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Architecture Misfit #10: Colin Lucas

colin anderson 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).

house in kent 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),

high_and_over_mvs210610_1

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),

Gunn House the Tarburn House, Temple Gardens, Moor Park, Herts. (1937–8), Walford House, 66 Frognal, Hampstead, London (1937)

frognal and Potcraft, Thomas House, Sutton, Surrey (1938) unparalleled elsewhere in the country. In short, until WWII he had quite a respectable career.

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.

alton estate westI’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.

Unite Typical Floor Plan

  • 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.

alton west corridor

  • 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!

CORBGRAPHIC

  • 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.

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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.

alton west

Let’s have a closer look at those point blocks.

point blocks at alton west

This is the sunny side.

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These buildings are stair-rich, presumably because of stricter fire code back then.

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  • 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.

Somerset Estate, Battersea

Somerset Estate, Battersea

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.

A plan of a two-bedroom apartment.

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.

A refurbished kitchen with the separating partition removed.

These buildings are repeated across south London.

Twice more, as the Canada Estate in Rotherhithe,

Canada Estate, Rotherhithe

Two more times, as the Aylesbury Estate in Wandsworth.

Aylesbury Estate, Wandsworth

And six more times, as the Wyndham Estate in Camberwell.

Wyndham Estate, 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.

Selworthy House

The view is also very nice, but that’s just an accident of history.

view of london from selworthy houseWhen these buildings were built, nobody valued views, especially those over Battersea, Rotherhithe, Wandwsorth or Camberwell.

rainbow over batterseaWhat 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.
    1. 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.)
    2. 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.
      rogers stirk harbour young 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.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.Trellick-Tower
  • 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.

ROBIN HOOD GARDENS

  • 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.
    1. 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.
    2. It is easier to brand Brutalism a stylistic choice if it is associated with famous architects. We’re used to that as a concept.
    3. 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.

* * *

somerset estate colin lucas

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!

colin anderson lucas

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Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer


If he is remembered at all, the architect Hannes Meyer is remembered inappropriately as the “third” director of the Bauhaus. He was actually the second director of the Bauhaus. Walter Gropius was first, from 1919 to 1927, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was third, from 1930 to 1933. Gropius and Mies van der Rohe are remembered and Meyer is not – which is a shame as Meyer was the best architect of the three.

Hannes Meyer (1889-1954)

The Bauhaus was never meant to be a school of architecture. It started as a school to ‘unite’ crafts and industrial processes by creating prototypes of objects that would be sold to industry for mass production and sale.

Under Gropius, buildings were only one part of a “total work of art”. Gropius left the Bauhaus and went to America to become King of Architecture at Harvard University and promote the Bauhaus way of teaching architects. This meant that architects were more like artists than engineers. This has had bad results for architectural education (as Bashar wrote about in his last post) and for architecture ever since. To put it simply, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (with Philip Johnson’s help) hijacked the history of architecture and led it in a direction that has not proven to be very useful at all.

Under Gropius, the Bauhaus was not very successful at making things people wanted, and it was only after Hannes Meyer became director that it finally made its first profit. It was Meyer who established architecture as a core subject, and it was also Meyer who was responsible for the Bauhaus’ two most important jobs – some apartment buildings in Dessau, and the Federal School of the German Trade Unions (ADGB) in Bernau. The ADGB building was restored in the 1980s and still looks like a modern building.

Whereas the buildings of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe have slipped into history and are just examples of what those architects once did, the principles that Hannes Meyer followed in 1930 are just as relevant today as they were then.

The ADGB Building, built 1930.

Thanks to Thorsten Klapsch for photographing this important building.

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Hannes Meyer thought that architects should deal with real problems in real ways and to not pretend they were an artistic elite. For him, buildings had to be useful for people and for society. To him, what a building did and how comfortable it made the people who use it was the only thing that mattered. Functionalism was more than not wasting money on ornament or building more space than was necessary. For him, it meant an efficient structure and practical construction. It meant materials with properties that produced an environmental benefit for the occupants. ‘Environmental’ is still a very new for today’s architects but, back in 1930, Hannes Meyer considered the thermal and other properties of the materials he used. There is a famous quote on Wikipedia, about what he thought should determine a building. The worth of the building was in what it did and how well it did it.

“1. sex life, 2. sleeping habits, 3. pets, 4. gardening, 5. personal hygiene, 6. weather protection, 7. hygiene in the home, 8. car maintenance, 9. cooking, 10. heating, 11. exposure to the sun, 12. services – these are the only motives when building a house. We examine the daily routine of everyone who lives in the house and this gives us the functional diagram – the functional diagram and the economic programme are the determining principles of the building project.”(Meyer, 1928)

It was a bit radical at the time and, even today, how well a building does the shelter thing is something we are still having trouble achieving.  The Bauhaus style (not that they built much) was supposed to be inexpensive and functional. Corbusier took the idea of a machine and made it “arty” and was very successful. Mies van Der Rohe took the same idea and made it “expensive” and was also very successful. Meyer took the same and tried to make it socially useful and was forgotten by the history of architecture.

Below are some images of the other major project that he brought to the Bauhaus – a project for 90 low-cost apartments. According to the Bauhaus’ current website, Meyer’s motto of “putting the needs of the people before the need for luxury” was also adhered to in the balcony access houses and led to the construction of so-called “Volkswohnungen” (people’s apartments), which were rented by workers and employees on low salaries. The floor plans for the flats were markedly small. According to Meyer’s calculations of actual living requirements, 48 m² in three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom should be spacious enough for a family of four. While Walter Gropius consciously aimed, with his estates of terraced houses, to provide owner-occupied housing (for low-income buyers), the balcony access houses were rented out for the relatively low monthly sum of 37.50 reichsmark. … The tenants’ opinions of the balcony access houses were consistently positive – a point backed up by the fact that very few structural changes have been made to the houses to this day.

The Dessau Törten apartments in 1930.

A plan of an apartment at Dessau Törten.

Unlike Walter Gropius, who designed the earlier sections of the same development, Meyer based his building layout on an orthagonal street grid to ensure equal lighting for every apartment. Each housing block is aligned east-west, with the access balconies on the north side.

All living room and bedroom windows are on the south side.

Hannes Meyer believed that buildings should enable people to get on with their lives comfortably inside them. Today, 80 years later, we are only just beginning to understand this, and how important it is for buildings to do the shelter thing really well.

We at MISFITS’ salute Hannes Meyer – Architecture Misfit No.1.

(See also The New Objectivity.)