I’m pleased to feature today a new guest post by Dr Alistair Fair. Alistair is a Reader in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in post-1919 architecture in Britain. He first discovered the work of the architectural practice Peter Moro and Partners when writing a history of British theatre architecture between the 1940s and 1980s (published in 2018 as Modern Playhouses, and recently re-issued in paperback). He has since written a book specifically about Peter Moro and Partners, which was published in September 2021. His current work includes a collaborative study of Scotland’s new towns, and an investigation of ideas of ‘community’ in twentieth-century Britain. You can follow him on Twitter @AlistairFair
Peter Moro and Partners was a small but well-regarded London-based architectural practice which was active between the 1950s and the 1980s. Its work, which was almost entirely for public-sector clients, included several notable estates in London. Their design demonstrates well the growing search, during the 1960s and 1970s, for innovative ‘high density, low rise’ estate layouts.
Peter Moro was a German refugee who came to Britain in the mid 1930s. He initially worked with Berthold Lubetkin’s pioneering Modernist practice, Tecton, on projects including the Highpoint 2 flats in north London. A move into independent practice led to the co-design of a very well-received large house on the Sussex coast, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Then, at the end of the 1940s, Moro was head-hunted to join the design team working on the Royal Festival Hall in London; his work involved overseeing the detailed design of the interiors. Moro was thus well-placed to become a specialist in theatre design, just as Britain experienced a building boom in subsidised regional theatre-building. (1)
Moro’s involvement in the Festival Hall did not simply establish him as a theatre specialist, however. It also led to further work for the London County Council (LCC) and the subsequent Greater London Council (GLC). These jobs included several housing estates. The largest was at Thirza Street, Shadwell, to the north of Cable Street. Now known as the Barnardo Gardens estate, it was completed between 1967 and 1972 and replaced a patchwork of housing condemned as unfit. The site was bisected by a railway line, with the architects proposing 130 flats in two U-shaped groups of buildings. Low-rise blocks were set around the perimeter, with a single fourteen-storey tower adding a vertical accent. The southern (Cable Street) frontage included a public house and clubroom as well as flats for the elderly. At the centre of the estate was a play area, set on a podium above garages and parking. The buildings were originally largely faced in red brick, though the concrete floor slabs were left on show, with the deliberate choice of an aggregate-rich concrete mix adding texture. Bridges between the low-rise buildings were also made of concrete, their large eight-sided openings adopting a shape which appeared in many designs by Moro and his colleagues from the mid-1960s onwards. The raised podium was removed early in the 2000s, while the central and southern parts of the estate have been remodelled.
In 1967, a perspective drawing of the Thirza Street development was shown at the Royal Academy, where it caught the eye of Hans Peter ‘Felix’ Trenton, architect for the newly created London Borough of Southwark. Over the course of the next fifteen years, Peter Moro and Partners designed several estates for the borough. Much of this work was overseen by Moro’s partner in practice, Michael Mellish, with important contributions from numerous other colleagues.
The London Borough of Southwark was created as part of the reorganisation of the capital’s local government in 1964, bringing together three former Metropolitan Boroughs: Bermondsey, Camberwell, and Southwark. In 1966, the new authority reported that housing conditions were such that 2000 new homes were needed in the borough each year until 1981. When it came to the design of these homes, the former borough of Camberwell had already rejected the typical 1950s inner London strategy of housing design, namely picturesque ‘mixed developments’ of towers, maisonettes, and houses. Instead, the Aylesbury estate (1963-67) was more uniformly medium-rise, and this approach was rolled out across Southwark in the late 1960s.
This move reflects a contemporary shift away from high-rise housing. It partly was the result of increasing unease with ‘mixed development’; also important was growing criticism of isolated tall blocks. These debates led during the late 1950s and 1960s to a number of key projects elsewhere, such as Lillington Gardens in Pimlico (Darbourne and Darke, 1961-71), and the Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury (Patrick Hodgkinson from a scheme with Leslie Martin, 1961-72). In addition, the subsidy regime introduced by the 1956 Housing Act, which had favoured tall buildings, was abandoned at the end of the 1960s in favour of new cost ‘yardsticks’, and this, too, prompted particular interest in so-called ‘high density, low rise’ layouts. The examples designed by Neave Brown and colleagues for the London Borough of Camden are particularly well known, not least thanks to the research of the historian Mark Swenarton, but there are notable examples elsewhere in London – particularly in Lewisham and Southwark.
