Geraint Franklin, Howell Killick Partridge & Amis (Historic England Publishing, July 2017)
Christine Hui Lan Manley, Frederick Gibberd (Historic England Publishing, October 2017)
I’m not an architectural historian – you might have noticed – and what little I know, I’ve picked up from the experts as I’ve researched housing schemes up and down the country. For that reason alone, I’m enormously grateful for the scholarship and endeavour of these two fine books. The subjects – the Howell Killick Partridge & Amis (HKPA) partnership, responsible individually, amidst much else, for the Alton West Estate, and Frederick Gibberd, famously the presiding genius of Harlow New Town, might seem to represent opposing sides in the architectural cultural wars of the second half of the twentieth century. In this post, I’ll avoid alienating half my readership by celebrating both.
To begin with the basics, both these books – comprehensive, detailed, superbly illustrated – are essential to anyone with a serious interest in the architects concerned as well as the broader architectural movements of the later twentieth century. And, as a non-architect, I’ll confess a powerful admiration for the skills and sensibilities on display from all concerned. It’s a reminder of what architects, given projects that liberate their ideals with budgets to match, can do to improve the built environment and our lived experience of it.
I’m impressed too by the range of projects undertaken by each. A great many of HKPA’s signature schemes belong to the enormous expansion of higher education from the 1950s onward but there are performance spaces too, court buildings, even prisons. All, in their different ways, testify to the investment in and expansion of the public realm (though their Oxbridge schemes owed much to private benefaction) that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century – and they remind us too of its more recent systematic impoverishment.
This is even truer of Gibberd personally who almost uniquely combined expertise and qualifications in architecture, landscape architecture and town planning. And while, of course, he worked with skilled partners and colleagues, he took care to initiate all of his major briefs so that each, as Christine Hui Lan Manley testifies, featured what he described as his ‘handwriting’. So, for Gibberd, apart from Harlow and some celebrated housing schemes, apart from ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ (aka the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool), you can read of projects ranging from reservoirs to power stations, airports to libraries. (Both books provide a full List of Works with journal references in useful appendices.)
Given that housing is my main preoccupation, you’ll forgive me, nonetheless, for concentrating on that in this short post. It also happens to be the subject in which their apparently contrasting visions were played out most strongly.
Bill Howell, John Killick and Stan Amis met as students in the Architectural Association in 1948. They went on, two years later, to join the Housing Division of the London County Council’s Architect’s Department, then, without hyperbole, the largest and most important architectural practice in the world. Geraint Franklin describes Howell – ‘charismatic, engaging and enthusiastic’ – as ‘the natural leader and guiding spirit of HKPA’.
I’ll single out John Partridge, however – a grammar school boy who worked as an administrator in the LCC’s Public Health Department while, from 1943, enrolled in a part-time training scheme for architects and surveyors (devised by the LCC’s John Forshaw) at the Regent Street Polytechnic. He joined the Housing Division in 1951.
This background probably explains a commitment to municipal housing which contrasted with, in Franklin’s words, a ‘certain ambivalence’ felt toward it by Howell. Howell, quoted by Reyner Banham, allegedly described public housing as ‘a charity shat upon the working classes from a great height!’ We’ll take that presumably off-the-record comment as a criticism of some heavy-handed paternalism and poor quality design rather than as a wholesale condemnation of the principle of public provision.
We should because Howell, alongside his future partners, worked on what one American commentator described as ‘probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world’ – the Roehampton Lane Estate, later known as Alton West.
If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to say too much about Alton West. It represents probably the greatest expression, at scale, of a consciously Le Corbusian, monumentalist, Brutalist approach to housing in the country and I won’t try to replicate the thorough account provided by Franklin. I’ll pick out this, though, from John Partridge. Looking back, in 1980, at the 100 acre plot selected by the LCC in south-west London, he stated it ‘would be hard to imagine a more exciting, demanding and lovely site’. But he spent some time perfecting it:
I was given a bulldozer and a driver, and I went up one of the point blocks onto the sixth floor and told this bulldozer bloke what to do for several days, and we remodelled that field. And what we wanted to do was link up the two eighteenth-century villas with the certain same elements of an eighteenth-century landscape.
That’s a tribute to resourced architectural vision that shames the boxy, poxy, prissy private schemes which dominate today.
Partridge, who in 1959 joined the private architectural partnership established by Howell, Killick and Amis three years earlier, was also the architect of the Weston Rise Estate completed for the Greater London Council in 1968. Its six- to ten-storey stepped design and scissor-section flats provided an ingenious and visually striking solution to a difficult site and the requirement for high-density though the design won few architectural plaudits at the time.
In fact, the tide was already turning against such more monumental and higher-rise schemes. Somerville Road, designed by Partridge for Lewisham Borough Council in 1973 – an intimate, low-rise, brick-built estate – shows how quickly that backlash occurred. It has echoes, in fact, of Gibberd’s famous Somerford Grove Estate in Hackney of a quarter-century earlier.
HKPA ‘rejected the Brutalist label as a put-down’ but, as Franklin goes on, they certainly saw themselves as architectural radicals. In the LCC, they sided with the ‘hard’, Le Corbusian Brutalists against the ‘softer’, New Humanists (or New Empiricists) who took their inspiration from Scandinavian social democracy. Howell himself expressed distaste for the ‘liquorice all-sorts’ architecture deployed at the Festival of Britain and New Towns. Elsewhere, the Young Turk, Sandy Wilson (later the architect of the British Library) decried the ‘extraordinary effeminacy’ of the Lansbury Estate.
