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IN THE MODERN WORLD

building study - Avanti Architects' restoration of a 1930s Connell, Ward & Lucas house makes its original qualities more evident, while updating it for the 21st century

The Modern Movement has had a lot to answer for over the years, but autumn 2002 saw one of the more curious complaints - it puts golfers off their stroke. The offending building was Greenside, a Grade II-listed 1937 house by Connell, Ward & Lucas near the 17th hole at Wentworth, Surrey, whose owner wanted to demolish it and redevelop the site.

One glimpse of Greenside, and hooked drives, fluffed putts, would follow; or so he claimed then in support of his case.

In the event, this golfing argument did not win the day, but the owner went ahead anyway and reduced Greenside to rubble. The result of a public inquiry to determine whether listed building consent for the demolition should be granted retrospectively is due any day now, though in the meantime the owner has pleaded guilty in a magistrates' court to demolishing the building illegally. But the UK's stock of good early Modern houses was small enough before this happened.

There is a happier story of another house by Connell, Ward & Lucas: 66 Frognal in Hampstead, north London (1936-38). Built after local opposition and a public inquiry, altered and extended in the 1950s and 1970s, but listed Grade II*, it was in a sorry state in 2000 when new owners bought it. They turned to Avanti Architects - a practice that has made Modern Movement renovation a speciality since the mid-1980s. Now, after major works that have included reconstruction of the additions and restitution of the original colour scheme, 66 Frognal is an ornament to its street.

Maxwell Fry's Sun House of 1935 is scarcely 100m away, but, in an unmade cul-de-sac off Frognal, is by no means so conspicuous. On its corner site, Connell, Ward & Lucas' house cannot be missed, which presumably accounts for the outrage it initially provoked: 'One of the greatest pieces of vandalism ever perpetrated in London, ' said Sir Robert Tasker MP. Architect Sir Reginald Blomfield - who, in his book Modernismus (1934), deplored Modern architecture for being 'deliberately cosmopolitan' - was a vociferous opponent.

A consequence of the furore was that, when finally built, the house was widely featured in magazines, with The Architects' Journal, the Architectural Review and Architect & Building News all carrying the kind of highly illustrated articles that are invaluable for later restorers.

Among them is an unusually lengthy account of the commission by the client for 66 Frognal, solicitor Geoffrey Walford.

'It may seem surprising to some that this building is not symptomatic of exhibitionism, nor of iconoclasm. To me, it represents the logical conclusion to nothing more mysterious than the problem of how to live, ' wrote Walford. Dismissing as a compromise the idea of adapting an existing building, he wanted 'a more precise use of space, a greater reduction of labour, the use without pretence or shame of materials and methods now available, ' (RIBA Journal, 19.12.38).

Walford claims that the plan was determined before a site was found, but needed no modification once it was. Moreover, 'the plan was formed without any preconceived idea of what the house should look like'. What he sought in the design was 'simply a matter of sensibility for structure, for the placing of masses and weights, and for materials'.

Given the need for open spaces on the ground floor, uninterrupted window lengths, and freedom in partitioning the interior, the most suitable structural material would be reinforced concrete. But only a few architects in Britain seemed to know how to use it; hence the choice of Connell, Ward & Lucas, whose work, said Walford, 'appealed to me as having that structural quality which I find missing in nearly all other contemporary work with the exception of that of some engineers'.

With all Connell, Ward & Lucas buildings, the actual architect is identified, and 66 Frognal is the work of Colin Lucas (1906-84) - the young Englishman who joined Amyas Connell and Basil Ward, colonial New Zealanders, in 1933, having already built some of the first reinforced concrete houses in England (Noah's House and Boathouse, Bourne End, 1930; The Hopfield, Wrotham, 1932). His avant-garde credentials had made him the youngest member of Herbert Read's Unit One, the Modernist artistic group that included Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore, and just one other architect, Wells Coates.

In an interview in the AJ (9.5.84) a few months before his death, Lucas looked back at this period. 'My great ambition was to build my own designs with my own men, like Perret did in Paris, and my first houses were built like that. I went straight into doing reinforced concrete, with 4 inch walls and internal insulation. Later I found that Connell and Ward had begun to use the same construction quite independently. I was rather thrilled by the possibilities of concrete as a material one could model, ' he said.

