Flat design from the 1950s: England

Posted on 18 September 2011 0 comments

The 1950s Hallfied Estate in Paddington, London
The 1950s Hallfied Estate in Paddington, London. (Cropped version of a photo from Flickr by Nicobobinus)

This is the first in a series of posts looking at examples of flat design from the 1950s, in particular floor plans and layout. In this post I’ll look at examples from England and in the next set of posts I’ll look at examples from continental Europe.

The purpose of posting these floor plans is as an aid to the study of flat layout and configuration. Are there ideas and inspiration we can take from these 1950s designs for housing today?

The 1950s were a fertile period for housing design in many European countries. In Britain, the twin tasks of replacing housing stock damaged during the war and tackling slum housing led to a boom in housing construction. Many of the new homes that were built were multi-storey blocks of flats.

Over 50 years have passed since the end of the 1950s and it might seem as if that decade is too distant or too different to find inspiration for modern housing today. But there is plenty of inspiration to be found and plenty to make you think. How well do these flat layouts compare with what’s built today? In many cases, the 1950s layouts are much more appealing than the formulaic flat designs of today. But don’t feel the need to agree with what I say. Take a look at the plans and make up your own mind.

You’ll notice that although there are variations between the different floor plans, the differences are not radical. However, it’s worth mentioning a few of the more noticeable changes between these 1950s designs and flat design in Britain today.

First is the general tendency in the 1950s flats towards dual aspect designs. The picture is a bit more mixed today. We do have dual aspect new build flats in Britain but also many poorly-designed single aspect flats (including north-facing single aspect flats, some of which have won housing awards).

The second difference is the separate kitchen; today in Britain, separate kitchens in new build flats have all but disappeared to be replaced by “open plan living” i.e. lining the back of a narrow single-aspect living room with a bunch of kitchen cabinets.

And third is the bathroom with a window – providing natural light and ventilation. Today, bathrooms tend to be windowless in both flats and houses (windowless or internal bathrooms have always been more prevalent in flats in other European countries).

The examples shown here are from a book called Modern Flats published in 1958 by Architectural Press London. The authors are the English architects F.R.S. Yorke (1906-1962) and Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984). The introduction to the book states:

“…the schemes illustrated in this present volume reveal some interesting general trends: a tendency to build higher, to build communities rather than individual blocks, to think in terms of neighbourhoods and mixed developments of flats and houses, and especially to try and provide for a better way of living.”

You’ll notice that I don’t say anything in this post about whether these blocks have been a success for their residents or whether they form part of successful estates. That is another discussion all by itself and I don’t know enough about these developments to make that evaluation. But regardless of whether these blocks have been a success or not, I think you can still learn from their design. For example, it isn’t difficult to take some of these layouts and design a block of flats of different height, size or appearance. So once again, these examples are posted for the purpose of studying their layouts and not for evaluating the success (or otherwise) of these blocks.

Chaucer House, Churchill Gardens, London SW1, 1950-51

Chaucer House, Churchill Gardens, London SW1
Image from Google Street View

Churchill Gardens is a large housing estate in Pimlico in London. The scheme to design the estate was won in a competition in 1945 and developed between 1946 and 1962. It was designed by the architects Philip Powell (1921-2003) and Hidalgo Moya (1920-1994). Together they ran the architectural practice Powell and Moya.

There are a total of 1600 dwellings in 36 blocks of varying heights. The residential density is 200 persons per acre. Here is a description of Churchill Gardens from a 2003 publication by the Greater London Authority titled Housing for a compact city:

“Housing a community of over 5,000 people, Churchill Gardens is one of London’s largest and most significant post-war housing developments, built on a 12-hectare central London site near the River Thames that had been badly damaged by bombing during World War II. Masterplanned by Powell and Moya in 1952, the estate was built in stages over a fifteen-year period with the participation of a number of architects.

The masterplan established an original urban structure that combines six to eleven-storey blocks with lower rows of maisonettes and some terraced housing. The 36 blocks of flats are laid out in staggered rows at right angles to the river, creating a new north-south geometry that allows a maximum amount of sunlight to penetrate the blocks, as well as oblique views of the river. The housing blocks are surrounded by well maintained gardens, with a primary and nursery school and playgrounds for young residents at the centre of the site.”

Chaucer House, Churchill Gardens, London SW1
Back of Chaucer House. Image from Google Street View

The floor plans below are for the nine-storey Chaucer House block built between 1950-51 and originally intended for low-income families.

There are 104 flats in total in the block:

  • twelve flats per floor
  • 92 three-bedroom flats
  • 12 one- or two-bedroom flats

Access to the flats is through lifts and staircases. There are six pairs of lifts and staircases in the block. The basement contains bicycle and pram stores for each flat and a small laundry.

