I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post and some fine photography by Thaddeus Zupančič. Thaddeus is a Slovenian-born writer and translator. He has lived in London since 1991. For the first 14 years he worked as a radio producer with the BBC World Service. On his Instagram account @notreallyobsessive he is now about one third through his project, London Modernism 1946-1981, which documents modernist council estates in the capital. He is also a volunteer with The Twentieth Century Society and manages its Instagram account @c20society.
On Sunday, 23 January 1955, Margaret Willis, a sociologist in the Planning Division of the Architect’s Department of the London County Council, gave a broadcast on the BBC Home Service programme Home for the Day.
Her bosses thought the broadcast, in which she ‘would informally talk about her work at County Hall’, was ‘in the interest of the Council’ and therefore recommended that ‘under Staff Regulation 112’ she should be allowed to retain the fee (‘probably 8 guineas’).
The eight-minute talk was titled My Job. Willis explained that a sociologist is a ‘sort of liaison officer between people like you, the housewives, and the Council’s technical men and women who make the plans in the drawing office’. She was, though, mostly talking about the scarcity of land in ‘the centre of our cities’ and how planners and architects ‘realise how important gardens are to many people and they are doing their best to provide them’. One of their ideas, she explained, was to build ‘a compromise between a house and a flat, it’s a four-storey building like a house on top of a house’. The main benefit of these buildings was the attached gardens, but there was also something else: ‘People prefer this type of building to a flat because they like going upstairs to bed.’ (1)
Such ‘houses on top of houses’ – known as maisonettes because of their split-level plan – were not a complete novelty. On the Devons Estate in Bromley-by-Bow, for instance, there are four low-rises which look like terrace houses with separate flats on the top of them, basically ‘flats on the top of houses’. It is an unexciting, but useful Neo-Georgian pastiche. Pevsner is more damning: the estate, opened in 1949, is ‘entirely in the LCC’s pre-war manner, but with all the drabness of post-war austerity’. (2)
The first modernist maisonette block in London was Brett Manor in Brett Road, Hackney, built in 1947-8. It was designed by Edward Mills for the Manor Charitable Trustees (Mills used the same Arup box frame as Tecton did at Spa Green Estate, which was completed in 1950).
Brett Manor was swiftly followed by Powell & Moya’s Bauhausian low-rise blocks at Churchill Gardens in Pimlico (designed from 1946, built in 1947-51), which were the first modernist maisonettes built by any London council, in this case Westminster.
Margaret Willis’s employer was not far behind. Already in the early 1950s, as Elain Harwood points out, a group at the LCC Architect’s Department, worked on ‘an efficient maisonette plan, which they then cast into ten-storey slabs, built at Bentham Road, Hackney, at Loughborough Junction, Lambeth, and, most impressively, the Alton West Estate, Roehampton.’ (3) (The Gascoyne Estate in Hackney was built in 1952-4; the Loughborough Estate in 1956-8; and the Alton West Estate in 1955-8.)
The LCC dotted various iterations of these Corbusian slabs on stilts all around the central London metropolitan boroughs, including Southwark (Symington House in 1957, and Prospect House in 1962); Bermondsey (Chilton Grove in 1959); Lambeth (Wimborne House in 1959, Waylett House and Duffell House in 1963); Bethnal Green (Yates House and Johnson House in 1957, Orion House in 1962); Stepney (Raynham House and Gouldman House in 1958, Withy House in 1959, Troon House in 1961 and Butler House in 1962); Poplar (Storey House in 1958 and Thornfield House in 1960); Westminster (Torridon House in 1960 and the towers of the Maida Vale Estate in 1961); and Islington (Muriel Street in 1964).
Private practices working for the LCC were also designing maisonette slabs and blocks for them, the most impressive being the Ricardo Street Scheme at the Lansbury Estate in Poplar by Geoffrey Jellicoe (for the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Architecture, 1951); the Cordelia Street Scheme on the same estate by Norman & Dawbarn (1963); and the two Hereford Estate slabs by Stillman & Eastwick Field (1956) in Bethnal Green.
Maisonettes, regardless of the type of building in which they were incorporated, were an integral part of mixed developments, ‘the dominant ideology for housing in the 1950s’ (4).
There was, though – as it is explained in the oddly self-flagellating GLC book Home Sweet Home – a problem with maisonette slabs: their ‘mass was too dominating, and problems of overshadowing and inflexibility of orientation led to planning difficulties which limited its use in high-density areas’. (5) A far greater potential, continues the book, was offered by the point block with its ‘non-directional shape and quick-moving shadow’.
