The Twentieth Century Society

Building of the month

Corner Green, Blackheath

Rob Whitlock

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War one of Britain’s primary concerns was dealing with an acute housing shortage. The scale of the problem saw the widespread adoption of modernist solutions for high-rise living, often designed and built by Local Authorities. The architectural practice of Eric Lyons undertook a significant amount of housing work for the public sector at this time. But Lyons was also responsible for a series of housing schemes where his name as architect remains synonymous with that of his developer client.

The housing projects of Eric Lyons and Span represent a collaboration between architect and developer. A product of enlightened speculation in the tradition of Britain’s greatest contribution to urbanism, the development of the terraced house around a residential square. Though thoroughly modernist in approach the Span developments exhibit a number of characteristics that contrast strongly with those that remain associated with post war modernism in the minds of many.

Rather than the clean slate of a modernist tabula rasa, Span developments were more often than not carefully sited into tight suburban sites, often within historic contexts. Typically these took the form of smaller groups of houses and low-rise flats, arranged around communal landscaping, but still achieving high residential densities. Pevsner described the Span developments as:

‘Low ingenious layouts of houses and flats in carefully landscaped small cul-de-sacs or set around courtyards or communal lawns, with friendly detailing of tile-hanging or weatherboarding, a total contrast in every respect to the council estates of the same period.’

The majority of Span sites were located in the older outer London suburbs. Places such as Richmond, Twickenham, Ham and Blackheath. Land values in the inner suburbs were too great for sites to be economically viable and the more dispersed suburbs further out from the centre were not appropriate locations for Span’s target market. Such locations offered the advantage of an existing mature green landscape, but that in turn bought some difficulties with the planners.

The 23 houses built in 1959 at Corner Green formed one of twenty developments completed by Eric Lyons and Span in in the South East London suburb of Blackheath. Like many of the Blackheath developments, Corner Green was located on the Cator Estate, developed  within the grounds of a Palladian mansion by wealthy timber merchant John Cator in the early nineteenth century. The area was laid out in an informal grid pattern with broad avenues of trees and villas set back from the roads within generous gardens. The verdant character of the area, combined with a limited range of vistas in or out, gave rise to a feeling of suburban privacy and calm.

Span promotional literature of the time gives a clue to the architectural beliefs of Eric Lyons; the 1960s Span brochure Living with New Ideas indicated the design approach was not motivated solely by commercial concerns. In language more commonly associated with an architectural manifesto than a sales brochure it described the projects as ‘… a work against Subtopia: refusing consistently to perpetuate the indifferent housing of previous decades’.

The word “Subtopia” was current in architectural debates of the time and must have been used deliberately by Span. Coined by the architectural critic Ian Nairn as a compound word of suburb and utopia it suggested the making of an ideal out of suburbia. It was used as the headline to a special issue of the Architectural Review in 1955, edited by Nairn, and later published as the book Outrage: On the disfigurement of Town and Countryside in 1959.  Nairn’s outrage was directed at the “creeping mildew” of anonymous development, creating a uniformity and anonymity, devoid of any sense of place or connection to site. Writing in 1961, again in Architectural Review, Nairn began to detect signs of improvement in this situation. He cited the “pioneering efforts” of Lyons and Span as one of the principle reasons.

Corner Green provides a typical example of the means Lyons and Span used to achieve this, essentially the adoption of a compact form within a suburban context, achieving a density of over 70 persons per acre, in excess of the density zoning for Blackheath at that time.

Working for a commercial client, however enlightened, imposed its own form of discipline on Lyons’ designs. Geoffrey Townsend was Lyons’ partner in architectural practice both before and after the war. He later resigned from the RIBA to set up Span as a developer, becoming Lyons’ client. Writing in 1955 in the Architects Journal Townsend commented:’The architect has to design and organize so that the buildings can be produced at the same cost as a builder’s scheme providing the same accommodation.’

This inevitably involved the adoption of standard house types; at Corner Green a combination of Span standard house types ‘T7’ and ‘T8’ were used. These shared the same frontage width and could be combined in terraces to set up a regular rhythm of expressed crosswalls, emphasized by the detail of a notched eaves board at the top of the façade. Within this elevational frame sat a geometric composition of brick panels, white painted timber cladding and generous areas of glazing. Span promotional literature made a virtue of using traditional as well as new materials, and Eric Lyons later reflected on the choice of “soft golden” stock bricks used at Corner Green with particular affection.

