Suburban Modernism in Hove

Suburban Modernism in Hove

In the third of his articles on the unsung heroes of Brighton’s housing, Richard Bingham visits Park Gate in Hove.

Figure 1: The front façade along Somerhill Road

As my colleague at The Brighton Society, Jeremy Mustoe, puts it: “Park Gate is just the ticket: low-rise, high density flats built around courtyards using traditional materials” (Figure 1).

Park Gate was completed in 1960. It is one of many high density residential developments designed by Eric Lyons for the developers Span. Other notable projects include Highsett in Cambridge (1960) and New Ash Green in Kent (1967-1969). The unusual company name had a point behind it: the aspiration to span – or bridge – the gap between, on the one hand, mediocre standards of design found in speculative housing and, on the other hand, the prohibitive expense of a one-off, architect-designed private residence.

Park Gate occupies a suburban site on Somerhill Road, not far from central Hove. Its neighbour is St Ann’s Well Gardens, that leafy haunt of grunting tennis players and yummy mummies. To the south is Lansdowne Road, where Georgian Brunswick Town ran out of steam. Between here and the Old Shoreham Road, many of the large Victorian villas have given way to purpose built, low rise blocks of flats. Four-storey Park Gate remains the most interesting.

Courtyards and Landscaping

The aerial view of Park Gate reveals the most distinctive aspect of Lyons’ work: the integration of landscaping with building (Figure 2). The two separate blocks are H-shaped with an extended leg on each. These interlocking blocks mean that someone walking through Park Gate experiences the urban landscape as “a sequence of dissolving courtyards”. 1Ian Nairn, “The More We Are Together”, Omnibus documentary first broadcast 4th May 1969, BBC iPlayer, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01rwl9f/omnibus-the-more-we-are-together, accessed 15th February 2024.

Figure 2: aerial view of the site © Google

Courtyards are nothing new, of course. In England, Eric Lyons would have taken inspiration from the quads of Oxbridge colleges and the medieval Inns of Court. In Brighton, he also had the exemplar of the city’s famous Regency squares – terraced houses arranged around enclosed gardens. As an architectural writer noted at the time, the care and attention Lyons paid to landscaping was: almost universally absent from normal ‘spec’ building…This does not mean that Lyons can plan a pretty garden and has somehow persuaded Span to pay for it. The whole approach is through landscape. The landscape, the design of houses within an environment, is that starting point of the design. 2Furneaux Jordan, quoted in Simms, B, Eric Lyons and Span, RIBA Publishing, 2006, p 35.

To achieve this ambition, Lyons worked closely with landscape architect Ivor Cunningham, who became a partner in the Lyons practice. Substantial green space given over to mature planting rather than just mowed lawn is characteristic of all Span developments (Figure 3).

Figure 3: mature planting at Park Gate on a winter’s day

And yet all this landscaping does not detract from the density Lyons achieved at Park Gate. The original development provided 47 modestly-sized flats on a 1.3 acre site at a density of 90 dwellings per square hectare.3[1] Simms (ibid) p 198.This is almost double the minimum density for an urban site of 50 dwellings per hectare as recommended by the government as late as 1997.

Suburban Modernism

Eric Lyons’ Modernist credentials could hardly be more impeccable. His first job was with Walter Gropius, the former Bauhaus director and German émigré whose work helped smuggle continental Modernism into post-war England. Lyons’ work represents a wholesale adaptation of the International Style to suit the English predilection for traditional building materials and decorative details.

The horizontal orientation of the façade along Somerhill Road is obvious (Figure 1). However, the glazing bars sacrifice the ribbon windows of Modernism for the convenience of a variety of openers. Likewise, the facades are tile-hung and the structure is made of brick rather than concrete. Nothing to frighten the horses there, then.

Two significant traces of Modernism remain. First, the services tower at the top of the building (Figure 1) follows the Modernist dictum that form should follow function, not disguise it beneath decorative features. Lyons’ service tower happily flaunts its function of housing the lift machinery.4Although the glass walls make this feature far less belligerent than Lyons’ Brutalist contemporaries. See, for example, the concrete pillboxes that contain the services at the Institute of Education, Denys Lasdun’s concrete masterpiece in London’s Bloomsbury (1970).Set stubbornly off centre, the tower also lightens the monotony of the façade’s rectangular profile.

In the same way, the extruded entrance porch with its stylish modern lettering relieves the flatness of Park Gate’s frontal façade (Figure 4). In a second echo of Lyons’ early training in the International Style, the entranceway blurs the boundary between inside and outside in an elegant fashion that recalls Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Entering Park Gate though the main doors, one would expect to find oneself in an enclosed entrance hall. Instead, immediately after an open interior porch raised on white piloti – another echo of Le Corbusier – one finds oneself in the garden. Especially on a summer’s evening after a long day’s work, it is easy to imagine a resident’s heart lifting a little as they walk towards their own front door past the flower beds and through the “dissolving courtyards”. The open porch advertises the extensive landscaping and was used again by Lyons at the blocks of flats at Highsett (1960) and at Southrow in Blackheath (1963).