After the success of Draper House on the Draper Estate in Elephant and Castle (completed 1962), the ‘tall blocks of maisonettes’ (6) became almost as ubiquitous as the slabs, most successfully in the case of the six 21-storey blocks on the Warwick Estate in Westminster (completed in 1966), though the medium-rise maisonettes on this estate are just as compelling.
Even taller, at 24 storeys, were the blocks of maisonettes of the cross-over ‘scissors’ type on the Pepys Estate (designed from 1963, completed in 1973) in Deptford and the 26-storey Maydew House on the Abbeyfield Estate (1965-8) in Southwark. The ‘scissors’ type was first tested for the LCC’s Lincoln Estate blocks in Poplar (1959-62), but ‘later discontinued owing to the high cost of its complex construction’. (7) The construction was indeed complex, with central corridors placed at a half level, ‘providing entrances to flats that ran the width of the block above or below, ‘crossing’ to give each other a dual aspect’. (8) They also provided a maximum of through light and ventilation. Even better than the 24-storey blocks on the Pepys Estate are the eight-storey ‘scissors’ maisonettes, a ‘strong, unifying element of the scheme’. (9)
‘Houses, flats and maisonettes’ was a mantra not only for the LCC, but also for London’s metropolitan boroughs and the City.
The best examples of the latter are the Golden Lane Estate by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon for the City (which consists of various blocks of flats and six blocks of maisonettes plus a community centre, swimming pool and a tennis court, 1954-6); and Denys Lasdun’s part of the Greenways Estate for Bethnal Green Borough Council (the two inventive eight-storey cluster towers with 24 maisonettes each and the three low-rise blocks with another 50 maisonettes, 1955-8) as well as his Keeling House (for the same council, completed in 1959, originally comprising 56 maisonettes and eight studio flats).
Equally busy were Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin (the post-Tecton maisonettes on the Dorset Estate, 1951-7, and the Cranbrook Estate, 1955-65, both for Bethnal Green, and the Tabard Garden Estate Extension in Southwark, 1964-5, for the LCC); Frederic Gibberd (Kingsgate Estate, 1958-61, for Hackney); J. Pritchard Lovell (Clem Attlee Court, 1957, for Fulham); George, Trew & Dunn (Winstanley Estate, 1964-6, for Battersea); Clifford Culpin & Partners (Edgecombe Hall Estate, 1957-63, for Wandsworth); and Co-operative Planning (St John’s Estate, 1963, for Poplar).
So too were the borough architects of those metropolitan and municipal councils that already had them – most notably Camberwell’s F.O. Hayes (Sceaux Gardens, 1957-60), Willesden’s T.N. l’Anson (the 1963 blocks in the South Kilburn Redevelopment Area with maisonettes on the top of flats), and Edmonton’s T.A. Wilkinson (Cumberland House and Graham House on Goodwin Road, 1962) – and the borough engineers and surveyors, for instance W.J. Rankin at Poplar (Aberfeldy Estate and the first phase of the St John’s Estate).
The reorganisation of London’s local government in 1965 saw the creation of the new Greater London Council and 32 new London borough councils (plus the City) which then became responsible for a substantially larger part of housing projects and planning than before.
More importantly, the London Government Act of 1963 introduced – in s.74(1) – the statutory post of ‘an architect for the borough’ (10) in each one of them and, ‘as the case may be’, the City.
The most celebrated of them was Sydney Cook, who established Camden’s architect’s department. Cook recruited some of the best young talent – including Peter Tábori, Bill Forrest, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth – but the ‘first and foremost among those who joined Camden from the cutting edge of London’s architectural culture was Neave Brown’. (11)
Brown designed two of the most remarkable post-1965 council estates in London: the Dunboyne Road Estate (a mixture of three- and two-bed maisonettes and one-bed flats; designed from 1966 and built in 1971-7); and the Rowley Way part of the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate (block B, for instance, comprises four storeys of two- and three-bed maisonettes), built in 1972-8.
Cook’s competitor for Camden’s job was the housing architect of Hampstead, C.E. Jacob. He was later appointed borough architect of Haringey and as soon as his new Department of Architecture was set up, he designed, with his deputy Alan Weitzel, the Broadwater Farm Estate (1967-72) and its centrepiece, Tangmere, a maisonette ziggurat.
Westminster balanced work of its own new Department of Architecture and Planning under F.G. West – such as the Brunel Estate in Westbourne Park, 1970-4 – with schemes by private practices, for instance Darbourne & Darke’s epochal Lillington Gardens Estate (designed in 1961, built in 1964-72, with some of the best maisonettes in town); the scheme won numerous awards, starting with an Award for Good Design in Housing in 1969.
