London county council architects (act. c.1940–1965)
were a group of young, highly talented, and enterprising practitioners who looked back to, and drew inspiration from, the first generation of architects—the ‘band of brothers’—to work for the London county council (LCC) in the decade after its creation in 1889. Then, under its first Progressive (Liberal) administrations, the council's architecture department had been noted for the first housing schemes, such as those at Boundary Road and Millbank, that were both attractive and sanitary. After the Second World War those working in the four divisions of the LCC's architect's department—schools, housing, planning, and general—were likewise responsible for a remarkable and extensive programme of planning, rebuilding, and modernization of the capital's municipal buildings, open spaces, schools, and above all, housing, which had been severely depleted by the war (of the 98,000 dwellings owned by the LCC 11,000 had been damaged or destroyed).
The idealistic spirit that characterized, and bound together, the LCC's architects during the mid-twentieth century owed much to John Henry Forshaw (1895–1973), who was appointed as architect to the council in 1941. With Patrick Abercrombie, professor of town planning at University College, London, Forshaw wrote the County of London Plan
(1943), which proposed the reduction of overcrowding and the separation of housing from noxious industries, along with improved recreational facilities and transport. Forshaw reorganized the LCC's architect's department, and in 1944 introduced a pattern of working more fully developed by his successors. It was claimed that during this period the LCC had the world's largest architects' office: in 1936–7 it had 1240 staff, rising to 1577 in 1952–3, including 350 professional architects and trainees. Under Forshaw the department became less stratified and more efficient, based around a core design unit of twelve to sixteen staff—the most that could be managed by a senior architect. This was the essence of ‘group working’, fashionable since the late 1930s, for which the LCC became admired when it was fully implemented in 1950. Forshaw also set up training schemes with the Regent Street Polytechnic and the School of Building, Brixton, anticipating the shortfall of architects for reconstruction work after the war. It was a feature of the department that it included model makers, furniture designers, quantity surveyors, artists, and a sociologist (Margaret Willis), so that all aspects of a design could be considered in house.
Forshaw's planning ideas, as set out in the County of London Plan
, were first realized in 1943 in a housing scheme for Woodberry Down, Stoke Newington (completed 1948). Flats were set in rows to catch the sun rather than in traditional courtyards, and rose up to eight storeys to allow space for family houses while keeping densities high. Schools, shops, a library, and a health centre were intended to create a real community, not a dormitory suburb. Forshaw's scheme proceeded, albeit with increasing resistance from councillors more concerned to meet London's desperate housing needs. Elsewhere even Forshaw quietly abandoned many of the plan's ideals to meet expedients. When building resumed in 1945 the clerk of the council recommended that, to improve efficiency, housing should be designed by members of the LCC's valuer's department, hitherto responsible for site acquisition and management. Despite opposition from the architectural profession and the LCC staff association, the change was approved and Forshaw resigned.
The architectural profession was aghast at losing control over England's largest housing programme. Forshaw was succeeded early in 1946 by Robert Hogg Matthew, who was determined to win it back. The architects' opposition focused on the monotony of the schemes emerging from the valuer's department, the reliance of these designs on pre-war models, and the absence of open space or community facilities in completed work. Two young architects, Kenneth Campbell (1909–2002) and Kenneth Easton, openly complained in the Architects' Journal
about the mean new Minerva estate in Hackney, east London—four-storey walk-up flats on a barren site. Elsewhere cottage estates were being flung up in the green belt, with poor facilities and communications. Of greatest concern to the architects' office was the LCC's purchase in 1948 of fourteen sites at Roehampton—one retaining an eighteenth-century landscape by Capability Brown—which were to be overlaid with rows of low maisonette blocks. Opposition reached a head in the following year, when the influential architectural critic Jim Richards complained in a radio broadcast about the LCC's current expedience and ‘sheer bad architecture’. The council's leader, Isaac Hayward, invited other comments. The response was overwhelmingly hostile and, with the support of the LCC's town planning committee, control of future housing was returned to the architect's department in 1949.
Robert Matthew was already showing what the LCC could achieve with the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, designed in house (1948–9) and opened in 1951 on time and to budget. It was the only permanent building on the Festival of Britain's central site, and the choice of European modernist references and fine materials showed the potential richness of the period, had not austerity held sway. Most of the design team for the Royal Festival Hall were brought in on short contracts, but they were led by the LCC's incoming deputy architect, Leslie Martin, who in 1953 succeeded Matthew as architect, with a permanent staff under Peter Moro and Edwin Williams, who was responsible for designing the service areas and overseeing the building's construction. Martin served as architect to the LCC for three years and was succeeded by Hubert Bennett, a student contemporary of Moro's at the Regent Street Polytechnic and then county architect for the West Riding of Yorkshire. Bennett remained in post until 1971 and oversaw the implementation of many of the projects devised under Matthew and Martin, as well as important schemes such as the South Bank development of the 1960s.
