Whilst some may criticise the ‘sameness’ of suburbia of the interwar period 1918-1939, looking more closely we can find numerous decent family homes set in landscaped places and some lovely examples of housing design history, especially those built during the 1930s. Development of suburbia was not of course an isolated event, but part of an ongoing housing process and informed by the earlier Garden Cities movement.
Garden Cities combined the advantages of town, country and community and pioneered some well-designed, affordable housing even in the early 1900s including some then innovative ideas (such concrete render) to help keep costs down. Place and space was emphasised and is demonstrated in this 2008 PDF from the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MODA) on the subject of suburbia.
Suburban housing design broadly falls into two major camps: arts and crafts inspired and modernist influenced. The modernists were concerned with shaping society and bringing change – see other posts here for example on Lubetkin (including reference to Le Corbusier) who pioneered modernist design in Britain, as well as some pioneering health centres. Pure modernist architecture was out of the financial reach of many people and something more affordable began to emerge, often engaging a range of designs and features.
Here we are concerned with the more modern look than the arts and craft styles, but there are very few examples of true modernist houses in suburbia, and the term ‘modernistic’, an adjective describing modern ideas and standards, character and practice, is appropriate. Modernistic emphasises a break from the past, enabling a new form of home through new building technologies and amenities, sometimes with decorative touches. It meant innovation and aligned to greater wealth and access to mortgages. For some this represented a change to their social standing, consumer ability and increased leisure time. The suburban environment enabled multiple examples of modernist and deco informed detached and semi-detached houses and bungalows as development moved outward along roads and rails from the urban centre. In a sense this was ‘safe’ for property developers providing pre-designed, marketable homes for a new breed of owner occupiers now able to access mortgages as never before.
In a seemingly parallel world, others continued to endure poor conditions as shown in in the social documentary Housing Problems (1935). This interwar period was also a time of major council house building programmes, following the call for Homes fit for Heroes following the first world war and the Addison Act of 1919. (Incidentally this is the centenary year of this Act). Thousands remained trapped for years and years in really poor housing conditions and the film shows how modernist architects and social reformers including Maxwell Fry and Elizabeth Denby created ‘urban villages’ like Kensal House for the working classes (more on this another time, mentioned here as it is contemporary).
But back to our main subject. Suburban modernistic design is essentially privately owned and was part of the process of housing divide by both tenure and design in this is an era of the growth of owner occupation like never before. This modernistic form embraces emerging building technologies, use of concrete as precast or rendered, large suntrap windows with metal frames, perhaps some – but limited – decoration also popular at this time. Such design became a feature not just in suburbia, but also of the seaside and other locations, such as shown in this picture taken at Margate. Different design styles blur into one another and are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
One of the purist examples of a modernist house England has to be High and Over (1929-1931) in the otherwise leafy and arts and crafts dominated Amersham. Its design and construction apparently shocked local residents but is now Grade II* Listed by English Heritage as the first modernist International Style house built outside an urban area, in fact, built in Metroland. It is asymmetrical, cuboid, with a flat roof and large horizontal (landscape) windows with lots of glass to allow light, a feeling of clean hygienic lines and a white painted finish. This British Pathé film refers to it as the House of Dreams. It’s a large house and absolutely beautiful and is surrounded by the smaller (but still very ample) and also attractive sun houses.
Such housing was of course out of reach for so many and speculative developers were beginning of process of creating new suburbias. They would not wish market failure and therefore suburbia to some extent represents design ‘safety’ and emphasised homely domesticity. However some – such as the one pictured here – are still very desirable properties and retain their original aesthetic and character.
Brochures for the then named St Meryl estate, described as being “on the London side of Watford” and developed from 1933 represent this perfectly. The original 1936 sales brochure offered houses for sale set in a health giving countryside, with fresh air, spinneys and trees and emphasising the convenient links into London. The houses nodded toward modernist but with decorative features and were referred to as the most charming houses in Greater London and of advanced-contemporary manner.
There was an emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness with labour saving appliances. Plumbed in bathrooms and separate WCs became increasingly popular. These houses were about comfort, style, personality and were even fashion statements, all aspects of modernity represented in modernistic design: something new was emerging.
The sales brochure boasted modern, luxurious interiors: “All (properties) on St. Meryl Estate are fitted with kitchen cabinets, domestic boilers for hot water to kitchen and bathroom, chromium-plated taps, tiled bathroom, two electric power points and electric fire, modern tiles fireplace, draining board, etc. Gas and electric light laid on. Company’s water. Main drainage. Coal bunker supplied. Concrete paths. Large garden. Decorations to purchaser’s choice. No Road or Paving Charges. No legal costs.”
Bungalows (the word interestingly comes from India) soon followed at the St Meryl Estate and by 1938 a new brochure entitled: Bungalows: here they are! pictured the range of styles available for sale. Prices started at £550 for a standard type semi-detached with 1 bay window. The most expensive on the estate were with the deco type curve and crittal sunlight windows, a detached version with garage was on sale for £950, such as the one recently pictured here. Whilst the houses tended to be rendered and painted white, the bungalows had a mixture of brick construction, softening the external appearance and adding individuality.
There are of course not many of these 1930s houses and bungalows retaining their original character externally or internally through changes in ownership, maintenance, repair and improvement. Externally roofs have been replaced (some flat roofs now given way to traditional pitched roofs to better cope with the British climate) and extensions have been added changing the property footprint. The crittal windows were cold and drafty, their curved panes then impossible to replace and have been largely ‘upgraded’ with UPVC replacements, losing the shaped glass, and the traditional white cement painted in other colours.
Some have fallen into immense disrepair and risk demolition, such as this deco-inspired property one the Isle of Sheppey. When I visited in 2012, it was in a very sorry state with its future uncertain However there does seem to be good news for its future.
There are others of this era that retain their original external appearance. For example, Hampstead Heath’s 1935 Lytton Close must be quite unique as an entire street of similar houses and particularly stands out in its Garden Suburb surrounds which are otherwise of arts and crafts design. These houses are deco-inspired, with ocean liner architecture, crittal streamlined windows and suntrap roof gardens. There are also several in and around Bexley emphasising modernistic styles of the property developers then operating in that area, three are pictured in this post.
It wasn’t just houses, but apartments in similar design as shown here in the now Grade II Listed Capel Gardens in Pinner (1935-36). Again we see a modernistic mixture with an added sense of glamour represented by the so-called Hollywood balconies capturing a new cinema culture and boasting the then widely popular green tiles and crittal windows in a natural, health giving setting.
Also for the wealthier, Ealing Village is described as Grade II listed Dutch Colonial style. It is quite different to others included here but worthy of mention due to its 1934-6 construction. A mini-Hollywood designed for stars and staff of Ealing Studios, this development offered its residents glamour and health with modernistic interiors as well as landscaped gardens with a private clubhouse, swimming pool, tennis courts and croquet lawn for leisure time.
Finally, I am including Highfort Court (1935-6) because it fits the timeframe, it’s in suburban Kingsbury and I’m not sure quite where to place it design wise, perhaps it is more historicist in style and reference? This link describes this architect’s work as ‘extraordinary creations’. My main thoughts are the quote: ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ and it is certainly unique and there is a little more information here.
Who knows what may have followed had modernistic housing development not been so rudely interrupted by the second world war? What I love about doing this is I am always finding out unexpected things and every time I investigate something new, something else crops up. Housing really is a fascinating and creative subject.
Stewart, J. (2016) Housing and Hope: the influence of the interwar years in England, available from the iTunes Store: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/housing-and-hope/id1138338603?mt=11