This placed them at odds with Frederick Gibberd, the architect and planner of the Lansbury and the individual most associated with the architecture they scorned. This, to some, was a fall from grace for Gibberd who, before the war, had been a member of the Modern Architecture Research (MARS) Group, the UK outpost of CIAM, the Congrès internationaux d’architecture modern. A visit to Harlow by CIAM representatives showed how far he had fallen. The New Towns, according to JM Richards, one of the delegates, were ‘little more than housing estates’. Gordon Cullen condemned what he described as the ‘prairie planning’ of the New Towns, lacking all characteristics of ‘towniness’. (1)
A look at Gibberd’s post-war work in more detail, covered thoroughly by Manley and discussed in a number of past posts in the blog, enables an assessment of the broader thrust of this criticism.
Somerford Grove, designed for Hackney Metropolitan Borough Council and completed in 1949, was Gibberd’s first major project after the war. It conformed to the three-storey height maximum then set by the Council but took flight in the range of housing types and decorative forms applied by Gibberd to this seminal example of mixed development housing. The latter was the coming idea – intended both to house a wider range of the population than the two- and three-bed family houses which dominated in the interwar period and to enable the expression of architectural variety and visual interest. Somerford Grove was its low-rise archetype but the concept was central to most post-war estate design which followed, not least Alton West.
The Lansbury Estate, devised as the Live Architecture Exhibition for the Festival of Britain and opened in 1951, was resolutely modest, low-rise – its predominant yellow stock brick designed to fit better with the local terraced streetscape.
In the same year, Gibberd was commissioned by St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council to replace a regimented Zeilenbau design – uniform blocks of flats typically set in a parallel north-south axis – for the Regent’s Park Estate with something more picturesque. The blocks designed by Gibberd himself in Zone A are patterned and coloured in New Humanist, Scandinavian style. (This is omitted in the book though that’s less a snarky reviewer’s criticism than a tribute to the bewildering range of Gibberd’s work.)
And then there’s Harlow, of course. Gibberd was its architect-planner from 1946 to 1980, convinced from the outset that ‘the majority of the people want a two-storey house with a private garden’. That, therefore, will be your predominant impression of the New Town but as an apostle of mixed development, he also advocated that 20 to 30 per cent of the homes should be flatted. Famously, he built the UK’s first point block, the Lawn – a modest affair at just nine storeys but a harbinger of things to come.
Across the town, Gibberd commissioned a number of architects to design more innovative and architecturally exciting housing schemes but overall Harlow stands, for good reason, as the chief exemplar of the supposedly desolate suburbanism that modernist critics condemned.
Lionel Brett, quoted by Manley, noted how a number of ‘impeccable modernist personalities of the thirties’ (he cites Maxwell Fry and Basil Spence as well as Gibberd) had ‘switched’ to New Empiricism after the War because, in his words, ‘the psychological need was manifest’. Perhaps the War had had this effect; perhaps Gibberd’s wartime study of English market towns, their forms and materials, was both cause and effect of at least an evolution in his thinking.
Against the criticisms of Harlow, Gibberd defended an English urbanism which preferred ‘segregation of home and work, which enjoys open-air exercise, which has an innate love of nature’. (2) Goaded by further criticism, he expressed himself more astringently: (3)
It has been suggested that a correct aesthetic and architectural solution would, in the end, have been the correct social one – in other words, that people should have been given what they ought to have wanted.
That might seem, to many, the perfect riposte to the ‘megalomaniac’ architects and planners some hold responsible for the less successful and more ‘inhumane’ building schemes of the 1960s. At any rate, Gibberd’s English empiricism and decorative palette placed him beyond the modernist pale. I’ll confess to being pleased that this book will play a big part in a deserved reappraisal of his work and legacy.
And I’ll point out that I don’t believe for a moment that HKPA are the bad guys here. Michael Hopkins’ foreword to Manley’s book states that Gibberd and his peers:
were contributing to the current social agenda and building a better world for all, bringing space and sunlight within the home and outside to the public realm.
That was undeniably true of Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis too. The aesthetic choices are yours.
Historic England, in collaboration with the Twentieth Century Society, and the authors are to be congratulated for publishing these books which are unlikely to be bettered as guides to the architects concerned. Given my narrow focus, there’s an enormous amount of important stuff discussed that I haven’t touched on here. Quality production and extensive, full colour illustration don’t come cheap but, if this is your thing, buy them if you can.
If you can’t, try to borrow them from a library. If you’re in Nuneaton, you can go to the library there, designed by Gibberd in 1960. If you’re near Alton West, visit Roehampton Library designed by John Partridge and completed in 1961 while you can – it is under threat of demolition. (4)
For further information on the books and purchase details, click the links below:
Geraint Franklin, Howell Killick Partridge & Amis
Christine Hui Lan Manley, Frederick Gibberd
All the quotations are drawn from the two books except the following:
(1) JM Richards, ‘Failure of the New Towns’ and Gordon Cullen, ‘Prairie Planning in the New Towns’, Architectural Review, vol. 114, no. 679, 1953
(2) Quoted in ‘Design Problems in New Towns. Result of Building “for all classes”’, The Times, 6 February 1962
(3) Frederick Gibberd, ‘The Architecture of New Towns’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 106, No. 5021, April 1958
(4) For more on the campaign to save the unlisted buildings at the entrance to Alton West, please read Elizabeth Hopkirk, ‘Historians warn of “grave effect” of Alton redevelopment‘, bdonline, 21 November 2017 (Subscription needed)