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1950s Liveable London: A Tour of the Alton Estate, Roehampton

August 7, 2014
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Slab block (detail), Alton West, London County Council Architects’ Department, 1954 to 1958

I recently went on a Twentieth Century Society tour of the Alton Estate, Roehampton, South West London. This well-organised event, held in conjunction with the Royal Town Planning Institute, led us through one of the biggest planned housing developments in Europe, showing us that this is an estate of two halves – Alton East and Alton West.

London County Council’s ‘Portsmouth Road Group’ of architects designed Alton East (built 1952 to 1955). The estate shows the influence of English vernacular housing, such as earlier LCC cottage housing estates (one is nearby at Dover House Road), and Swedish welfare state housing, particularly Stockholm’s Danviksklippan estate.

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Point blocks, Alton East, London County Council Architects’ Department, 1952 to 1955

The mixed development of point blocks, maisonettes and houses sits picturesquely in former Victorian villa gardens that retain many fine trees. The point blocks have pale cream brick skins, projecting balconies and tile nameplates. They were the first UK high-rise blocks to have mechanically ventilated bathrooms, which meant each floor could have four flats. The traditional-style, red brick houses, with pitched roofs and timber cladding, are set in winding, garden city type roads. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner aptly describes Alton East as ‘architecture at ease’.

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‘Traditional’ housing, Alton East, London County Council Architects’ Department, 1952 to 1955

We passed the (altered) International Style house at 26 Bessborough Road by Connell, Ward and Lucas (1938) and into Alton West (built 1954 to 1957). At four times the size of Alton East, this estate has a landscape on a grander scale. The buildings here are by younger, Le Corbusier-influenced, LCC architects and have a harder edged feel that epitomises art historian Reyner Banham’s New Brutalism. The point blocks are faced in aggregate (Dorset shingle and Derbyshire spar) and have no projecting balconies.

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Slab block, Alton West, London County Council Architects’ Department, 1954 to 1958

What makes Alton West really special are the five slab blocks raised on piloti (hence their local name, ‘stilt town’). These blocks, inspired by the grid-like façade of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’ Habitation, Marseille, make an imposing sight at the top of the specially landscaped Downshire Field. Pevsner declared that ‘the slabs are extremely interesting but unquestionably ruthless in their rhythm’.

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Slab block (detail), Alton West, London County Council Architects’ Department, 1954 to 1958

Despite some urban deprivation, Jonny Moore, working on Wandsworth Council’s Alton Estate masterplan and co-organiser of the tour, has had no trouble here and was shocked by my experience on the day. I lagged behind the group whilst photographing quaint old people’s bungalows. Two track-suited men took exception to my picture taking and demanded my camera. They did not seem the negotiating type, so I sprinted up Downshire Field to re-join the group. I certainly appreciated the post tour pint in a Roehampton pub.

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Bungalow, Alton West, London County Council Architects’ Department, 1954 to 1958

• A version of this blog post will appear in C20, the Twentieth Century Society’s magazine

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