In 1920, the renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier started to develop the concept behind what was to become his Unités d’Habitation buildings. These vast concrete apartment buildings went on to be enormously influential and are often cited as the initial inspiration for the Brutalist architectural style and philosophy.
The first and most famous of Le Corbuiser’s Unités d’Habitation buildings was La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, which was built from 1947 to 1952. Constructed in rough-cast concrete with its instantly recognisable primary-coloured panels, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 and a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture.
Set over 12 storeys, La Cité Radieuse was built to house 337 apartments, two indoor streets of commercial units on the third and fourth floors (currently occupied by a hotel, restaurant and a number of high-end stores), a nursery school and an art gallery, all topped by a expansive communal terrace featuring sculptural ventilation stacks, a running track, a shallow paddling pool for children, an open-air stage, a children’s art school in the atelier and unobstructed views of the Mediterranean and Marseille.
The building’s design incorporated 23 different apartment types, the most common being a two bedroom split-level duplex. It was a (very) faithfully preserved version of one of these duplex apartments that we stayed in during a recent visit to Marseille.
The apartment was arranged over two levels, opening from the seventh floor corridor onto a mezzanine level containing the original Cuisine Atelier Le Corbusier type 1 kitchen and a dining area overlooking the living area below. A Jean Prouvé-designed open tread steel staircase led down to the lower floor of the apartment which stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other with a balcony on each side (the building was designed with a interlocking scissor layout – the apartment across the corridor had a staircase leading to an equivalent upper floor spanning the entire width of the building).
The lower floor living space contained a living area, a bathroom with separate toilet and shower cubicle built into a cupboard-like pod and two long, narrow bedrooms at the opposite end, each with their own sink and dressing area and divided by a sliding door. All of the rooms were furnished with original free-standing and built-in furniture, including “storage walls” with various cupboards with sliding doors designed by Charlotte Perriand in collaboration with Atelier Le Corbusier.
So, what was the experience of living in a perfectly preserved (i.e. almost completely unmodernised) Le Corbusier apartment like? It was definitely an experience. Certain aspects of the original design still worked well – the double height ceiling and window over the living area was dramatic and allowed plenty of light to flood into both the upper and lower floors of the apartment, enhanced by the dual aspect on the lower floor. The extensive built-in storage was functional and attractive.
Other things worked less well: the way that the lower floor stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other combined with the relatively narrow width of the apartment made it feel a little corridor-like, especially the bedrooms which were particularly long and thin.
The original kitchen, while beautifully preserved, was lacking from a practical perspective by modern standards (the oven was particularly difficult to use without scorching yourself) and the less said about the claustrophobic shower in the windowless cupboard (painted black, no less), the better. Lastly, those gorgeous-looking Charlotte Perriand sofas in the living room made for the least comfortable seating I have ever sat on.
The communal areas of the building and roof terrace (even though the shallow pool had been drained for the winter when we visited in March) were, however, spectacular.
I understand that you can join a tour of the building which includes access to at least one of the apartments. If were to redo our visit to Marseille, I would probably join that tour rather than rent an apartment for the full authentic experience of staying in a Le Corbusier building.
I’ve been attending Open House weekend for a couple of years now so I’ve seen the most of the modernist estates that usually form part of the programme. I was therefore pleased to be able to visit Vanbrugh Park Estate this year, which for some reason has never come up on my itinerary.
Vanbrugh Park Estate was built in 1962 and designed by the renowned architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon responsible for the better known and more celebrated Barbican and Golden Lane estates. Set on seven acres of land bordering Greenwich Park, Vanbrugh Park Estate comprises a mixture of dwelling types: an eight-storey tower block containing 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes arranged over garages.
Like many parts of London which now contain modernist architecture built in the 1960s, the area, mostly renowned for large period villas, was bombed during the Second World War and was in need of new housing. As such, careful consideration was taken by the architects when building the new housing to respect the surrounding areas, including the blind-wall terraces that were intended to reflect Greenwich Park’s own wall using similar brickwork. In addition, simple but functional materials (such as the breeze block facades) were used to save on costs so that more could be spent on landscaping communal areas, giving the estate a more utilitarian than luxurious feel – more Golden Lane than Barbican, if you will.
