Tagged: modernist

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.

Banham Studio, Prickwillow

When we went to stay in that Ellis Miller house in Prickwillow, we noticed a second, slightly fancier one next door. Interestingly, this has come up for sale via The Modern House.

Although identical in construction to the one get we stayed in, this one appears to have undergone a more extensive renovation/extension, resulting in additional living space in the form of a studio (which could easily be used as a second bedroom) and utility area. The finish appears to be a lot better than the one we stayed in, which was looking a bit tired after years being used as a holiday rental.

At £450,000, the price is slightly lower than I expected though this is probably due to the location: Prickwillow is, after all, quite remote with no amenities nearby. I do have fond memories of staying in its neighbour, however, so I’m sure this will make someone a lovely full-time or holiday home.

La Cité Radieuse, Marseille

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.

La Cité Radieuse, original publicity

Vanbrugh Park Estate

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.

Ethelburga Tower

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).

Walters Way, London SE23

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.

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

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.

Ellis Miller House, Prickwillow

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.

Modernist Pilgrimage returns

After not having posted anything in over a year (and not having been anywhere in over 18 months), the end of lockdown has meant that I’ve been able to get out and about to actually generate content for Modernist Pilgrimage.

In addition, the shabby bathrooms that we left out of our house renovation project for budgetary reasons have packed up after three years (the ensuite is currently being held together by tape) so I’ll be documenting the renovation of these as well over the coming months.

Thank you to anyone still reading Modernist Pilgrimage!