The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Post-War par excellence

Langham House Close, Ham Common, Richmond-upon-Thames Stirling and Gowan, 1957-58

Those of you who went on the Society’s post-war Petersham and Ham event in April 2004 (see event report in Autumn 2004 newsletter) will not be surprised to hear that we have put the Stirling and Gowan Langham House Close development forward to be upgraded to Grade II*. The Casework Committee was in complete accord that the compositional totality and rarity of this still very much complete masterpiece should be afforded a higher listing status than the Grade II that it now enjoys.

David Jenkins who is currently editing the Norman Foster Works lends his support to Langham House Close’s significance:

“The key influence of the flats is in the development of what Reyner Banham coined as ‘New Brutalism’. He wrote a piece (in the New Statesman) that stated the importance of the flats in this regard. The New Brutalism was perhaps the defining style of the 1960’s, so the historical significance of the flats cannot be overstated.”

Designed as early as 1957-58 the three apartment buildings are carefully arranged in the long narrow back garden site of a Georgian manor house facing onto Ham Common. The three storey high main block is accessed via three staircases and accommodates eighteen flats that are arranged on either side of the stairwells. Although these flats have between one and three bedrooms, the living room, kitchen and bathroom spaces are the same. The two storey high pavilions have three flats on each level. The floor plans of these buildings are mirror images of each other and there are two bedrooms for each flat in two different layouts.

There is an impressive variety within the designs of the individual arrangements of these thirty flats. There are four designs of structural brick and concrete fireplaces (two for the main block and two for the pavilions) and five designs of the wooden integral servery units (two for the main block and three for the pavilions) that separate the living space from the kitchen. The high quality and attention to detailing is followed through to the lush iroko worktops in the kitchens. If we consider this building within the context of other post-war apartment complexes, we can find none at all that has dedicated such a thorough approach to the whole building both inside and out.

It is indeed difficult to find comparisons as the housing complex is almost unique in that it was built for private owners and to a moderate budget. In this aspect it can only really be compared to the developments of Eric Lyons and Span. But while many of the contemporary Span Estates are also Grade II listed these attractive and well-landscaped developments again fall short in the quality of detailing and material use especially on the inside of the Stirling and Gowan ensemble. While Span interiors are bright and handsome there are none of the bold design statements that can be seen in the public and private spaces of Langham House Close.

Neither do the massive Grade II* housing estates (eg. Trellick Tower (1968-72), Park Hill (1957-61), Spa Green (1946-50)) dedicate their tight budgets to the interiors. Even the far more generous funding of the luxurious 26 St James’s Place does not allow the design principles of the exterior to penetrate into the design of its flats.

At Stirling and Gowan’s ensemble there is a clear movement from the design of the macro to the micro: the yellow brick of old Langham House and its garden site determine the materials and arrangement of the individual blocks. The experience of materials, structure, light and views are designed into the individual interior spaces. At Langham House Place the design principles penetrate the structure from the chosen exterior textures of brick, concrete and tile to the interplay of the same materials on entrance halls and the fireplaces within.

The pavilions pick up the theme of the access road and bring it into the inside by means of the access bridges on first floor levels. Then, when you are standing on one of these bridges your view is pulled back through the large window to the street outside. The context of the location and the choice of form and materials thoroughly inform and penetrate the design of the buildings from the outside in.

This rigorous approach is followed through in the design of the careful relationship of the individual functional elements to the whole. This is particularly so for the circulation elements such as steps and stairs and the access bridges. They are conceived as complete and individual designs physically separated from the adjoining structures; for emphasis a gap is left between them.

The choice of materials used for the ensemble clearly grows from the Corbusian ideas of the Maisons Jaoul dating from 1953-55. The preoccupation of the street, however, is a very British concept of the post-war era and especially for brutalist architecture. In this Langham House Close evolves into a uniquely British building and is certainly a forerunner for its time.

This is a truly exemplary ensemble and indeed unique in the group of listed early post-war buildings. The wholeness of the buildings is still exceedingly well preserved and in no way do they appear to have been built almost fifty years ago. Langham House Close clearly sets a benchmark against which the other Grade II listed apartment blocks can be measured. Keep your fingers crossed for Grade II*

Eva Branscome