Floor plan for Chaucer House
Floor plan for Chaucer House. Click image for a full view

See more images of Churchill Gardens on the Modern Architecture London blog, or take a look using Google Street View.

Hallfied Estate, Bishop’s Bridge Road, London W2, 1951-59

Hallfield Estate, Paddington, London
Hallfield Estate, Paddington, London. Image from Google Street View.

The Hallfield Estate was built between 1951-59. It was designed by the Tecton architecture practice led by Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) and then realised by Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) and Lindsay Drake (1909-1980). The estate was originally designed for low-income families and consists of a mixture of six- and ten-storey blocks. The blocks contain one-, two and three-bedroom flats.

Some more figures:

  • 656 dwellings
  • 48.8 dwellings per acre
  • 176 persons per acre (approx)
Hallfield Estate, Paddington, London
Hallfied Estate, Paddington, London. Image from Flickr by Steve Cadman.
Hallfield Estate, Paddington, London
Hallfield Estate, Paddington, London. Image from Flickr by Chris Guy.

The floor plan shows the layout for a typical ten-storey block. The flats look out onto an access gallery. Only kitchens, bathrooms and entrance halls face onto the galleries.

Access galleries in multi-storey housing blocks tend to be frowned upon nowadays (at least in Britain). They can overshadow the flats below and the failure of the “streets-in-the-sky” approach seems to have halted any exploration of alternative gallery designs. But there are different approaches that can work and there are examples from continental Europe that are worth studying. And of course access galleries are particularly well-suited for the design of dual-aspect flats.

Hallfield Estate, typical floor plan
Hallfield Estate, typical floor plan. Click image for full view.

Have a look at Hallfield Estate on Google Street View.

Cavendish Court, Richmond, Surrey, 1954

Cavendish Court, Richmond
Cavendish Court, Richmond. Image from Google Street View.

I really like the layout of these flats by architect Eric Lyons (1912–1980). Cavendish Court is a small low-rise block of four storeys containing family flats and one smaller flat on the ground floor.

Cavendish Court, Richmond
Cavendish Court, Richmond. Image from Google Street View.

The family flats have a combined lounge and dining area, two bedrooms, a study, kitchen and bathroom. There are 2 flats per floor, 8 in all. Each family flat is 1010 sq. ft. (93.8 square metres). Access to the flats is through lift and stairs. There is a separate trades entrance.

Floor plan for Cavendish Court, Richmond
Floor plan for Cavendish Court, Richmond. Click image for full view.

The building sits well with the scale of the surrounding buildings. Take a look yourself on Google street view.

Medway Court, Judd Street, St Pancras, London WC1, 1955

Medway Court, St Pancras, London
Medway Court, St Pancras, London. Image from Google Street View.

This is a nine-storey block of flats with an unusual shape designed by the architect Dennis Clarke Hall (1910-2006). The original plan was to build two more identical blocks (i.e. a total of three blocks), but they were never built.

Medway Court contains studio and one- and two-bedroom flats and was originally intended for low income residents.

Access to the flats is via short galleries. The block contains two staircases and two lifts each stopping at basement, ground and then alternate floors.

Some more facts and figures about Medway Court:

  • Nine storeys (shops on ground floor)
  • 7 studio/bed-sitting flats
  • 16 one-bedroom flats
  • 23 two-bedroom flats
  • Total of 46 flats
  • 188 persons per acre
  • Children’s playroom and laundry at eighth floor level
  • Individual tenants lock-up stores in the basement
  • Refuse disposal by chutes, three per floor
Floor plan for Medway Court
Floor plan for Medway Court. Click for larger view and cross-section.

View the building on Google Street View.

Ashburnham Court, Bedford, 1955

Ashburnham Court, Bedford
Ashburnham Court, Bedford. Image from Google Street View.

Ashburnham Court in Bedford is a seven-storey block of one- and two-bedroom flats (and one penthouse) designed by the architecture practice Max Lock and Partners. It was originally intended for singles and older people on low incomes and was built by the Corporation of Bedford with state subsidy.

Floors 1-5 contain nine flats on each floor. Stairs and lifts provide access to three flats on each floor (three stairs and three lifts). The ground floor has three entrances for each staircase and lift.

In the floorplans, notice how you can only get to the bedroom(s) by passing through the living room (rather than through a hallway from the entrance of the flat). The architects have clearly done this in order to maximise the “usable” space in the flats.

Floor plan for Ashburnham Court
Floor plan for Ashburnham Court. Click image for larger view and cross-section.

I’ve not been able to find any good photographs of this development, but there’s a limited view of the block on Google Street View.

In the next set of posts, I’ll look at examples of 1950s flat design from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.

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