03 March 2021

MICA feature in Open House Book – Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs

A Lewisham resident for 55 years and Labour Councillor for 31, Nicholas Taylor became chair of the Lewisham Council Planning Committee in the 1970s and of the Housing Committee in the 80s; he worked with like-minded councillors (Ron Pepper, Alan Pegg, Ron Stockbridge) to develop the borough’s housing programme into one of the most important and experimental in London. It is now best known for the self-build clusters, designed in Walter Segal's system, at Brockley Park and Honor Oak Park, but this was only part of an overall approach uniting modern design with traditional domesticity.

Now 79, Nicholas Taylor took tea with Pevsner when he was 17, having written to him with corrections to The Buildings of England (the product of countless cycle rides). His career has spanned architectural journalism, lecturing, housing association work in Lambeth, and 12 years at Camden Council Housing Department. In 1973, he published The Village in the City. Described by Ian Nairn as, ‘a brilliant defence of those suburbs which everybody has looked down on for so long’, it was also critical of much of the high-rise and high-density housing that was being built at the time. I met him for a socially distanced interview. June 2020.

What made you want to write The Village in the City?

During the mid-60s, when I was assistant editor of the Architectural Review (AR), I was gradually asked to lecture more and more on the state of architecture at the time - on one occasion being heckled in front of his own students by George Finch, then star assistant architect at Lambeth. The AR's editor, J.M Richards, declared that high-rise developments, even system building, were perfectly acceptable for housing, provided they were designed by a ‘good architect’. I was not convinced that this was the case - Basil Spence’s Gorbals flats in Glasgow, for instance, I felt were worse than most system-built housing, and arrogant with it. I had meanwhile been teaching classes for the Workers Education Association (WEA), which involved taking middle-class and middle-aged ‘workers’ from Upminster and Potters Bar on tours of estates in Peckham, such as Elmington and Brandon. My adult students had bemused reactions to such buildings; and when I was asked to edit a special issue of the AR on Housing in November 1967, my keynote article entitled ‘The Failure of “Housing”’ brought into the open my own true feelings. Then Paul Barker, editor of the much-missed weekly New Society, approached me with his publisher Maurice Temple Smith, and I poured out the essence of my lectures on paper.

Did Lewisham as a place have much effect on the ideas in The Village in the City?

Lewisham may not be fashionable, but for me it was my education for life. I had been brought up in a military enclave (Sandhurst) and educated in a boarding school on the Sussex Downs, so I knew little at first-hand about ordinary life, apart from exploring the back streets of Brighton. In the summer of 1965 my first wife and I decided – she in her first term of teaching, myself on journalist’s minimum pay – that South of the Thames was cheaper than North and that South-East was cheaper than South-West; and that is how we came to buy a small unimproved terraced house in Quentin Road, SE13. It may be worth a million to someone now, but for us it cost £3800 with a Council mortgage. Beginning with our neighbours, I then began my own crash course in observing the lives of the ordinary, working-class, residents of Lewisham, particularly during my many hours of canvassing for the Labour Party – thus making friends for life. It soon confirmed me in the belief that low-rise ‘cottages’ were vastly superior as places to live than high-rise blocks. In 1971 I was elected as a Labour Councillor for Ladywell Ward.

What were your proudest achievements in your time at Lewisham Council?

I remember feeling excited, the moment I walked through the doors of Lewisham Town Hall. As a councillor I turned from a nervous depressive to someone who was politically fluent to an almost precocious degree and was able to work with others to achieve a rapid revolution in Lewisham’s architecture, and particularly in housing design. This was initially in the teeth of opposition from older councillors and officers. The retirement of the then Borough Architect and the promotion (elsewhere) of the Borough Planning Officer allowed us to start again. Julian Tayler (no relation) was the new Borough Architect and understood exactly what we wanted, which was not only low-rise architecture that fitted-in to the suburban context and could still provide small, well-lit private spaces, but also to develop each scheme in a manner sensitive to its surroundings, a community approach which tied in with our widespread designation of conservation areas. (As an architectural historian, I had been a very active member of the Victorian Society’s committee in the 60s.) But we also gave great freedom to the project architects, both functionally and aesthetically. Have a look at Warwickshire Path or Ludwick Mews in Deptford, or Hurren Close in what used to be Blackheath Station Goods Yard, or the little courtyards on the corner of Chinbrook Road in Grove Park. We used an awful lot of a cheerful ‘multi’ red brick from Ockley in the Weald.

