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Flats at Ham Common by Stirling and Gowan

Brick walls carrying bare concrete slabs create a rich mixture of rough and smooth in one of Stirling and Gowan’s first joint projects

Originally published in AR October 1958, this piece was republished online in June 2016

Younger English architects’ attitudes to what they call ‘the white architecture of the Thirties’ are ambivalent: on the one hand they respect and even envy the significance as revolutionary gestures of such buildings as Wells Coates’s Lawn Road Flats, but on the other hand they are suspicious of the ‘naive conviction that all buildings could be designed in “international style”.’

Most of them now conceive of the possibility of ‘multiple aesthetics’, or ‘the style for the job’, rather than a single dominant style to be applied to all classes of buildings. It is in housing that this changed mind appears most clearly, and The Architectural Review has already published such buildings as the Smithsons’ Sugden House at Watford (September, 1957), and the houses in Hampstead by Howell and Amis (November, 1956), as well as an earlier house by Stirling and Gowan (April, 1958) in all of which it can be seen, in spite of divergent tendencies of personal style and professional philosophy.


Perspective plan of two bedroom flats

What emerges from all these examples, and even more forcefully in the flats illustrated on the following pages, is an attempt to face the economic realities of dwelling construction in England today, and to extract from them an architecture that is workable in plan and grouping, and an aesthetic that is affective, rather than merely sufferable. The result seems to open the prospect of a sophisticated vernacular-and if that appears to be a contradiction in terms, then it may well be that our terms are in need of revision, for a vernacular without affectations of primitive innocence is one of the possible lines of delivery from the present depressed state of housing design in England.

This site is the garden of a large Georgian house which fronts on to Ham Common forming a narrow strip with a belt of trees along its eastern boundary. There are ‘three blocks, one is three storeys containing 18 flats and the other two are two storeys containing six flats each. The structural walls are load-bearing bricks, with floors, roofs and staircases of in situ concrete. Externally and. inside the entrance halls these materials are left exposed, but inside the individual flats, ceilings and walls are plastered. In construction the two smaller blocks differ from the three-storey block, as in the former it is only the cross walls which are load bearing, while in lthe latter all walls including the peripheral walls are structural. The floor to ceiling windows of the living rooms have three 12 in. deep horizontal transomes with the middle horizontal occurring at hip level.

floor plans

Floor plans of blocks

These timber transomes are packed with insulating material to help reduce heat loss. In the smaller blocks these window /walls pass in front of a 4 ½ in. structural brick wall. In the threestorey block, calculated brickwork is exploited to its ultimate and many of the piers are stressed to their maximum. On the east and west sides the peripheral walls stop short of the concrete edge beams to provide clerestory windows in all rooms; the remaining portion of wall which carries up is the minimum required to support the superstructure.

This use of clerestories, pierced, and floor to ceiling windows gives a variety of internal lighting effects. The living, dining and kitchen areas are planned round a structural brick fireplace, which contains the back boiler, cylinder and linen cupboard. This bulk is sufficient to establish a central element of the same scale and finish as the exterior. Wherever possible, such as in the entrance halls, staircases, etc., a direct reference is made to the exterior of the blocks. So also with the precast concrete mantelpiece and corbel shelves, which built into the fireplace in various assemblies (four in all) correspond to the concrete airbricks and overflow gargoyles on the outside walls. The flats are for sale at prices varying from £2,925 to £3,700 inclusive.

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