/The National Trust and midcenturyhome.com