Julian organised the Architects Department into studios of 5-6 staff, each under the control of an Assistant Borough Architect, and we had a Housing Plans sub-committee of councillors who met frequently to approve each scheme after a Q&A session similar to an architecture school ‘crit’. The whole idea was not to have ‘star’ or iconic schemes. Unobtrusiveness was the essence of it. Not flagship tower blocks but quiet little buildings that would fit into the existing townscape. Nonetheless we sponsored some extremely attractive architecture, such as the Brockley Park estate, built between 1978 and 1980 and designed in-house by Geoff Wigfall, which was (and remains) an experiment in cross-generational living, providing ‘pods’ intended to be granny flats at the front of the house with timber cladding and grass roofs. The houses were grouped closely round a ‘village green’ of shared space for children’s play. The high-quality facing bricks ‘came off the back of a lorry’, as the Council got them at a huge discount from a private development which had gone bust. I was also proud of schemes where we were able to combine new development with the retention and refurbishment of existing buildings, such as Eliot Lodge in Kirkdale, where a Victorian villa was bought and renovated by the Council with new housing in two-storey terraces as a necklace around it.

What do you think we can learn from those ideas of the 1970s and 1980s today?

These ideas are not of the 70’s and 80’s but for all time! The principles go back centuries into vernacular architectural history. There is nothing new about these ideas, although a great deal is new in terms of the layouts and functionality of our houses today. But issues of privacy, protected space and comfortable areas to sit, both inside and out, remain constant, although always open to reinterpretation. The fundamental issues are always those of human scale and human relationships rather than architectural style. Intimacy of scale is very important, and the avoidance of unrelieved expanses of a single surface material.

The self-build schemes in Honor Oak Park and Brockley Park that you commissioned Walter Segal to work on are now quite a cult in architecture circles. What about them would you do differently if you could do them today?

I don’t know that I would do them today! The success of the Lewisham scheme, although driven by Walter Segal himself, was very largely due to an Assistant Borough Architect Brian Richardson, an anarchist who spent much of his spare time supporting travellers in Kent. Brian knew that Walter had done a number of very interesting self-build schemes for individuals and asked if I thought it possible for him to do group schemes for families on Lewisham’s housing list. Fortunately, we had a number of unstable sites that could only be used economically with Walter’s lightweight timber frames.

Brian’s enthusiasm infected a whole group of council officers who did the complex administration required to facilitate the project. The problem with self-build is that it is labour intensive, and not just for the builders; it can also be impossibly demanding for the professional staff supporting them. Each scheme is normally run as a little co-op, with meetings, meetings, meetings - every smallest detail being decided democratically. Walter Segal was a very libertarian individual and had endless patience - except for the issue of pitched roofs. He was a child of the 1930’s, a modernist, and he insisted on flat roofs! Self-build schemes with intense tenant involvement can create huge satisfaction, but are a very slow method of producing houses and are only really viable as an out-rider alongside a much bigger programme of more conventional social housing.

In The Village in the City, you observe that Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s 1948 Passfield Estate on Bromley Road was the most ‘in demand’ with Lewisham Council tenants in 1970. Do you know if it is still popular, and would you still recommend it for a discreet, socially distanced Open House visit?

Yes, I think it is still a successful scheme, well worth visiting. It may seem simple, but it is really clever: the slightly higher block at the back of the site has a subtle enclosing curve. I was responsible for adding the private gardens to the ground floor flats in 1982, not only because of a lack of private external space, but also to help protect the fabric of the building. We were lucky to have Sue Sulis as a landscape architect during my time as Chair of Housing; she and her colleagues carried out an amazing amount of inexpensive improvement by trellises and planting.

We'll have to leave it there, but do you have any final thoughts?

When I look at the situation of housing in London today, my primary emotion is one of anger. We have gone backwards for forty years, resulting in gross shortages for young adults and for the elderly, and we are seeing a revival of slum conditions in private renting (even ‘beds in sheds’). We older people just don’t seem to care enough. To achieve the change we require in housing, we need political change and massive new investment based on taxation (and not be afraid to demand it). But we need to persuade people by talking ‘with’ them, not ‘at’ them; and first we need to observe how they actually live and want to live.

Magnus Wills is an architect and Lewisham resident. He is currently leading the competition-winning design team for The Fair Field Landscape project in Croydon, having recently delivered the refurbishment of the adjacent Fairfield Halls, both for MICA Architects. He has previously worked at FAT, BDP and Panter Hudspith.

Nicholas Taylor is an author and architectural historian and was a Lewisham councillor between 1971 and 2002.

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