In the period of 1968-1980, the most Awards for Good Design in Housing – sponsored by the Secretary of State for the Environment in collaboration with the Royal Institute of British Architects – was received by Islington, ‘more than any other local authority in the country’. (12) Islington’s Architecture Department was run by Alf Head, who complemented its own projects – for example the Spring Gardens (1968-70) maisonettes and flats in Highbury – with commissions from private practices, very often Darbourne & Darke.
Borough architects in south London were just as active, particularly F.O. Hayes at Southwark, who continued his old Camberwell job, and Ted Hollamby at Lambeth.
Southwark’s largest projects were the stupendous Heygate Estate (now demolished) and the Aylesbury Estate (demolition underway), but the Department of Architecture and Planning designed other estates too, such as the Four Squares Estate in Bermondsey (most of its 691 homes are maisonettes). The most triumphant, though, was Kate Macintosh’s all-maisonette estate Dawson Heights (1966-72) in Dulwich. She described it as a ‘Chinese puzzle of differing types to be assembled in various combinations’ (13) and it still works perfectly well.
The building programme in the neighbouring Lambeth was very extensive too – and Hollamby was as good at recruiting talented architects as Cook given that one of his first appointments was George Finch, who already made his name at the LCC with the Chicksand Estate in Whitechapel.
Finch’s eight almost identical 22-storey maisonette towers, system-built by Wates – the first completed was Holland Rise House in Stockwell in 1967 – are as intelligent as they are generous; and his stunning Lambeth Towers in Kennington Lane (designed in 1964-5, completed in 1971) are maisonettes, incorporated in a freestyle, sinuous brutalist block.
The last great hurrah of mixed development was Thamesmead, ‘basically a working-class Barbican’ (14), the heroic estate by the GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design, the successor to the LCC Architect’s Department. The two architecturally most intriguing structures – Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk, both now demolished – were linear maisonette blocks built in 1967-8; and more maisonettes were included in the later stages of the development, Parkview (1969-79) and The Moorings (1971-7).
The most seductive of all other GLC maisonette blocks remains Perronet House (1967-70) in Elephant and Castle, which won a commendation in the 1971 Awards for Good Design in Housing.
And it was not only the GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design: pretty much all private practices commissioned by the GLC also designed maisonettes, including the Smithsons (their Robin Hood Gardens, 1968-72, mostly consisted of large maisonettes); Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower, 1972, as well as Balfron Tower, 1967, Carradale House, 1967-8, and a 1972 Burcham Street block on the Brownfield Estate); Trevor Dannatt (Norwood House on the Galloway Estate, 1969); and Architects Co-Partnership (Ethelred Estate, Lambeth, 1964-75).
The last two estates featuring predominantly maisonettes were Benhill Grounds by the Sutton Architect’s Department under Peter Hirst (1978-9), and the GLC’s Odhams Walk (1979-81) in Covent Garden. That these two schemes should have been the last – mostly because of the 1980 Housing Act and its consequences – is a shame, because maisonettes are arguably the greatest housing gift that modernist architects bequeathed to London. They were – and rightfully remain – popular ‘because they gave greater privacy and the sensation of being in a house’. (15) Not to mention the fact that Londoners like going upstairs to bed …
A version of this article was previously published in Issue 5 of Journal of Civic Architecture (2020).
(1) Margaret Willis, ‘My Job’ transcript for a BBC broadcast, 23 January 1955; Report by the Clerk of the Council, 12 January 1955, London Metropolitan Archives
(2) Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England – London 5: East, (Yale University Press, 2005)
(3) Elain Harwood, London County Council Architects, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
(4) Elain Harwood, Obituary of George Finch, The Guardian, 27 February 2013
(5) Judith Lever, Home Sweet Home (Academy Editions/GLC, 1976)
(6) GLC Architecture 1965/70 (GLC, 1971)
(7) Lever, Home Sweet Home
(8) Elain Harwood, Space Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975 (Yale University Press, 2015)
(9) GLC Architecture 1965/70
(10) London Government Act 1963, Part IX
(11) Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden (Lund Humphries, 2017)
(12) Awards for Good Design in Housing 1980, Report from the Housing Committee, Islington London Borough Council, 4 December 1980
(13) Kate Macintosh, Utopia London, directed by Tom Cordell, 2010
(14) Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010)
(15) Elain Harwood, Space Hope and Brutalism