|Architect||Lutyens, Sir Edwin|
|Address||Page Street/Vincent Street/Regency Street SW1|
|Building Type||Perimeter block|
Slab, gallery access
|Number of Dwellings||c. 600|
|Dwelling Types||studio, 1,2 & 3 BR|
|brick, Portland cement, Portland stone|
|Ancillary Services||shops, parks|
Sir Edwin Lutyens was an unusual choice to design social housing in Westminster. He had never designed housing before and his reputation was based on the design of fine houses for wealthy clients. But Lutyens was working as the consulting architect for Grosvenor House nearby and the Duke of Westminster donated land to the city for the construction of workers’ housing with the stipulation that Lutyens would be the architect. The dilapidated courts, which existed previously on the site, had suffered from flooding and were condemned by the Westminster Medical officer of Health in 1928 and as a result had been demolished. Called the Grosvenor Estate, the site, not far from the Parliament buildings in Westminster, covered a large area in a north-south alignment on both sides of Page Street.
Lutyens used a narrow, 6-story high gallery-access slab as the basic building block. The standard courtyard block has 96 dwellings divided between studio, 1,2 & 3 bedroom types. Altogether there are about 600 dwellings in Grosvenor Estate. The long gallery design bares a strong resemblance to the zeilenbau slabs typical to the social housing being built in other countries in the late 1920’s and 30’s. Here, however, the gallery element is wrapped around a paved courtyard forming a large “U” shape that is open at the south end. The entrance courtyards are partially landscaped with planters. There is a freestanding, one-story-high pavilion at the south end of each courtyard that functions as an entrance gatehouse. While the gallery buildings are quite modernist in their general appearance with repetitive windows, and an absence of detail, the pavilions seem to be vernacular/classicist quotes from the houses of Lutyens more famous past: symmetrical, classical, decorated pavilions that are actually shops. Cast iron fences and gates to either side give a view of the courtyard beyond and reinforce the sense of openness along the south side of the apartment blocks. The basic “U” type was modified slightly in an elongated version in the blocks between Page and Vincent Street to the south slipping past a group of existing buildings. Here the long sides step from 6 – 5-stories. In the narrow block along the south side of Vincent Street, a much-abbreviated “U” type is used that fronts the street but is quite shallow, forming narrow courtyards that are open to the south.
The typical building plan is organized with an open gallery around the courtyard with kitchens, baths, and some bedrooms along this side while all of the living spaces and most of the bedrooms face the landscaped space between courtyard blocks. Three different stairs at mid-building in each block provide access to the upper levels. There are separate entrances into a hallway and kitchen area from the wide gallery. Originally each apartment had a lavatory room and kitchen but no bath. In the 1960’s most of the kitchens were divided to create separate bathrooms and, in later renovations in the 1980’s, the original bed-sitting dwellings at the north end and corners of the buildings were changed into one and two bedroom units. The lavatories were a controversial feature as most working class housing at the time had outside toilets, and these were criticized as being unhygienic. The apartments were originally heated with coal stoves. Coal was stored in a bin next to the entry. Gas was also used for heat in the smaller rooms and for cooking. Two of these courtyard blocks were built and dedicated by the Queen in 1930, in the first phase of construction.
The modernist, modular quality of the individual buildings and of the whole complex-- it seems to be completely in the grasp of precise modular grid—is reinforced by the striking checkerboard pattern of the exterior walls. The balustrades of the galleries are faced in Portland cement, which gives the courtyard facades a powerful horizontal organization. While the galleries are made of reinforced concrete, brick piers give the appearance of an alternating pattern of structure to the solid/void massing of the courtyard facades. On the outside walls, alternating the silver toned brick and white Portland cement panels results in a dominant checkerboard pattern that uses the same horizontal module. The pattern is completed with the repetitive double hung windows that fill alternate brick panels. The effect of this is to break down the large, undifferentiated expanse of masonry walls and helps to integrate the double-hung windows into the overall composition. Portland stone is used as a plinth at the first floor, around the courtyard and for details of the shop pavilions. Wrapping the checkerboard pattern around the corner at the ends of the gallery slab is an important improvement over the blank end elevations of typical zeilenbau slabs creating the impression of a series of narrow towers along Page and Vincent Street. The use of brick and the alternating panels of Portland cement, and the classical details of the shop pavilions suggest vernacular overlays to what is certainly a very un-Lutyens-like design.
Grosvenor is an early example of the use of the type of access-gallery building that became one of the hallmarks of English social housing of the post-WWII years. This was an idea promoted by the Alison and Peter Smithson in their Golden Lane competition project of the 1950’s as “streets-in-the-air”, a concept to recreate the social and spatial qualities of a village street in the access system of hi-rise residential buildings. Lutyens’ buildings are only 5 & 6-floors high so the contained space of the courtyard is visible from the open gallery. Also, when the gallery occurs at every floor, there are fewer dwellings per gallery and, therefore, this space seems to belong more to each individual dwelling. The gallery type, however, was more often used as a skip-stop section type where buildings contained a combination of flats and maisonettes. Here the gallery is used by many people and becomes much less the domain of the individual apartment. The economy version of the gallery type that came to so widely used in the UK, however, housing estates like Park Hill in Sheffield (that was the built version of the Smithson Golden Lane project), the skip-stop slabs at Roehampton Estate in London, or many other examples of English social housing of the 1960’s and 1970’s, usually had neither the spatial quality nor the social amenities of Lutyens’ design.
Jones, Edward & Chriustopher Woodward, A Guide To The Archigecture of London, Van Nostrand, Reinhold, N.Y., 1983, pp. 321.