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Contents Executive Summary




Le Corbusier


Contemporary City Unité d’habitation

Building of Roehampton


Post-War Britain London County Council The Alton Estate

The Dying Dream


Roehampton 50 years on


Regeneration of the Community Built to Last Why has Roehampton Survived?

Summing Up




Contents • 2

3 • 50 Years of Roehampton

Executive summary In the nineteen twenties and thirties Le Corbusier shocked and excited the world with radical ideas about how cities should be planned and built in the future. Tower blocks set in parkland, geometric designs and layouts, cities planned into zones by use and phrases such as “we must build in space”. The Alton Estate at Roehampton, a nineteen fifties post-war housing regeneration scheme, boldly applied Le Corbusier’s principles in the spirit he intended. Five formal geometric tower blocks of maisonettes are set in extensive open parkland overlooking Richmond park - remarkably similar to the Le Corbusier influenced Unite de Habitation. However, twenty-five years on, the story changes to a dying dream. Blocked refuse chutes, reduced levels of privacy, restricted use of the open space and occupancy polarising on the more deprived in society. The Alton Estate and its contemporaries were seen as dwellings unfit for habitation. Today the significant investment made by Wandsworth Council in improved transport, reduced crime, engendering a sense of community, combined with local initiatives to tackle waste management and liberate the park land have transformed the estate to a place that people are happy to live in. So far the Corbusien principles as applied at Roehampton have survived for 50 years, a benchmark suggested by Michael Fleetwood, and arguably have proved successful.

Executive Summary • 4

5 • 50 Years of Roehampton

Introduction Le Corbusier was an influential architect, planner and theorist of the nineteen twenties who proposed radical and utopian ideas of how the cities of the future should be planned and occupied. The use of high rise social housing, uniform geometric layouts, districts shaped by use, and the segregation of transport were key themes of Corbusier’s ideals. The post war housing shortage and urban regeneration programme presented a unique opportunity to architects of the fifties to build new towns, and to plan and reshape large sections of our towns and cities. A group of young architects in the London County Council, challenged at that time with designing a major housing regeneration project at Roehampton near to Richmond Park in London, seized on the opportunity to apply Le Corbusiers’s ideals This study reviews the radical planning ideas of Le Corbusier to provide a context for evaluating how they were incorporated at Roehampton. It then reviews the development is in three eras; 1950 - To understand what was built and why 1970 - To establish how it compared to many of its contemporaries developments which were then being criticised as socially inadequate, poorly constructed eyesores. 2006 - To see why it has remained and is regarded by many as a success, when many of its contemporaries have been demolished

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7 • 50 Years of Roehampton

Le Corbusier Contemporary City

A Contemporary City was conceived as one of Le Corbusier’s masterplans of the utopian city, the case of the Contemporary City of Three Million Inhabitants was shown at the Salon d’Automne, Paris in November 19221. Le Corbusier approached the design of the city in a scientific manner, using technical analysis and architectural synthesis, “Proceeding in the manner of the investigator in his laboratory”. He established that the problem with the cities of today (meaning in 1922) was there lack of geometrical design meaning that they are dying through there hap hazard arrangement.2 Uniformity he believed was the answer, establishing that the result of a true geometrical layout is repetition, which in tern leads to standardisation and that once there is standardisation then the building process can be industrialised.3


Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p163 Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p175 3 Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p175 2

Le Corbusier • 8

The city is designed around the main station which is at the very centre of the city, “The only place for the station is in the centre of the city.” 4, surrounding the station are the 24 sky-scrapers which form the business and hotel district of the city5 sat in 3,600,000 square yards of gardens and parks.6 Surrounding the centre of the city are the residential quarters which houses the ‘cellular’ residential blocks, six double stories high (six levels of maisonettes) with ‘hanging gardens’ over looking the park land which lies between the residential blocks.7 Surrounding the city is the protected zone, and area of park land in which building is prohibited, beyond which lies the garden cities where the sub-urban dwellers would reside. Le Corbusier theorised on the health implications of ‘the modern city’ (from the nineteenth century) suggesting that the “…its demands affect our nervous system in away that grows more and more dangerous.”8 He suggests that the solution to this is quiet fresh air and open spaces, the city should be constructed vertically with the residential blocks set back from the streets over looking large parks.



Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p170 Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p172 6 Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p171 7 Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p174 8 Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. p167 5

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Unité d’habitation


Unité d’habitation

Le Corbusier was approached by the French Minister of Reconstruction in 1945 to create a prototype to address the housing shortage in France, which was so acute as to demand four million dwellings within ten years. Le Corbusier and his team of experts spent five years developing a prototypehousing scheme for Marseilles known at the time as the Marseilles Block10. Corbusier was heavily influence by the ideas of an atominous unity from Fourier’s Phalanstere “a nineteenth-century commune of manageable size which would determine its own collective destiny”11 and established ‘A Habitational Unite Size’2 which consisted of 337 flats, housing 1600 people. The structure is of reinforced-concrete and sits on stout pilotis containing the services, elevating the building on to pilotis allows the landscape to flow freely underneath. The exposed concrete of the exterior of the building is not only a


My book Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury from the French L’Unite d’Habitation de Marseille (London: The Harvill Press, 1953) p.7/8. 11 Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury from the French L’Unite d’Habitation de Marseille (London: The Harvill Press, 1953) 10

Le Corbusier • 10

design decision but comes as a result of the post war shortage of materials and skilled labour. The modular geometric design of the Unité causes repetition-allowing elements of the building to be mass-produced, thus increasing the speed of building and lowering costs. Corbusier also used this modular design to establish the way in which people are housed in the Unité, and can be best understood using the analogy of a wine rack, the wine rack- concrete frame houses the bottle – which is the family unit, be it rich or poor, small or large. The bottles can be placed anywhere in the wine rack not concerning as to what is in the bottle.12

The layout of the block is such that each apartment spans its full width, this is an important design decision by Corbusier as it allows as much light into each apartment as possible and the greatest access to views, having openings on each side of the block also allows for the use of cross ventilation to keep them cool. Le Corbusier felt strongly about the affect the dwelling has on the family unit, and thus that each apartment in the Unité should encourage the activities intended to happen within the dwelling to go on.13

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Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block p16

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Building of Roehampton Post-War Britain Following the Second World War the people of Britain were left with a huge housing crisis, a quarter of all homes had been destroyed during the blitz, and house building had come to a stand still. The newly elected Labour government with the newly created welfare state wanted to tackle housing as up-most priority.14

London County Council The real starting point for the London County Council or L.C.C. was its contributions to the Festival of Britain. Designed with the feel good factor in mind the festival was seen as an opportunity to leave the austerity of the Second World War behind, bringing colour and modern architecture to London’s South Bank. The festival symbolised a new society and a new optimism, acting as a platform for modern architecture.15 One of the key features of the festival of Britain was the Royal Festival Hall, which was one of the first post war buildings in Britain to not only be commissioned by London County Council but also to be designed and built by the L.C.C, Leslie Martin was appointed to run the festival hall project.

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Homes for Heroes, (London: BBC, 2004) Charles Jencks, Homes for Heroes, (London: BBC, 2004) Building of Roehampton • 12

The Alton Estate The Alton Estate Roehampton was designed by a group of young architects at London County Council under Lesley Martin in the mid fifties. The L.C.C became the place where the young and radical architects aspired to work, unlike today where they are more likely to aspire to work in a Norman Foster, Richard Rogers practice.16 The estate was built in two stages by rival teams within the L.C.C who both took inspiration from very different sources, “Almost as if the theoretical debate was being argued out in practice”.17

The estate is located next to the village of Roehampton on the north border of Richmond Park, London. The estate comes under the current borough of Wandsworth.

Site Plan18 16 17

Jonathan Glancey, Homes for Heroes, (London: BBC, 2004) Richard Rogers, Homes for Heroes, (London: BBC, 2004)

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Alton East takes its influences from Scandinavia using traditional materials, the buildings however being modern in design. Many see this approach as a much more mild approach and feel that the Scandinavian style can become monotonous and boring requiring a much more vigorous approach.

The designers of Alton West took this more vigorous approach. Alton west is seen to have a much more Mediterranean feel about it “the spirit of Le Corbusier presides over everything.”19 The blocks are arranged in much more formal patterns within the park land, the blocks themselves constructed using a formal geometry. Richard Rogers likes the level of geometrical form to that of a Palladian house.20 The five main blocks that make up Alton west sit on Corbusien style Pilotis, allowing the surrounding parkland to appear to run seamlessly under the blocks. Each block is eleven stories, made up of five levels of two-story maisonettes. The maisonettes appear to have been slotted into the mass concrete frame which forms the Unité style brise-soleil and balcony access. The juxtapositioning of the slab blocks means that one block is not over looking another but looking past it towards Richmond Park.



