Architecture Misfit #10: Colin Lucas
Colin Anderson Lucas (1906–84)
was an English architect and pioneer of reinforced-concrete construction. He formed a company to build concrete structures in the style of International Modernism, including Noah’s House at Spade Oak Reach, Bourne End, Bucks. (1930), and Hop Field House, St Mary’s Platt, Wrotham, Kent (1933—with Amyas Connell and Basil Ward (1902–76).
In 1933 he joined Connell and Ward to form Connell, Ward, & Lucas, and brought his expertise to the creation of a whole series of International Modernist houses such as High and Over Estate, Amersham, Buckinghamshire. (1929),
There’s more information and pics here. And here’s a short contemporary (1931) film about it, titled The House of a Dream.
There was also the Gunn House, The Ridgeway, Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol (1936),
After the 1939–45 war he worked in the Architects’ Department of the London County Council, heading a team of young Modernists who designed, among much else, the Le Corbusier-inspired Alton Estate West at Roehampton, London (1951–78), where the slab-blocks are on a very small scale yet superficially modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation.
History tells us nothing of why Lucas went to work in the Architects’ Department of the London County Council which, in the 1950s, was the largest architectural practice in the world. But he did.
It was a move away from one way of making buildings, and towards to another way of making buildings. It was the change from making little architectural one-offs for the benefit of wealthy individuals and one’s own reputation, to using one’s skill as an architect to improve mass housing prototypes for the good of many, largely anonymously.
There’s more to see and hear here about the London County Council but this next image shows part of the Alton West Estate.
I’m not so sure the Alton West slab blocks are ‘superficially modelled’ on Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation for in some ways they’re better. Here’s a plan of Ud’H 1.0 – Marseilles.
- Instead of a central corridor every third floor, Alton West has gallery access every second. These corridors will be cold, but bright. Horses for courses.
- The apartments at Alton West are double storey but have no double storey living room (like Apartment A at Ud’H) or no double storey master bedroom (like Apartment B at Ud’H) for that matter. At last, somebody’s redrawn the section!
- The kitchens at Alton West are separate and have windows (and larders!). This was a buildings regulations requirement. There is a hallway – building regs again – and bedrooms of usual (regulated) minimum width. All quite nice really.
As well as adpating PJ’s prototype for British building regulations, the London County Council architects were trying to improve upon what PJ had proposed. The interlocking plan, central corridor and double-height living rooms were never an option. The double height living/bed room is a waste of enclosed volume that could be more responsibly provided with a floor and used to house more people. It is also a poor use of surface area if regulations require your kitchens and bathrooms to have windows.
But all of this is to miss the most important difference. At Alton West there are five slab buildings, not one. There are almost twenty point blocks.
Let’s have a closer look at those point blocks.
This is the sunny side.
These buildings are stair-rich, presumably because of stricter fire code back then.
- All apartments are corner apartments, as you’d expect with four apartments and point access.
- No two living rooms are horizontally adjacent.
- Less space is used for circulation, even with the two stairwells.
- Each apartment has a large hallway.
- Whereas perhaps 80% of the apartments at Unité d’Habitations are double-sided and two storey, all Alton West Point apartments are single level and two-sided.
- The service riser is beautiful.
During his time as an architect at the London County Council, Colin Lucas was also responsible for these two identical buildings.
Three floors of four two-bedroom apartments alternate with one floor of one-bedroom apartments. Apartments are arranged in a pinwheel arrangement, but split two to a side by the elevator lobby that has a single fire escape stair at one end, and a laundry drying room and garbage chute room at the other. This lobby is naturally ventilated and daylit. It develops the configuration of the point blocks at Alton West. Here’s a two-bed apartment plan.
And here’s what the kitchen looks like. The column from which everything below it in the plan above is cantilevered, is just out of the picture. Not shown in the plan above is the small window above the cooker, made possible by the pinwheel arrangement.
These buildings are repeated across south London.
Twice more, as the Canada Estate in Rotherhithe,
Two more times, as the Aylesbury Estate in Wandsworth.
And six more times, as the Wyndham Estate in Camberwell.
For about five years, I used to live on the 18th floor of Selworthy House in Battersea. I can testify to the solidity, liveability and humanity of these buildings.
The view is also very nice, but that’s just an accident of history.
What impresses me most about the design of these buildings is how, by alternating three floors of two-bedroom apartments with one floor of one-bedroom apartments, Colin Lucas managed to make something special out of what must have been a very constraining brief. He did not have to do that.
These eleven buildings do not receive any mention in the history of post-war British architecture. They probably never will.
- As part of the British government’s thirty-year war against its own people, the idea of social housing as a government obligation has been being erased from the consciousness of the people.
- Social housing has had its name changed to the less-loaded ‘affordable housing’. (The current mayor of London is at present attempting to redefine affordable housing as rents at 80% of market rent.)
- Whether past or present, highly-visible social housing is frowned upon. It is amusing to see how photographers contrive to omit the Somerset Estate towers from photographs of the (then) Richard Rogers Partnership’s Montevetro. Here’s a page of google images of Montevetro. This next image is from RSHY’s website.
Here’s what looks like a planning application site elevation. Anything unpleasant is only shown in outline. One can almost hear the planners say “No higher than those hideous towers and you must respect the listed Church of St. Mary.” I have no respect for Richard Rogers or Montevetro.
- Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Trellick Tower by Ernö Goldfinger is iconified as a Brutalist poster building by a famous architect in much the same way as PJ’s UdH is.
- Robin Hood Gardens has people fighting its cause just as much for it being an important building by famous architects Alison and Peter Smithson as for any social significance it may once have have had. For the government, this is the rub – the very idea of highly-visible social housing is anathema.
- Part of this ongoing stealth campaign to discredit social housing is to encourage people to think of Brutalist architecture as nothing more than a dated stylistic choice.
- Any social worth (such as additional floor area) those construction choices may have generated is actively overlooked. Off-form concrete was honest about diverting money away from cladding and finishes and towards more useful parts of a building.
- It is easier to brand Brutalism a stylistic choice if it is associated with famous architects. We’re used to that as a concept.
- I suspect the Lucas towers are particularly reviled because that one extraneous design decision of the 3+1 repeat makes them very PROUD buildings. Once upon a time this conferred DIGNITY, but nowadays it seems to represent audacity.
* * *
So then, Colin Lucas
You chose to work largely anonymously and in a large organisation,
improving upon useful prototypes you were not afraid to repeat.
You believed that people’s lives would be enhanced by doing that.
It is for these reasons that
misfits salutes you!