Notwithstanding the significance of the Royal Festival Hall, the most important aspect of the LCC's work during the late 1940s was a programme of school building, which saw—under Campbell's direction—small groups of architects first achieve autonomy of design. However, permanent brick schools proved expensive and slow to build. In July 1949 Martin proposed using the prefabricated school system developed by Hills of West Bromwich, a variant of which had been used successfully in Hertfordshire. The LCC developed its own two-storey version for seventeen schools (1950–54), the first being Denmark Hill School, North Dulwich. Thereafter the LCC's schools division turned from primary to comprehensive institutions, with architects wrestling to accommodate buildings large enough to meet the government's requirement of a viable sixth form on restricted sites. Mixed schools, of which the first was again at Woodberry Down, were particularly challenging. The eventual solution comprised three four-storey blocks—the maximum permitted without lifts—set around an open courtyard, with a projecting entrance, dining, and administrative range. The schools division came subsequently to specialize in four-storey slabs, usually with a main hall, gymnasium, and top-lit technical workshops set in low wings—though sometimes even these were forced into the main block. Elliott School, built in 1953–6 under the leadership of George Trevett, is the most elegant, suffusing 1950s style in the detailing of its segmental-vaulted assembly hall and wavy shell roof. Strand School, Tulse Hill, reached nine storeys, and Sarah Siddons School, Paddington, eight. The culmination of the genre was Pimlico School (1964–70, dem. 2008) by John Bancroft (b
. 1928), a single, refined concrete spine containing the assembly hall, laboratories, and even a swimming pool. The LCC also produced many buildings for higher education, including the London College of Printing at Elephant and Castle (1964), with a thirteen-storey tower of teaching rooms over a slab of lecture theatres and workshops.
Having regained control from the valuer's department, in 1950 Robert Matthew created a new housing division under H. J. Whitfield Lewis (b
. 1911), with about 250 architects working in small groups. Its character was determined by LCC stalwarts brought mainly from the schools division, including Edward Hollamby, David Gregory-Jones (1925–1994), and Kenneth Campbell (who replaced Whitfield Lewis and served as chief housing architect between 1959 and 1974). Ultimately it was their collective interest in creating architecture for the public good, with an emphasis on planning and process, that won out. However, historians have focused on better-known names briefly attracted to senior posts in the department, including Michael Powell (1916–1971) (the elder brother of Sir Philip Powell), who joined in 1950 and became head of the schools division from 1956, and Colin Lucas, one of the pioneers of British modernism during the 1930s. Lucas's reputation served as a barrier to intrusions from the LCC's senior management and left his staff free to develop their own ideas. Colin St John Wilson, who worked for the LCC between 1950 and 1955, described job advertisements for the architects' office as ‘a summons to join the Forces again but in this case to win the peace by rebuilding London’ (private information). Cleeve Barr, Oliver Cox (b
. 1920), Brian Lemesle (Beak) Adams, and Anthony Garrod came from Hertfordshire county council, while recent graduates of the Architectural Association School of Architecture included Bill Howell and his wife, Gillian Howell [see under Howell, William Gough
], John Killick (1923/4–1971), and Stanley Amis.
This group worked with Wilson and others on an efficient maisonette plan, which they then cast into ten-storey slabs, built at Bentham Road, Hackney, at Loughborough Junction, Lambeth, and, most impressively, the Alton West estate, Roehampton (1952–5), with John Partridge (b
. 1923). Two groups could be identified within the LCC's housing division. First there were those architects who admired the gentle modernism adopted by Sweden's progressive housing programmes, termed ‘new empiricism’ by the architectural press. These included card-carrying communists like Kenneth Campbell and David Gregory-Jones. By contrast many of the incomers (especially those who qualified after the war) favoured the formalism of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The two groups—immortalized by Michael Frayn (in 1963) as ruminative herbivores (or ‘softs’) and predatory carnivores (‘hards’)—produced a creative hothouse that occasionally came to public attention, as when some hundred members of the department attended a debate organized by Wilson in a local pub. It may have been the formalists' success in commissioning new projects, such as Loughborough Junction and Alton West, that contributed to Robert Matthew's decision to leave the LCC in 1953.
