Woman Architect of the Year Teresa Borsuk looks at Frederick Gibberd and Partners’ 1937 Park Court flats in Sydenham, London
‘We … want to escape from the suburban street corridors to live in parkland with common amenities, air and a view … the problems of housing cannot be solved by the provision of millions of little cottages scattered over the face of the country, whether in the garden-city manner, or as speculatively built stragglers.’ The Modern Flat, FRS Yorke and Frederick Gibberd (1937)
The mid-1930s: the first commercial television sets have just reached Britain; some people can afford electric fires but many still use coal. The Marriage Bar prevents most women from staying on at work. Cleaning, washing and cooking are time-consuming. The arrival of electrical appliances such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners is just starting to facilitate housework.
In England, a few of those who could afford to, were beginning to consider the idea of living in a flat – with aspirations of more functional urban living and labour-saving devices. Notable apartments of the time included Wells Coates’ Isokon Building (1934). Originally intended for bachelors, the flats were small with a bed recess and a tiny kitchen. Shared facilities included a large communal kitchen linked to the residential floors via a dumb waiter. On-site services included laundry and shoe-shining.
At about the same time, Frederick Gibberd was commissioned to design Pullman Court, a low-cost flatted development in Streatham, south London. Recognising that there was a market for good-quality accommodation for young professionals, Gibberd’s client wanted a modern design that was conveniently located and easy to manage. The flats featured a communal central and hot water heating system, sliding panels between rooms, and built-in wardrobes. They were considered to be comfortable and sophisticated.
With the success of this scheme, Gibberd was established as the ‘flat’ architect. He was in his mid-twenties. In collaboration with YRM’s FRS Yorke, he published The Modern Flat (1937), expounding the new architecture, which relied on industrialised construction in contrast with the more traditional methods and products of the housebuilder.
Gibberd’s view was that low-density housing schemes swallowed up large quantities of land. He believed that by building flats, it was possible to maximise the amount of open space available to residents, with large communal parks surrounding the apartments.
Gibberd’s next commission was for Park Court in Sydenham, adjacent to Crystal Palace Park. His client wanted to replicate the modern flats he had seen at Pullman Court.
Gibberd designed nine identical three-storey blocks – a total of 54 flats – set in landscaped grounds of just over a hectare. All the buildings are orientated so that the principal rooms face south, while the public paths hug the northern side of each block to ensure occupants’ privacy. The style is modern, and originally the blocks were painted different colours. Trees line the street frontages.
The flats were built to a high specification, with specially designed floors to reduce noise transmission, electrical heaters in airing cupboards and the lounge, and Ascot instant hot water heaters for the kitchens and bathrooms. The aim was to provide generous accommodation at low rent.
Just over 50 years later, in 1988, planning consent was granted for an additional storey behind a slate-faced mansard roof structure to provide a further 18 flats. The extension destroyed the simplicity of the Modernist intentions and also allegedly scuppered any possibility of listed building status.
In 2002, Park Court residents formed a company and purchased the freehold. The estate continues to be well loved and cared for, and the grounds are impeccably tended. Self-imposed estate rules state that no rubbish is to be thrown out of windows and residents are not allowed to do anything that causes damage, nuisance or annoyance to others.
Today, works to the buildings fall between restoration and renovation. UPVC has generally replaced the original metal windows, services have been upgraded to include central heating, and the garages, now too small to accommodate cars, serve as stores. It is not clear how much thermal upgrade the buildings have had. Current energy performance certificates identify the flats as band ‘D’ – a low-average rating.
What is inspiring is that 80 years later, Park Court is proof that good layout and form can ensure the continuing success of a project through myriad regulatory changes and stylistic reversals. Low density – originally 54 homes to the hectare – is critical to this success. Today, the brief would be for at least double that.
A plethora of detail requirements from multiple agencies that did not even exist when Park Court was built would dictate many aspects of the design. With one brick-thick external walls and single glazing, the buildings are thermally hopeless. Today, you would undoubtedly be warmer in winter and more comfortable in summer. There would be more cars to accommodate as well as space for bicycle storage, refuse and recycling.
Park Court, which was regarded as a notable development from the start, is today still a highly sought-after place to live. It is reassuring to note that the space standards (two-bedroom apartments at circa 75m2) and room dimensions are commensurate with today’s London Housing Design Guide. And the layout is as apt as many flats being built now.
As Yorke and Gibberd said, ‘the problems of housing cannot be solved by the provision of millions of little cottages scattered over the face of the country’. The lesson of Park Court is that sound design can secure and sustain the enduring quality of a place.
Teresa Borsuk is senior partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards
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