Architects’ Journal (March 30 , 1977) p594 Richard Rogers, Homes for Heroes, (London: BBC, 2004) 20 Richard Rogers, Homes for Heroes, (London: BBC, 2004) 19

Building of Roehampton • 14


Each maisonette is similar to a traditional

house in layout with living space downstairs, bedrooms upstairs. The internal layout is also remarkably similar to that of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation with many of the devises used by Corbusier also being used; such as full width flats so as to provide cross ventilation, brisesoleil which while in Marseilles are used to block the sun in Roehampton make sun traps.

Alton West shortly after completion


Building (September 1953) p341

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Block Flat Plan


The Dying Dream The Alton estate had set out to “carry us forward to a new and better tomorrow’22 culminating the ideas of post war modernism, taking influences towards the vision of Utopia “a synthesis of social and architectural aspirations”23

So why in 1977 is the estate so far from the ideals it set out to achieve? The estate aimed to give a high standard of housing to those to which economic forces had denied, however it was these economic forces that started the down turn of Roehampton. The Labour government and welfare state at the time the estate was built anticipated that the influence the economy had on housing would be tamed – especially in light of the political climate in Russia at the time which leant towards a more socialist society. However the economic forces remained strong resulting in those who could afford their house with a garden did so and Roehampton just became more social housing. Le Corbusier’s vision was not of slab blocks filled with the more deprived in society but a colourful mixture of people from all walks of life and social backgrounds.

The design of the estate also proved to become problematic, not able to adapt to the changes in society, or in some cases society not able to adapt to the new modernist designs. With the exception of a handful of ground floor flats and

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Architects’ Journal 1977, p597 Michael Fleetwood, Architects’ Journal 1977 The Dying Dream • 16

maisonettes none of the dwellings have private gardens, just shared public parkland between the blocks. However, British society has always carried a stigma with not owning your own house in its own plot of land, not renting a flat in a slab block and sharing your land with everyone else on the estate. It is often said that “… an Englishman’s home is his castle”. The estate management has also hindered the success of the estate, filling the public spaces with signs informing residence “No Ball Games” and “Keep off the Grass” effectively saying that the parkland is there for you to look at but not use, an aspect which certainly distracts from Le Corbusier’s vision. Tenants in the slab blocks also had to contend with reduced levels of privacy as the access balconies are so narrow so as that you have to pass closely in front of your neighbour’s kitchen windows. Those who live at the beginning of the access balconies also have to endure the noise and smell resulting from being situated next to the under sized garbage shoots, which frequently became blocked. Experimenting with concrete construction also played its part in the blocks demise, thermal bridging and poor ventilation resulted in condensation forming in the maisonettes.

State of “The Blocks”, Architects’ Journal 1977

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Roehampton 50 Years on “Midwinter morning, first impressions – if ever the expression ‘location, location, location’ was relevant, it is here. The most imposing thing about the area is the feeling of space, the five large slab blocks sit elegantly on columns within the vast park just lightly touching the ground, as if not to disturb it. Upon arrival the blocks dominate the sky line but don’t however feel imposing, they sit back at the top of the hill scaled by there distance and the whole vista has feel of looking up at the Royal Crescent in Bath. The Park is alive with people walking dogs, children out with their fathers and estates keepers collecting rubbish. Community Support officers take the time out to talk to people waiting for buses – of which there are many standing waiting to take residents off to various parts of London. People say ‘hello’ as they pass each other in the street and the shopping street has the same bustling nature of a market, which all gives an overwhelming sense of community. The overall nature of the place is very unthreatening considering that it is an inner-London council estate and in ones mind could be linked with such estates as Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham the scene of riots 20 years ago. The blocks themselves appear to be very well kept, there were no signs of graffiti or vandalism, and the structure has aged well. The concrete façade still has vibrancy about it and the set back windows are not faded or crumbling………….”

Roehampton 50 Years on • 18


Alton Estate West

Le Corbusier would ,know doubt, be delighted to find an such a good example of his ideals – a proud set of buildings in acres of parkland still serving the community. What accounts for the transformation from the dark days of the nineteen seventies to the Roehampton of today?

Regeneration of the Community During the past ten years the council in charge of running the estate, now Wandsworth Borough Council, has injected large amounts of money into the regeneration of the area, a range of the aspects invested in are:•

Increasing the number Police officers in Roehampton as part of the Safer Neighbourhood Scheme to in order to combat crime and increase safety.