The third division of the LCC's architects' office was concerned with town planning. Arthur Ling (1913–1995), the division's director between 1945 and 1955, provided layouts for early estates, such as Ackroydon, near Wimbledon Common (opened 1954), which was the LCC's first experiment in a mixed development of low- and high-rise properties in the Swedish style. The division subsequently specialized in planning schemes for whole redevelopment areas. Examples include the Stepney–Poplar comprehensive development area which, adopted in 1946, was remodelled as a series of neighbourhoods in line with the County of London Plan
, and was supervised by Percy Johnson-Marshall (1915–1993), an LCC employee from 1949 to 1959. Johnson-Marshall's brother, Stirrat Johnson-Marshall, joined Robert Matthew in private practice in 1956. At the Brandon estate, Southwark (1957), Edward Hollamby and Leslie Lane (1910–1991) combined slum clearance (including what were then the capital's tallest flats, at eighteen storeys) with a restoration scheme for rows of Victorian terraces.
The LCC's town planning division led two other major projects in south London. One was the rebuilding of Elephant and Castle as a shopping and transport hub; the commercial buildings were by private architects, with very mixed results. The second project was the development of the South Bank with offices and an arts complex. This was based around a layout with terraces and high-level bridges by Graeme Shankland (1917–1984), who joined the LCC's planning department in 1949. Leslie Martin took a personal interest in the enlargement and re-fronting of the Royal Festival Hall. Realized in 1963–7, the design was based on his work of a decade earlier, as modified by Robert Maxwell (b
. 1925) and others. For an additional small concert hall and art gallery Martin turned to a special group he had established under Norman Engleback to design the National Recreation Centre at Crystal Palace, opened in 1964. Like the revised Festival Hall, this was a highly articulated, heavily glazed structure. Engleback's group went on to design the South Bank's Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery, breaking the scheme into its constituent parts so as not to conflict with the solid bulk of the Festival Hall. First designs were made in 1957. The concept of buildings rising out of a walkway structure, with parking underneath, heralded a new form of continuous city planning—then taking shape around the world—but still radical for the late 1950s and controversial since its completion in 1968. While assistants on the scheme included Warren Chalk, Ron Herron, and (later) Dennis Crompton (b
. 1935)—future members of the design group Archigram—the South Bank owes most to the sense of process and materials developed by Engleback, who, with some moderation from Hubert Bennett, was also largely responsible for the buildings' handsome interiors.
The last of the LCC's four divisions—the general division—was responsible for programmes to design and construct old people's homes and fire stations (the latter to a distinctive common pattern). This department expanded rapidly in the late 1950s to take on the LCC's extensive programme of new housing outside London, such as ‘expanding’ towns like Bletchley. The slow pace of these agreements, and their indifferent results, prompted the LCC to push for the development of its own new town, for which it found a site at Hook, near Basingstoke, Hampshire. The design, prepared in 1959 by a team led by Graeme Shankland and Oliver Cox, offered the most extensive integration of building and traffic management attempted in Britain—the new town's central facilities being grouped on a deck over a river valley in which was placed the main road, with pedestrian walkways serving housing on the surrounding hillside. The scheme met local opposition, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government reversed its original support, and in summer 1960 the LCC agreed to develop the existing sites of Basingstoke, Andover, and Tadley instead. A book by Shankland and others on Hook enjoyed considerable influence among architectural students.
In April 1965 the London county council was superseded by the Greater London council (GLC). The architect's department was transferred, with a reduced function for housing; Michael Powell as education architect reported to the inner London education authority while nominally part of the GLC. Writing in 1965 Alison Smithson, who with her husband, Peter Smithson, was briefly an LCC employee (1949–50), recalled the post-war architect's department as:
a home from home: for foreign architects and planners it coped with work permits, bizarre qualifications, language barriers, metric minds; for the first job of the provincial in London it gave short hours, no real burden … In our day there was anybody from gentleman architects hit by the slump, chaps still wearing ARP suits carrying something in old sector wardens canvas mask covers, a be-bop messenger … the LCC was big, 1600 ‘designers’. It could be, and was, everyone's Uncle … Even developer's architects should at last feel shame if they now have to pause to compare their standard with what the LCC achieved in their own schemes … Too bad we did not lose the architects not employed by the LCC when it ceased to exist. (Architectural Design, 428)