[ARCHIVE] James Gowan’s distnctive monopitch housing in Essex playfully enhances ‘cost yardstick’ housing
Originally published in March 1979
‘Cost yardstick’ British housing is not thought to be a fruitful outlet for the Art of Architecture; but this estate of close on a hundred dwellings shows that if the architect is prepared to take almost superhuman pains, architecture can indeed be made from it. The plans are straightforward enough; terraces of six houses in a row front on to Radburn cul-de-sac. The garage of each house gives straight on to the road (the scheme got through just before this luxury was cut out of public housing); alongside is a piece of hard standing for a visitor’s car; you enter the house at the kitchen end, by way of a hall-cum-passage which leads through to living room and garden. The sections and elevations are less orthodox. A monopitch roof, high at the street frontage and low at the garden end (or vice versa), and laid with double Roman tiles covers half the width of the house and gives an unlit attic of room proportions at the high end. This roof is penetrated by an insulated solid fuel chimney, which, with its pot, looks like a projecting tube of oil paint.
The fenestration, too, is unusual: the large rooms have wall-to-wall horizontal sliding sashes, but the smaller rooms have large round aluminum casements secured in the walls by concrete frames made from standard sections of sewer pipe. These windows were made, economically and to a high standard, by a firm of marine engineers, but are domestic, not ‘porthole’ size. These round windows are the most noticeablefeatures on the estate. They exert a hypnotic effect on the passerby, causing him to focus repeatedly on to one or other of them so that, wherever he is, he gains the impression that he is confronted by a composed ‘picture’. The viewer indoors also, when he looks through one of these windows is made to feel that what he sees is not a chance corner of the estate, but a sixteenth century Dutch townscape. This is an effect, which cannot be described in photographs: the estate, as it were, ‘must be seen to be believed’. Then there is the architect’s use of colour: not applied colour, but the self-colours of brick and tile, brown, red and yellow. These are applied in large areas of roof and wall with a logic which is more that of a painter than of an architect. Colour changes do not invariably coincide with changes in occupancy, or changes in plane, or changes in floor level; and items like gutters and drainpipes are painted into their backgrounds. This departure from architectural convention lends the estate (at least to a professional eye) a relaxed and refreshing air; and helps to vest an ordinary housing provision with a sort of magic.
James Gowan writes: If the Hanningfield project is tested against Le Corbusier’s ‘five points’ it has a very low score. This is not entirely unexpected. The layout is conventional and well tried; a variant of Radburn planning and service courts. The road system is county and orthodox except perhaps for the mews, an Essex innovation, which allows a tighter configuration of dwellings and a single pave walk. The scheme would merit one point perhaps, for the horizontal windows, 3 m long, which stretch across the frontage of all the major rooms but it would lose this immediately for the circular glazing on all the lesser rooms as this is the worst type of pierced window from a daylight distribution point of view; an aberration so awful that it is not even contemplated or illustrated by the master which, in turn, is not surprising as the circular window was part and parcel of the nautical vocabulary and an essential element in the new style that he was advancing. The aesthetics of modern architecture are almost entirely concerned with square, blocky buildings, van Doesburg arrangements and the residue of all this…flat roofs. In his first volume, Le Corbusier sketches a pitched roof building as a joke, an outmoded stereotype. A good propagandist he presents the pitched roof as a useless appendage jammed tight with timbering. This is neither reasonable nor accurate.
In many a Gloucestershire cottage the roof components have been arranged to give a very agreeable and accessible space. There is also a Palladian precedent, which allowed these topmost levels to serve as storage for farm produce and the like. In the Hanningfield project a quarter of the floor plan of each house is available for light storage though the tenant must provide the loft ladder and the finishes. The roofs and their detailing now seem to have taken an excessive time to sort out. The spectre of pastiche was never far away.
The roofs of the various house types are laid at the same angle on differing plan sizes and are tied into the facades, geometrically, with regulating lines. Indeed, a good deal of importance is attached to the proportional arrangements which are very simple and therefore visually recognisable and enjoyable. For instance, the house plan has a main division into two equal spans, one of which is then subdivided into three. There are several precedents for such formal engineering but the most apposite is to be found in Towards a New Architecture where Corbusier, talking about the importance of geometry, says ‘a unit gives measure and unity, a regulating line is a basis of construction and a satisfaction’. It seems, however, that this is not one of his ‘five’ imperatives which is an unfortunate circumstance…quite apart from the tally.