Two properties were open when I visited. The first was one of the maisonettes over the garage blocks. The apartment was reached via a communal walkway and comprised a conservatory-like entrance area, kitchen, living/dining area, bathroom and two bedrooms. The owners were clearly architecture and design enthusiasts and had restored a number of original features in the apartment including the wood panelling, black vinyl floor tiles and fireplace in the centre of the living area.
The second property was one of the low-rise terraced houses. Set over three floors, the entrance of the house opened onto a semi-open plan living, dining and kitchen area with stairs down to a bedroom and the garden and stairs up to two further bedrooms and a bathroom. There wasn’t much left in the way of original features in this house (the central fireplace had been removed and that bannister is definitely not original) but it was deceptively spacious and still architecturally interesting.
Next on the 2021 Open House itinerary was Ethelburga Tower, a 1960s 17-storey concrete framed block of flats near Battersea Park designed by the LCC Architects Dept with Ove Arup & Partners as consulting engineers.
The block was built to accommodate 98 homes: 32 split-level maisonettes on the east and west sides of the building and 17 one bedroom single level flats and 17 two bedroom flats single level flats on the south side.
The decision to have landings on odd floors, opening onto double height access galleries (with flats on the “mezzanine” floors reached by the staircase) added a bit of interest to the architecture.
The first residents moved into the block in 1967 with council tenants buying up flats under the government’s “right to buy” legislation from the 1980s onwards.
In 2009, Mark Cowper, a photographer who was living in Ethelburga Tower at the time, staged an exhibition of photographs at the Geffrye Museum (now the Museum of the Home) of individual living rooms in Ethelburga Tower, which highlighted how differently each resident had decorated their flat.
Despite not being part of the official Open House programme (only the corridors and communal areas were open to the public), an owner of one of the split-level maisonettes kindly let me have a nose around as I was passing by.
The flat was in the same configuration as those featured in Mark Cowper’s project with an entrance hall opening onto the living room with glass-panelled door leading onto a small balcony and adjoining kitchen on the lower floor and a staircase leading up to two bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floor. There was also a cupboard on the upstairs landing containing a fire escape staircase leading to the roof (though I may have misheard this).
This year’s Open House weekend included access to Walters Way, a close of 13 self-built houses on a sloping, tree filled site (not unlike Great Brownings) in South East London.
Each house on the close was built in the 1980s using a method developed by Walter Segal, the celebrated Swiss architect. This method involved the use of a modular, timber-frame system reminiscent of 19th-century American houses or traditional Japanese architecture.
Although the houses were all built using the same method of construction, the houses were designed with flexibility and individuality in mind. Unlike Great Brownings, where homeowners are required to ensure that their house looks the same as all of the others on the estate, I was struck by the way in which all of the houses on Walter’s Way were unique in both style and configuration (most of having been adapted and extended since they were built).
We were invited to have a nose around two of the houses on the estate, which timber walls and flooring aside, were quite different owing to changes made by the owners to the layout and sun deck/garden patio areas outside.
The owners of one of the houses (self-build house 1 in the photos) had extended with lean to lobby which was self-built and a more substantial two-storey extension which wasn’t – whilst more straightforward than a regular build, self building using the Segal method is apparently not without its challenges.
One of the key considerations was the retention of supporting posts from the original build – here, they made for a design feature across the middle of the living area. The owners of self-build house 1 had further plans to modify and extend their house – according to them, self-build houses are never quite finished.
Originally the Cambridge home of curator, art collector and sometime artist Jim Ede and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard House serves as the University of Cambridge’s art gallery, housing the couple’s spectacular collection of early 20th-century art.
Having moved to Cambridge in 1956, the couple converted four slim cottages (reportedly slum dwellings scheduled for demolition) into one rather idiosyncratic house.
Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple were able to fill their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Joan Mirò (mostly acquired before these artists reached the pinnacle of their success), which they carefully and lovingly arranged around the house. Jim was meticulous about this, believing that the positioning of an artwork relative to its surroundings was almost as important as the artwork itself and that each room of the house should be regarded as a collective work of art in its own right.
