As an architect at Lambeth Borough Council in the ’60s and ’70s, Rosemary Stjernstedt’s Central Hill was a brave addition to South London’s suburban arcadia
Originally published in AR February 1976, this piece was republished online in March 2018
South London around Sydenham and Norwood contains the essence of true Victorian suburbia. It grew with the railways edging out of London through the inner ring of slums to the rural slopes of the Norwood forest. The suburban growth was early in the 1820s when neat villas were built at Norwood as the large forest was gradually cleared. Denmark Hill sprouted lines of agreeable, if monotonous, houses and a writer of the 1840s is already recommending Herne Hill as ‘a spot bespangled with suburban villas most of which are in the Italian style’. South London in the mid-nineteenth century must have been a real suburb. One could live very close to London but maintain the illusion of living in carefully maintained rural surroundings. Each house had a large garden and there were plenty of big trees. Dense greenery ensured privacy and the steep rise and fall of the ridged landscape ensured that the buildings were never totally dominant. The houses were richly various; some were huge and high, occupying gardens large enough for croquet and full-time gardeners. Other houses were most modest but still richly individual behind their privet palisades. Patterned brickwork, clusters of chimneys, boldly carved barge boards combined to enrich these miniature ‘country houses’. The illusion of individuality was well served by the richness of the builders’ pattern books and it worked. The English dream of a place of one’s own with a garden was neatly realised on these South London slopes.
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Central Hill is the crown of one of these southern ridges which run from Sydenham to Norwood, and all the elements of suburban arcadia are to be found there. Gradual growth and change had been the order of the day as maids and gardeners became mechanics and machine-minders and the larger houses slipped into genteel decay. By the end of the Second World War gardens were too large, houses built on the steeper slopes began to show signs of settlement, tiles were slipping and the cost of painting a five-storey house made maintenance uncertain. The pressure was on in the 1950s to ease the strain on the more densely occupied parts of inner South London. Housing managers turned with a gleam in their eyes towards the lusher slopes of the outer suburbs. Suddenly arcadian began to mean underpopulated; equity demanded a more intensive use of land. The palmy days were over for places like Central Hill and the new, richer and bigger boroughs began to buy the Victorian houses and gardens and sudden change on a more major scale was the new routine. The housing need was great and the London Borough of Lambeth’s architects and planners were ready to transform the quiet suburb into ‘a major housing scheme’.
‘Central Hill is the crown of one of these southern ridges which run from Sydenham to Norwood, and all the elements of suburban arcadia are to be found there’
Central Hill is, by any standards, major. It provides homes for nearly 1300 people, on a site that was occupied by a few individual family houses with long gardens. It is surrounded by reminders of its own past - in some parts of the scheme idiosyncratic rows of semis are on one side of a street looking with some surprise at the new scheme on the other. It is definitely a ‘scheme’. By skilful planning most of the new houses and flats are on the hillsides looking towards the good views, terracing down the slopes. This terracing has created a new parallel series of paths and all signs of the old streets have gone. The fact that the whole site, and it is a large one - nearly 15 acres - has one imposed design clearly marks it out as ‘a new housing scheme’. The unified design has, of course, enormous advantages, allowing the expensive site works necessary on the difficult slopes and certain elements of prefabrication that are economical. However grand the concept and however green the planting there is no hiding the fact that this is ‘housing’ not houses. The problem of the municipal estate has not yet been faced by architects - who are, after all, commissioned to build by committees who in turn are responding to other greater committees who wave books of by-laws and standards. The individual has not much chance in this collective world to produce a very personal design. Central Hill inevitably is a built series of accepted theories, and as such is well done.
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It is the built version of the current vogue for low-rise high density that absorbs the motor car and provides safe, good housing at reasonable density. The costs of the scheme show that a great deal of the money has been spent under the ground. Cars are mostly tucked beneath the buildings and the extent of the site works and services could probably support a much larger scheme. Pedestrianisation is another important dogma built into the scheme; brick paths run through much of the site and their present rather blank appearance will gradually be softened as the creepers grow and the mint starts to push its way under the fences. Sadly the attractive brick square which, as the planners say, is at the ‘natural focus of the pedestrian desire lines’ is occupied by some depressingly unlet shops. Other pedestrian desire lines lead to the extraordinary concrete bunkers and pill boxes where the architects have allowed their sterile masks to slip a little and reveal a hint of a whimsical smile.
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Such frivolity is not evident in the architecture of the terraced housing. This is straightforward, plain, well finished and relies on the drama of the site for its architectural effects. It is remarkably clean and style-less, which is not to say that it is dull. The bronzed glass balcony fronts and the mixture of rough concrete with almost white lime bricks is cool and has a certain elegance. Central Hill feels like a well-designed Swiss sanatorium. It is not cosy suburbia; it is more like the outskirts of Basel in the 1930s.
‘Central Hill feels like a well-designed Swiss sanatorium’
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There are important benefits to be gained from the Puritan simplicity, it gives the occupants a kind of carte blanche for do-it-yourself-expression. A glance over any garden wall reveals a determination to enhance and decorate, not just with plants but with colour and ornament. Inside the houses there is an equal enthusiasm for vigorous self expression that is hampered by matching lack of vigour on the part of DIY suppliers. The architecture is simply a cool frame for this frenzy of activity and it performs its function perfectly. It is a thoughtfully applied framework that may, in time, absorb some of the style of its occupants. What is provided is very good siting of the majority of the houses and flats. Almost everyone has excellent views and agreeable small gardens or balconies. There is no architectural excitement beyond a certain geometry of services and terraced forms that are more subtly satisfying to the architect who has detailed them at his drawing board than they are to the man in the street. There is, however, here a noticeable formalism in the arrangement of the individual blocks on the site. Each block stands proud and each balcony facade has a simple rhythm - nothing subtle, just three windows, then five, then three again. Elementary but organised and it reflects the order of the whole scheme.
Central Hill is no revolutionary scheme. Its virtues are quiet ones. En masse it may look like a clinical explosion among the trees but its elements are plain, reticent and formal. It speaks a simple language on a striking site and does it without pretension or warmth.