At ground level the plan was divided along its length into two sections. The larger of these was given to an open living room running from front to back. In the narrower section the staircase was placed centrally. To one side of the stair sat a study, which could be left open to the main living room or closed off through a folding screen. To the other side, was a compact kitchen divided from the living room by a two-way screen that incorporated storage and a laminated serving top.

The T7 and T8 plan forms could be handed to offer flexibility of composition, allowing the units to be arranged to suit the particular nature of a site. At Corner Green the houses are arranged in a number of small terraced blocks, each composed of three, five or six units. The blocks are offset from one another to adapt to the contours and boundaries of the site and create a sense of enclosure by defining a central green, into which all the dwellings face.

At Corner Green cars are secondary to the communal space and the fronts of the houses, with garages and parking courts arranged around the perimeter of the site. The effect of this arrangement was to pedestrianize the final approach to the dwelling. The importance of landscape and the communal conception of this space were further emphasized by the absence of front gardens, with communal landscaping continuing right up to the houses. Though such a layout had been suggested for an unbuilt scheme in Coventry, Corner Green was the first realized Span scheme to be laid out in this manner.

Lyons considered the design of landscaping to be integral to the architecture, not just decoration, but essential to the design of the whole environment. It was perhaps landscaping that most set the work of Span apart from the standard fare of contemporary speculative building. At Corner Green the absence of front gardens allowed a greater degree of informality to the planting, softening the purist regularity of the elevations.

Each house had a projecting entrance porch that gave the sense of a threshold and provided depth and articulation to the composition of the group façade. The porches of the T7 and T8 types were designed as crisp glass boxes formed from a slender steel perimeter frame within which the timber door and window frames are fixed.

With such an essentially geometric and purist architectural expression the detailing of the joints between adjacent materials became a key element of the design. The roofing felt to the porch was bonded to the steel frame so as not to disturb the crisp outline of the entrance volume. At the junction between the porch and the façade of the main house the flashing is intended to fit up under the ship lap boards that form the wall panel above. Visiting Corner Green today it is evident that some houses have undergone maintenance work which does not follow the architect’s intended approach to detailing, but overall the architectural integrity of the whole has survived well.

Reflecting on Corner Green some years after its completion, Lyons judged it to “have survived (or matured) as the best of all Span schemes”, and expressed particular approval for the central green area and planting.

The Span aesthetic was widely copied, but often without the same sense of concern for site grouping and landscape, something that Eric Lyons noted with regret. The fact that the deeper lessons of the Span developments were not more widely absorbed partly accounts for their status as British design icons today. Beyond their ongoing attraction for today’s lifestyle magazines, developments such as Corner Green continue to offer important lessons for the design of housing at a time where Britain still faces an acute housing shortage. The output of Eric Lyons and Span demonstrates that good quality housing development can take account of the economics of development and create housing that will continue to provide attractive environments in the long term. In addition projects such as Corner Green show that small and constrained sites can be developed through an architecture that contributes to the existing context and retains a sense of place, but that it need not resort to pastiche to achieve this.

Where once Eric Lyons had to battle fiercely with Greenwich Council over developing in Blackheath Park, the Span estates are now lauded in the Greenwich Conservation Area Appraisal for Blackheath Park, which praises the “skillful integration of the new development with their surroundings” noting that they are, “a key part of the significance of the Conservation Area”.

In the 1960s in the Living with New Ideas brochure Eric Lyons and Span outlined the wider aspirations for their developments, aiming for work that:

‘Enhances rather than eradicates the natural features of the site: that ensures the estates look mature from the outset and retain an informal, intrinsic dignity that will still communicate itself fifty years from now.’

Visiting today, over fifty years on from its completion, Corner Green demonstrates that Eric Lyons and Span went a long way to achieving those aspirations.

Rob Whitlock is a director at Syte Architects, a London-based architectural practice established in 2000. The practice focuses on detailing and materiality, while placing importance on the character of the site as a design factor. Rob has a particular interest in British postwar housing.

 

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