Lucas mentions Perret, and always admired him, but the main influence on 66 Frognal - as on the majority of the practice's houses - was Le Corbusier, with his cinq points formula of pilotis, free plan, free facade, ribbon windows and roof garden.

66 Frognal, designed for a family of two adults and four children, was organised over three storeys, with a playroom, garage and terrace on the ground floor; living quarters and master bedroom on the first; the children's bedrooms and a large roof terrace on the second. Surprisingly, Walford did not want a southern aspect, so the rooms face east and west, with the living room and bedrooms having the morning sun and some degree of privacy (though the site was always overlooked). The most striking element of the original plan is the elongated living room, which reads as three linked zones, defined by the position of the structural columns and two nibs projecting from the west wall. Otherwise it is quite compartmentalised.

It was the main facades that, in a Corbusian way, announced the house's Modernity.

'In the extreme idiom of the day? perhaps a little too concerned to épater le bourgeois, ' said Pevsner in 'The Buildings of England'. He was probably thinking particularly of the west facade facing Frognal, which, at first glance, might seem abruptly blank and severe. One result of the restoration, though, is that its subtleties are more apparent than they have been for many years. The east, garden facade was open and ingratiating by contrast: a considered play of solids and voids - the recessed ground floor and roof terrace linked visually by the diagonal stair - with clear spatial layering in its planes of glass and brick.

Sadly, the Walfords could not enjoy the house for long. With the onset of the Second World War, their children were evacuated and the Auxiliary Fire Service occupied the building. The war over, Walford, having fallen on hard times, had to sell up. The first major alteration came in 1957-58, when the roof terrace was partly annexed for additional bedrooms and a bathroom, to designs by Trevor Dannatt.

With another change of owners came more changes to the house in the early 1970s - most questionable, a ground-floor addition on the garden side to create an enclosed swimming pool (and enlarged hall). At some point too the brick spandrel beneath the external stair was removed and a timber pergola constructed on the first-floor terrace. The 1938 colours were concealed and the house painted white.

The swimming-pool addition was a fait accompli when 66 Frognal was listed Grade II in 1973 - a designation raised to Grade II* in 1999, but only on the basis of the exterior, as no internal survey was undertaken. Avanti's photographs from 2000 show a neglected interior. The built-in furniture from 1938 had largely gone, leaving the last owner's furnishings and decorations at odds with a Modernist aesthetic. Many of the windows were aluminium substitutes, bulkier in section than the originals (though the sliding glazed screens in the living room survived). Services were in disarray, requiring complete renewal to meet current standards. Yet the structure of 66 Frognal was essentially sound, if with the carbonated concrete and corroded reinforcement that seem inevitable with such 1930s work.

'The house was crying out for attention - it's as comprehensive a rescue job as we've done on a building of this significance, ' says Avanti director John Allan. He applauds his clients for making quality, not a quick fix, the priority during a long process of renovation.

Avanti's work is best seen floor by floor, beginning with the swimming pool. In photographs, the rectilinear 1970s version is certainly an eyesore: crude in detail, impeding access to the outside stairs, and, as Allan says, 'unfortunate in appearing to be structurally integral with the main house above'. The new glazed semicircular form is a logical solution:

less intrusive on the garden, its horizontal lines uninterrupted by any door from pool to garden (wisely not requested by the clients), and its independence from the original building not in doubt. If you have to keep the pool, this has a certain elan. At the same time, the entry sequence to the house, confused in the 1970s alterations, becomes clearer, with the curve of the front door now continued inside to create an alcove; this accentuated curve both echoing the form of the new pool and orienting visitors, steering them towards the stairs.

The clarification process continues on the first floor, with Avanti restoring internal divisions that had been eroded. Compare the 1938 and 2000 plans: the diagonal connection between living room and day room in the latter has happened in an ad hoc way - it is 'free plan' by default, to the detriment of the living room.

So there is renewed spatial definition now, with a pair of glazed doors between the living and day rooms (which can be folded back to link the spaces if required), and reinstatement of all three doors off the first-floor landing.

This satisfies fire regulations and gives the stairwell the internal cohesion and boundaries that the west facade implies. Maroon paint up its full height unifies it further.

Inside 66 Frognal, the extended living room, continuously glazed on its east side, is the showpiece. From the plan, you imagine it could feel disproportionately long, but the nibs and central raised ceiling do create three distinct zones, with dining to the north and - in the early photographs - a space for music to the south.

