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from our archive
Housing under Parker Morris: A talk and walking tour


19 Apr 2016 | Simon England


Architectural competitions have yielded numerous innovative public buildings, in fact a number of architects have established their careers on the back of such prestigious opportunities. But less well known are examples of buildings created as a result of competitions seeking to solve fundamental mass housing issues. 


For this event, pairing a talk and subsequent walking tour, Docomomo-UK chose to look at two innovative public housing schemes procured through open competitions in the post-war period, Churchill Gardens (1946) and Lillington Street (1962), both in the London Borough of Westminster.


These two competitions were initiated with the support of Parker Morris (1891-1972); Morris being more well known for his subsequent governmental report Homes for Today and Tomorrow of 1961 that recommended space standards. The site chosen for the Churchill Gardens Competition was a 30-acre neighbourhood of substantially bombed terrace houses alongside the River Thames in Pimlico. A few blocks away, along Vauxhall Bridge Road, a twelve acre site earmarked for slum clearance was chosen for the Lillington Street Competition.

Both competitions were won by young architects with little or no experience. The winning scheme for Churchill Gardens was by Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, produced whilst in their final year of architectural study at the Architectural Association. In the case of Lillington Street, John Darbourne was a relatively inexperienced architect completing post-graduate studies at Harvard at the time of winning the competition. 


Powell and Moya's completed design is one of sleek "ocean liner" international modernism, a mixed development of free-standing rectangular slab blocks and lower maisonettes and houses in a regular site arrangement designed to best exploit views of the Thames. Built over a 25 year period, each stage of its development responds with a different material treatment. The spaces between the blocks are carefully structured garden spaces.


In contrast, Lillington Street adopts a low-rise massing of interconnected blocks. Its irregular brick form envelops the sites perimeter in a stepped arrangement of dual aspect "scissor" flats. All residents benefit from southern light and the wide, planted circulation routes are designed to maximise neighbourly interaction. Landscaping is more naturalistic, incorporating framed views of the retained church St James the Less by GE Street. `Both competitions required the incorporation of shops and other community facilities.  In addition, Lillington had to deal with an important Gothic Revival church and a number of substantial trees.


The talk's structure was deliberately loose, broken into three parts with three different speakers. Firstly, Philip Boyle set the scene discussing the early phase of Churchill Gardens, the typical flat layouts, masterplan and architectural influences. Boyle's discussion also picked up on how the architects used the cost yard stick and post-war material shortage to expert effect, developing spacious dual aspect flats with functional and expressive cores. 

Tom Ball then discussed the later phases of Churchill Gardens and how the estate functions today. Ball's talk was one of a long-term resident and passionate champion of the estate. He discussed the joy of living there and the ongoing development of its communal gardens. But he also expressed concern with how the community has changed since the implementation of Thatcher's Right To Buy scheme and resultant growth in absentee landlords. His concerns have been further raised with Westminster's recent interest and their move to infill part of the estate with private developments to increase density and profit.  


Lastly, my part of the talk surveyed the range of the entries submitted for the Lillington Street competition, showing how varied their approach to massing, context and landscape was. This evidence further emphasised the value of competitions as idea generators or forums for architectural exploration. 


The talk and subsequent discussion was followed by a Saturday walk on June 11, 2016, covering both schemes and Tom generously opened his own home at Churchill Gardens. Many people on on the walk expressed their favourite approach, but what we could all agree on was the quality of the architecture and thinking generated by these two competitions. 


In today's risk averse times, the possibility of an architectural graduate winning any similar sort of competition would be impossible. The tender process is now heavily weighted towards experience, capability and financial standing. This is a pity; as speculative developers now dominate the housing market with mostly mean and superficial designs, clearly some typological innovation is needed.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32

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