An early example in Southwark was Neylan and Ungless’ Limes Walk development in Peckham (1964-66), with two long terraces facing a pedestrian walkway. Reflecting growing interest in ‘vernacular’ detailing, Southwark’s developments increasingly featured brick elevations and tiled roofs, among them the Setchell Road development by Neylan and Ungless (1971-78), where a dense mixture of flats and houses is arranged around courtyards and pathways. Within this context, the estates designed by Peter Moro and Partners tended in terms of their design towards the rational rather than the picturesque or neo-historical. The need for high densities with a wide dwelling mix – from small flats to family dwellings – led to intricate, innovative and well-considered cross-sections. A key aim was the maximum possible amount of private open space, in the form of gardens or terraces.
An early scheme was at 76-78 Montpelier Road, Peckham (1969-74), a small brick-clad block sympathetic to the scale of the adjacent terraces. A 1976 guide to recent London buildings by Charles McKean and Tom Jestico thought it contextual without being imitative, ‘skilfully designed and well built’, noting how ‘well-chosen materials’ plus careful detailing had made ‘a very small stairway into a pleasant space’. (2)
It was followed by two larger estates. At Coxson Place, Bermondsey (1969-75), flats and maisonettes were built alongside new premises for the Downside Settlement (a boys’ club). The housing was arranged in two parallel blocks, separated by walkways on two levels, with a complex mixture of house types melded together into a building of deceptively simple appearance. A similar arrangement was used at Hamilton Square, close to Guy’s Hospital (1969-73). Flats and maisonettes are arranged in two bands of buildings, between which is a landscaped podium above garages and parking. The impression externally is of a cascade of brick-faced terraces and balconies, stepping up through the site. As at Coxson Place, the arrangement of the dwellings is complex, and the product of much thought. The larger flats and maisonettes have several levels and half-levels, with some stepping across the open walkways to reach their own terraces. The Architects’ Journal praised the design: ‘the architects have performed a small miracle in achieving an exceptionally high density within a maximum four storeys, each dwelling planned to Parker Morris standards and each with the bonus of a respectable private outside space. (3)
Less complex in layout but demonstrating many of the same ideas is a development at Pomeroy Street, Peckham (1974-78), which combined a linear block of flats and maisonettes on the street-facing front with terraced housing in the gardens to the rear. The design was contextual in its brick, and its scale, with the length of the block intended ‘to re-establish the linear form of Pomeroy Street’ whilst being broken up by gables and balconies intended to identify each dwelling and to ‘give a variety of views […] which conventional terrace housing often lacks’. (4) Writing in Building Design, John McKean praised the scheme’s combination of humane atmosphere and urban scale.
There were other projects in the borough. Earl Road/Rowcross Street (Wessex House, 1971-74) echoes James Stirling’s 1960s designs in its bright red brickwork and angled geometries. Brimmington Central (Blanch Close), meanwhile, was completed in 1981, with flats and houses plus a small parade of shops which Moro’s team developed from Southwark’s own in-house designs. A final larger development, the Pasley Estate, Kennington, was begun in 1975 and completed in 1982. Deliberately picturesque, its brick-clad, low-rise blocks of housing snake around and through the site, being crowned with pitched roofs.
Things seemed to be on a roll, but, by the late 1970s, inflation and recession were challenging the economic (and political) assumptions of the previous thirty years. The introduction of the nationwide ‘Right to Buy’ policy in 1980 further affected the landscape of council housing. The result was a sudden reduction in the numbers of new council houses being constructed. That year, the Illustrated London News commented that it was ‘sad and strange that, having taken two decades to discover the kind of municipal housing its citizens like and want, Southwark now finds itself without the cash to build them’. (5)
Within this body of work, the contribution of Peter Moro and Partners is notable. The Buildings of England volume for south London not only highlights the quality of Southwark’s 1970s housing in general, but the contributions of Moro’s office in particular. (6) These projects demonstrate well not only the ways in which local authorities and their designers in 1970s London sought to provide excellent new housing of often innovative form, but also the evolving nature of the ‘welfare state’ project and its architecture during a decade that is all too easily written off as a period of crisis and decline.
To buy a copy of Peter Moro and Partners for £21, use code LUP30 at the publisher’s website.
(1) For more on this, see e.g. Alistair Fair, Modern Playhouses: an architectural history of Britain’s new theatres (Oxford, 2018).
(2) Charles McKean and Tom Jestico, Guide to Modern Buildings in London, 1965-75 (London: RIBA, 1976), p. 58.
(3) Hamilton Square Redevelopment’, Architects’ Journal, vol. 157, no. 9 (9 May 1973), pp. 1116-17.
(4) ‘Queens Road Development’, 9 February 1979, typescript by Michael Mellish. RIBA, MoP/1.
(5) Tony Aldous, ‘New Housing Solutions in Southwark’, Illustrated London News, October 1980, p. 26.
(6) Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry, London 2: South (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 562.