Avanti has reinforced the identity of the central area - the living room proper - with concealed uplighting in a new rim around the raised ceiling. It has also introduced a lacewood-veneered 'floating wall' in front of the actual wall on the west, with a slate-finished slot near its base framing a minimalist gas fireplace and a recess for the display of objects; an effective focus in the absence of a traditional hearth (the house was electrically heated from the start). So it seems inconsistent to then make the nib on the south louvred rather than solid, increasing the spatial connection with the former music room.

A new pale limestone floor augments the overall sense of lightness, with early sun coming through the original sliding windows (which Avanti has overhauled). By means of a recess at the north end of the room in which different coloured curtains were concealed, the Walfords could change the mood of the room as they chose, and the new owners are contemplating something similar; so, at present, colour is sparing - just the curved wall of the dining area picked out in a pleasing blue.

The maid is long departed, so her room is absorbed in an expanded kitchen, and the Walford's former bedroom is now used for bridge.

The new master bedroom is on the second floor, in Avanti's rebuilt addition, which differs from the 1950s one by placing the ancillary rooms - a dressing room and bathroom - to the west and the bedroom at the north-east corner of the house. Fully glazed on its inner face and so bringing the raised terrace outside into its ambit, this seems both private and spacious - though privacy is lost as soon as you emerge on the roof.

Meanwhile, the ancillary rooms have been brought back behind the structural columns, and the strip window that unites them is free of glazing bars, making the addition less obtrusive when it is seen from Frognal - a ghost of the once-empty terrace appears.

Avanti has renewed the lens lights that punctuate the ceiling of the corridor to the south and - as throughout the house - has replaced the aluminium windows with more slender sections in steel.

Avanti was fortunate that its clients were prepared to restore the original colour scheme of 66 Frognal, and that there was enough surviving evidence beneath later finishes to do this with authority. The role of colour in Modern Movement buildings, and its potential role now, is still under-appreciated (AJ 11.10.01), so the restoration would merit attention for this alone.

It's on the west facade, apparently strict, that the effect of colour is seen best. With pale mushroom for the principal face, off-white for the projecting stairwell, red for the columns, dark brown on the curving wall to the garage and above the second-floor glazing, and a bright yellow front door - it would be hard to say 'entrance' more clearly - this side of the house is so much more alive, and spatially more subtle (the accentuated planes), than in the long pre-Avanti period when it was just a dingy white.

One registers too what a contribution No 66 makes in urban terms. Frognal, with its red-brick Victorian (à la Norman Shaw) and overblown Neo-Georgian is a far from homogeneous street, and this revived early Modern just enriches the mix.

Colour was always less important on the garden elevation, and here the post-Lucas history of the house - the current restoration included - makes a marked difference to the original composition. Though the secondfloor addition reads as a quite minimal glass box, and the swimming pool also is glazed, there are now two solids where once there were voids.

Of course, in the UK climate such voids have always been prone to enclosure. Not that the original house seems 'swamped' by the additions, but the lucidity and logic of 1938 are obscured.

Allan argues that 'the narrative of the building had taken it from that former purity to something else. We had to work from where the starting line was drawn and find solutions that were more in sympathy with the original.' To look again at the photographs from 2000 shows Avanti has surely done that.

Perhaps it's worth remembering that when this Corbusian house was first alarming Hampstead, Le Corbusier himself was already working towards a different kind of domestic architecture. He had embarked on the trajectory from the Petite Maison de Weekend (1933-35) to the Maisons Jaoul (1955): an engagement with more primitive, archaic, mythic elements, giving inhabitation a profundity and resonance that his Purism could not create.

But this is not to doubt the evident qualities of a house like 66 Frognal, of which its client, Geoffrey Walford, wrote with feeling. 'I find the simplicity and spaciousness of unbroken surfaces offer rest to the eye and to the mind. I find delight in the control of forms arising in the building itself and its appurtenances, rather than in superimposed effects. I find delight in the use of colour and in the play and variation of light. I find delight, above all, in the relation between house and garden.' Avanti's restoration of 66 Frognal shows that it is possible to upgrade these Modern Movement houses to meet the expectations of today's occupants, without sacrificing those intrinsic qualities. There has to be a lesson in this, but sadly not one that the owner of Greenside can learn.

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