It was also part of Jim’s philosophy that art should be shared in a relaxed, informal environment and so he would hold ‘open house’ tours, inviting students from the University of Cambridge over for afternoon tea to enjoy the art and even to borrow paintings from his collection to hang in their rooms during term-time.
Concerned that his beloved house would be broken up upon his death, Jim gave the house and collection to the University of Cambridge in 1966 on the condition that they would fund various improvements, including the construction of a large new wing in the late 1960s to host live music events and to preserve the space as the couple left it upon their departure in 1973.
Jim’s art arranging skills and all-round good taste were still very much in evidence when I joined a recent tour of the house, which began in the original older wing of the house.
This part of the house consisted of the three original cottages knocked into one and contained the couples’ bedrooms and a reception room on both the upper and lower levels. Whilst the couple had upgraded the original slum cottages, installing more luxurious fixtures and fittings to replace the original features (the mid century-style spiral staircase and large windows would not have been found in the original slum dwellings, for example), these rooms were low ceilinged and modest in size. This made for an unusually homely and intimate setting for displaying significant pieces of early 20th century paintings and sculpture.
The original wing of the house was connected to the newer wing by a bridge link/small conservatory on the upper floor. Crossing the bridge, you went from the slightly claustrophobic spaces of the original cottages to jaw dropping, full-on, double height 1960s modernism. This provided more of a gallery-like setting for the rest of the collection and the downstairs area was also large enough to be used for live music events as requested by Jim when he gave the house to the University of Cambridge.
Designed by the architect Jonathan Ellis-Miller for his own occupation, this single-storey modernist house was actually built in the late 1980s despite resembling the American work of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Ellwood from the 1940s and 50s.
The house was constructed using mostly steel and glass with a galvanised steel structural roof, the front elevation composed entirely of sliding doors opening out onto the Cambridgeshire Fens and offering views across agricultural land.
The house was bought by its current owner as a holiday home in 2010 (reportedly in a bit of a state) and restored to its former glory. Keen for others to enjoy this slice of Californian Modernism in the Cambridgeshire Fens (the owner’s words rather than mine), the owner currently rents out the house for holiday lets which is how we ended up there for a couple of days this October.
Arriving at the house, I was struck by the simplicity of the layout. Entered from the carport beside the house, the house had no hallway or corridor and consisted of a long, open-plan living space divided by a striking chimney breast and open fire place, which spanned the length of the house and a kitchen, wet room and bathroom and ensuite accessed off the living area. Relatively compact in size at 66 square metres, the combination of the layout and glass panels made it feel a lot larger.
Staying in the house was comfortable – the original electric underfloor heating was still in operation, allowing for a pleasantly natural heat to emanate through the wood block flooring and the kitchen and bathrooms had been renovated recently enough for them not to feel like relics of another time (which can be the case when staying in period houses like this one). The views across the expanse of the flat East Anglian fens out of the sliding glass wall, which stretched from one end of the house to the other, were also pretty spectacular.
On the downside, the flat corrugated steel roof meant that there was an unholy racket whenever it rained. The minimal decor, whilst mostly in keeping with the house, was a little pedestrian (a proper sideboard and some decent period artwork would have complemented the Days Forum leather sofas – surely still the best thing Habitat has ever produced – and elevated the living area, for instance). Overall, I found that the finish was a little tired in places (busted blinds, slightly grimy exterior, chipped tiles), probably due to the house being used repeatedly as a holiday rental.
In terms of location, Prickwillow was pretty remote with zero amenities nearby (the rather sleepy Ely was a 10 minute taxi ride away) though for architecture enthusiasts, the house made for a worthy destination in of itself.
Having made the most of Open House weekend every year for the past five years, I think I’ve now visited pretty much every major participating building and development of interest from a modernist/mid century perspective. As such, this year’s itinerary involved revisiting the subject of my first ever blog entry, two architect-designed modern houses and a social housing estate that I hadn’t yet visited due to it being almost completely hidden from view.
Highpoint was the subject of my first ever blog entry on this site, which, looking at it now, was pretty ropey in terms of the writing, formatting and photos so I thought I’d go back there and produce something better.