Phillip Wilson, 2007

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Reaching the Isolated Elderly in Roehampton, part of a scheme to bridge generation gap on the estate and help build a sense of community

Planning for a Saturday market to allow residence access to fresh health food.

Hub for Business and employment advice to encourage businesses to set up in the area and increase local employment levels.25

These schemes are design to improve the overall standard of living in the area and thus make the area more desirable to live in.

Built to last Management of the estate has been improved also to favour residents. Roads are no longer covered with parking restrictions, park areas have been opened up to free use by all- a children’s play area has even been created to actively encourage children to play in the open spaces. In affect the park land between the blocks has been handed back to the residents. One of the criticisms of the blocks in the 1970’s was there in ability to handle the increased amounts of household waste, causing rubbish to get stuck in the rubbish shoots, pile up in the bin stores and subsequently get blown around the estate. The council now employs waste management persons to keep on top of the rubbish build ups, also the introduction of a recycling scheme on the estate as resulted in the amount of rubbish being reduced. 25

Investment areas sourced from: Roehampton Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy ( and Roehampton Regeneration and Safety Overview ( Paper No 06-668 Roehampton 50 Years on • 20

Why has Roehampton survived to be a success, while so many of its contemporary’s have failed and since been pulled down? A large number of Roehamptons failed contemporaries differ from the five slab blocks in many ways; Roehampton stayed true to Corbusier ideals situating the blocks in large areas of park land, evenly spaced out to create habitable open space between the blocks. Others however were built much more closely together with a precinct between them as apposed to park land. This made them very unappealing places to live, and the juxtapositioning of the blocks and precincts made them very difficult to police therefore crime was often high.

Roehampton also has the advantage of bordering Richmond Park, giving easy access to even larger areas of park land; having access to such large amounts of open space makes the slab block flats more appealing when compared to the other alternatives around the London area, where flats will often have no gardens or easy access to public gardens.

One factor which led to the demise of many similar high rise estates was the structural integrity of the buildings themselves; a large number had major problems with damp as a result of condensation forming on cold bridged structural elements in the poorly ventilated flats. Damp also occurred due to horizontal moisture penetration through poor construction techniques, an example of which is Balloon Woods in Nottingham, pulled down in the early 21 • 50 Years of Roehampton

Eighties when it was decided that the levels of damp and mould in the flats made them a health hazard. The Roehampton blocks however have avoided such an end down to there initial well built and designed construction, having the flats span the full width of the block allowing cross ventilation helps stop the flats becoming damp.

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Summing Up In his 1977 article in the Architects’ Journal Michael Fleetwood wrote “To make a reasonable historical assessment of a work of art or architecture, we probably need a minimum span of 50 years.” Roehampton has had its 50 years now so how has it faired? The state of Roehampton has by no means been a plato, like all areas it has peeked and troughed. Roehampton in its design, in part, stuck very closely to Le Corbusier’s principles which may be reason to its success. Many of Roehampton’s contemporaries which deviated more from Corbusier’s ideals have been less successful and since been demolished. The main laps period of the Alton estate was during the nineteen-seventies when elsewhere around the country many other high-rise estates were being built, many of which were of poor build quality and thus caused high-rise developments to become very unpopular places to live. Its difficult to determine whether the failings of the estate during the 1970’s was down to poor design or due to the sociological opinions of the time which did not fit in which Corbusien principle on which the Roehampton estate’s design is based. So what does the future hold in store for the Roehampton Estate, will it be able to survive another 50 years, especially with the increasing pressures to live in an environmentally sustainable way, can the 1950’s blocks adapt to become sustainable? Summing Up • 24

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Bibliography Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury from the French L’Unite d’Habitation de Marseille (London: The Harvill Press, 1953)

Le Corbusier, The City of tomorrow and its planning. (New York: Dover Publications, 1987)

Jean-Louis Cohen, Le Corbusier.(Hohenzollernring: Taschen, 2004)

The Builder, July 31st, 1953. P164-165

Building, September 1953. P340-342

Architectural Design, February 1955. P50-51

Architect and Building News, June 11th, 1958. P766-771

Architects’ Journal, November 5th, 1959. P461-477

Architects’ Journal, March 30th, 1977. P593-60

Roslind Bayley, Celebrating Special Buildings, The Case for Conserving PostWar Public Housing. 2002

Bibliography • 26

50 years of roehampton  

50 years of roehampton