The Camberwell Borough Council architect’s department did some very innovative work on high density housing in early 60s, well  before the ideas of environmental design movement were established by Oscar Newman in his “Defensible Space” in 1972 and further researched by Alice Coleman in “Utopia on Trial” in 1985.

The Acorn Place development, later became known as Dene Wood, was one of the most significant high density project built in early 60s. It was highly influential and possibly anticipated different outcome from low and high rise units, avoided ‘putting all the eggs in the same basket’ by producing this mix of high and low density housing, which also respects the local surroundings. The plans and the old b&w  photo here are abstracted from an article published in AD in December 1963. Original photos taken by me in early60s and a recent revisit produced the latest photographs used here for comparison purposes and to trace the evolving progress of the social housing.

I was there like a shot looking at these new forms and magical spacestransforming deprived areas of London in early/mid 60s. The warmth of red clay tiles and stained timber joinery with silver birches in the courtyards have stayed with me all this time.

Recently I saw images of higher blocks of this scheme in bad state of repairs on Flickr, describing this project as ‘Dene Wood’ and talk of its possible demolition, which was confirmed soon after wards. The news of premature demolition of housing projects, particularly from 60s, is hardly a surprise these days. However, the possible loss of the courtyards which impressed me so much as a young student,  was a bit more difficult to swallow.

The Google Earth indicated that the old carpet pattern of low hosing formed around courtyards was still there and some of my Flickr contacts offered me further help, eventually a special visit to this area became too tempting for me to ignore.

As all camera pointing’ building spotters’ know, the act of pointing a camera these days is considered an aggressive act and the pictures you see here were taken in a great hurry and the game of ‘spot the difference’ took place in front of the computer screen at home.

The initial shock of seeing the bare site where the high rise housing once stood was followed by relief of seeing the ‘carpet’ courtyards still standing, more or less intact and still covered in red clay tiled vertical cladding.

The biggest and almost predictable change was reduction of shared/common spaces in the courtyards to the bare minimum, which is just a sufficiently wide footpath providing access to the front and back garden of the houses.  The second detectable change was the complete exposure of external staircases providing access to the upper units and denying hiding spaces to intruders. The growth of TV dish antennas  has become too common to even register.

The detailed comparison at home indicated wholesale changes to the timber screens and window design which have been replaced with less quirky and more traditional design carried out with some sensitivity.

The fate of this and other local authority housing schemes must be seen in context with gradual disintegration of architects and property services departments in these offices. Some of these offices with record of brilliant architectural out-put, suddenly found themselves with almost no architects. The close co-operation between teams preparing housing briefs, choosing suitable tenants,  normal maintenance  and making the necessary changes to meet the changing requirements, became disjointed and sometimes disappeared altogether. A continuous  inter-professional pride and involvement in looking after the building stock and the tenants, disappeared and resulting fragmentation started a ‘self-destruct chain reaction’ which is still going strong.

The lessons may well be obvious  for all to see. The repeated failure of high level communal corridors for social housing at these densities are well recorded. The avoidance of communal spaces, and provision of visually supervised defensible spaces,  in accordance Newman/Coleman have repeatedly improved the ailing estates.

However, I wonder the impact of this strict distribution of private gardens and minimal footpaths to get to these resulting in almost total elimination of communal spaces is likely to have on future generations. Future generations growing here would have been denied the experience of sharing and enjoying the spaces adjacent to their houses  and understand the responsibilities of taking care of these communal assets.

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The last century produced score of private houses reflecting the aspirations of the owners or architects or often both, but if the budget was generous, the aim has always been to go up a notch or two in the chosen branch of ‘type and style’ for prosperity or in modern political lingo leaving a ‘legacy’ for the future generations.

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This house has always been a bit of conundrum for building watchers. The client was a rich furniture manufacturer, Chaim Schreiber, who entrusted a young architect with a piece of land in most desirable part of London; almost limitless budget, an open brief – basically asking for a large dining-living space and lots of natural materials.

It would appear that this ‘gift’ of a job with freedom of action almost embarrassed Gowan, who decided to impose on himself a strict discipline of rectangular planning grid normally reserved for industrialised mass housing. It is possible that he anticipated that Schreiber may like to experiment with some modular furniture design for mass market in this house for future mass production.

Perhaps the clients ‘modesty’ and lack of ‘display’ encouraged Gowan to evolve a building which was as ‘style-less, class-less and scale-less’ as possible. This meant that the issues relevant to the mass housing, including the structure and building fabrics could be addressed and refined for future exploration serving a wider future role.

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It is obvious that Gowan was keen to develop working and middle class housing and was fond of sensible Victorian standards of detailing and construction. It is possible that this project was a natural laboratory for testing his ideas and love for refined and practical detailing, bringing these strands together.

The resulting plan is very formal assembly of similar spaces in a flexible manner but despite this the building remains individualistic, open, airy and responds to the site well. The incongruity of the chosen style not only managed the building to become a good neighbour to the large existing Victorian Villa on one side but also prepared itself for an anticipated attack of a non-descript, post modernist neighbour on the other side of the house where the original swimming pool for Schreiber House once stood.

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The module used (transferred for my younger friends in approximate metric dimension) was 900x450mm, subdivided into 225 and 150mm, throughout external and internal design including the fixtures and fittings producing a very well disciplined building.

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I quote the following from an article in AJ of 14th July 1965, which is also the source of plans, sections and B&W photos seen here;

“A characteristic that most people would expect is that the building should be instantly recognisable as having a particular function. Here it is difficult to tell whether the building is one house or a group of flats (partly resulting from its scale) and, if it were not set among other houses, it might be mistaken for offices or even a church. However, it is an arresting building which looks as important as its Victorian neighbours. James Gowan was conscious of these problems and chose the unorthodox solution of deliberately concealing the organisation of the house and thereby the normal clues about its scale.”

IMGGowanLivingFloor Finish; San Stefano marble paving.

Ceilings; Generally artificial stone precast floor units.

Windows; Aluminium with double glazing. Air conditioned house.

Moulded ply storage units designed by architect and client. Most of the furniture, fittings, and even curtains, are based on the planning module.

Since its construction house has been sold twice and has been through some bad times. The surroundings have changed a lot. The dense growth of trees on the Heath obscures the original views and the present views below are oblique views of the house mainly from the footpath.

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The lowest floor is for cars,  maid and services, supporting the main living spaces facing Hampstead Heath and back garden. The terrace/podium facing the Heath protects the spaces from the noisy, busy road just outside.

The floor above contains the master bedroom  and study and bathrooms.

The top floor  houses three bedrooms, bathroom, sauna and studio for children.

If you look at the cross section, you would note that the trough section roof and floor units and the panelled in-situ plaster on elevation. The consistency of proportions by strict use of the chosen module is meticulous.

The precast floor units are also used to keep the junction between their thin edges and the aluminium anodised windows slim and delicate.