Designed in 1935 by Berthold Lubetkin and Grade I-listed in 1970, Highpoint I was built to accommodate 96 one to three bedroom flats (all generously proportioned) and incorporated many features that were technically advanced for the time – I’m not sure how this is logistically possible but there are no partition walls between neighbours’ flats except in the central spine of the building.
Highpoint II was completed on the site next door in 1938. This block was aimed at wealthier tenants (not that Highpoint I was particularly low grade) and was constructed using richer materials including glazed tiles, glass blocks on the staircase towers and marble in the hall. The building was built to accommodate twelve large maisonettes, all of them containing four-bedrooms and two bathrooms split over two floors, with the best ones situated in the central part of the block: these ones were built with double-height living rooms and elegant oval-shaped staircases.
I remember being completely awed by both Highpoint I and II and fantasised about living there when I visited five years ago. I was equally awed this time: that split-level maisonette in Highpoint II that I featured in my first ever blog post was just as gorgeous as I remembered it: as well as having the double-height living room and oval staircase, it had stunning views over Highgate from both floors, four large bedrooms and two original 1930s bathrooms. Most importantly, the lift up from the ground floor lobby opened directly into the hallway of the maisonette – I’m not sure why but I always associate this feature with extreme luxury.
The maisonette had the perfect mix of original features (the current owner reportedly bought it from the estate of an elderly lady who left behind a lot of moth-eaten Chanel and hadn’t updated anything since she bought it in the 1930s) and modern styling. Our guide informed us with some regret that the original features in some of the other maisonettes in Highpoint II had been “destroyed by too much money”.
Page High, a red brick social housing estate consisting of 92 homes, was built in the 1970s above a car park that was in turn above a retail store (Sainsbury’s at the time, now a Matalan outlet).
The estate, accessed from street level by a lift, opened out into wide pathway which ran between two rows of low-rise buildings with stepped balconies, mostly consisting of one and two room apartments, and maisonettes. The overall design was somewhat reminiscent of the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate though on a slighter smaller scale and without quite the same sense of drama.
Page High, however, appeared to be a very well designed estate. Flats were built with their own front and back balconies, and every ‘ground’ floor flat had a front garden.
In addition, the fact that Page High was seven storeys up from street level meant that it had great views over Alexandra Palace and was remarkably peaceful in spite of its location just off Wood Green High Road. I also liked how well hidden it was: you would never know a development of that scale was there unless you were specifically looking for it.
Springbank was one of a pair of semi-detached houses completed in 2014 by SE5 Architects on a large site in Peckham. The house was split over three floors (one of which was a basement level) and despite the very modern finish (lots of glass, steel and blonde wood), reminded me a lot of the original 1960s Lilian Baylis school that was converted into flats a couple of years ago.
The ground floor contained the living spaces, including a reception room and a large kitchen/diner, both of which had folding doors opening onto the garden, which wrapped around the house on three sides. The kitchen housed a rather envy-inducing walk-in pantry.
In the centre of the house was a winding oak staircase with a glass balustrade and treads of varying lengths connecting the different floors of the house. This led down to the basement level (which contained a utility room and workshop) and up to a glass atrium on the first floor, which flooded the whole house with natural light, even though it was a fairly gloomy day.
The first floor contained the bedrooms, including a master bedroom with dressing room (like the pantry, this was also envy inducing) and en-suite bathroom, a second bedroom with en-suite shower room, two further bedrooms and another bathroom.
I did a bit of research online and the other house in the pair was listed and sold earlier this year for £2.25million.
Unremarkable from the outside, this 1960s mid-terrace house underwent a dramatic interior renovation and extension in 2017 which turned the poky ground floor level into a spacious open-plan living, kitchen and dining room with broad folding doors that led straight out into the garden.
The owners had done a lovely job with the renovation with a range of interesting textures, fixtures and fittings – I particularly liked the the continuous cork flooring throughout the whole of the ground floor and the central glazed partition.
I also took note of everything in the bathroom upstairs from the size of the tiles to the bath side panel (a coloured mdf-like material called Valchromat) to the way they’d hung the mirrors so that I can try to replicate what they’d done when we come to do our bathroom renovations.
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!
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.
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!