Figure 4: the entranceway at Park Gate showing the open porch

In a famous article in the Architectural Review of December 1955, Rayner Banham lambasted what had come to be called “The New Humanism”. This post-war style of domestic architecture used the kind of traditional and vernacular building materials and decorative details that remained popular with the public but were anathema to purists. Banham names some of the usual suspects: “brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate) – picturesque detailing without picturesque planning.”5https://www.architectural-review.com/archive/the-new-brutalism-by-reyner-banham accessed 14th February 2024.

(Figure 5) shows an example of this “New Humanism” at the Alton East Estate, designed by London County Council architects and influenced by Swedish post-war architecture.6For post-war British architects at the LCC and further afield, Swedish architects in particular seemed to be designing populist housing types well-suited to advancing the aims of the evolving welfare state. In an article for Architectural Review of 1960, Lyons published a Danish scheme by Jorn Utzon that arranged sixty courtyard houses arranged around communal gardens (Jan Woudstra, “Landscape first and last”, in Simms, B. 2006). Lyons’ own furniture designs from the period include a bentwood, flat-packed chair worthy of IKEA. The Architect in Society: Eric Lyons, his circle and his values”, Neil Bingham, in Simms, B (2006). At Park Gate, Lyons characteristically plumps for a flat roof, yet his design nonetheless features brick cross wall construction, small windows and a wide array of picturesque detailing including traditional tile-hanging and pierced concrete bricks (Figure 6) as well as timber cladding (Figure 3). Despite Banham’s evident distaste for “New Humanism”, Park Gate displays both picturesque planning and picturesque detail. Indeed, it has been called an example of Romantic Modernism.7Jan Woudstra, “Landscape first and last”, in Simms, B (2006).

Figure 5: Terraced housing at Alton East. 1953-56 (Photo: “The New Brutalism”, Reynar Benham, “The Architectural Review”, 9th December 1955).
Figure 6: tile hung elevations contrasting with the decorative use of pierced concrete bricks

The rise and fall of Span

Span was not Eric Lyons’ only client. His largest local authority commission was the World’s End estate, a group of eight tower blocks near the banks of the Thames at Chelsea.8Elain Harwood, “Building for Span and the public sector”, in Simms, B (2006).However, Lyons is best remembered as the creative powerhouse behind Span.

The company formed after Lyons met homes developer Geoff Townsend.9Neil Bingham, “The Architect in Society: Eric Lyons, his circle and his values”, in Simms, B (2006).Lyons was an architect with a good head for business, and Townsend was an entrepreneur who had been trained as an architect. The combination was auspicious, especially when they were joined by Leslie Bilsby, a very well-connected builder and an enthusiast for modern architecture. Together, Lyons, Townsend and Bilsby targeted a niche market best summarised in a cartoon of 1975, by which time Lyons had become the new President of RIBA. According to the cartoonist, Span built “Modest Homes for the Gentry”.10“The Architect in Society: Eric Lyons, his circle and his values”, Neil Bingham, in Simms, B (2006).

Span projects were built in desirable suburban locations such as Blackheath, Twickenham and, indeed, Hove. Their homes were not grand – there were blocks of flats and small terraces as well as larger residences – but the modernity of the designs was sufficient to indicate the advanced tastes of their owners.

Span houses also offered owners what we would call today a lifestyle. Covenants established residents’ associations for each development. Their responsibility was to maintain the shared areas but also to create a community. There were baby-sitting circles, bring-a-dish lunches in the communal gardens and even fund-raising events for local charities.11Simms, B, “Community and common space: the tole of residents’ societies, in Simms, B (2006).

In 1969, Ian Nairn presented an amusing BBC documentary about Span. Its title – The More We Are Together – emphasised the importance to Span of a polite version of communal living.12“The More We Are Together”, BBC iPlayer, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01rwl9f/omnibus-the-more-we-are-together, accessed 15th February 2024.One young mother interviewed for the documentary commented: “You have this problem of being a miserable married women because you are tied to the sink, etc. But here you didn’t feel like that. At least I don’t. I like living here.”13To make life more convenient for stay-at-home parents, Park Gate includes buggy parks at the bottom of both blocks. In contrast, it was said that many working class women decanted from so-called slums were struggling with feelings of loneliness in their tower blocks and new towns.

A visit to Park Gate by a delegation from the Twentieth Century Society in 2016 confirmed the convenience of running a Span household. The review noted the buggy parks on the ground floor and the hatch from the kitchen into the hall allowing for groceries to be delivered. It also noted the stylishness of the finishes in the public areas: “terrazzo flooring and beautifully detailed coloured glass and handrails in the stairs, giving the solidity of an English home a light and continental air of convenience and efficiency.”14The Twentieth Century Society, “A report on our visit to Hove”, https://c20society.org.uk/c20-regions/a-report-of-our-visit-to-hove-in-may#dismiss-cookie-notice, accessed 23rd February 2024.

In the Omnibus documentary of 1969, a male resident states his preference for being surrounded by people “at the same income level”. One of Span’s brochures boasted about the typical Span householder: “the younger professional man, company administrator or business executive seeking a home to reflect his good tastes and judgement…people who like children and music and laughter, who like entertaining, good talk, Sundays that dawdle between The Observer and The Sunday Times.15Simms, B, “Community and common space: the role of residents’ societies”, in Simms, B (2006).The pitch here is not only aimed at a middle class audience. It also targets a younger, more liberal family well-suited to the informality of open plan living evident in many Span interiors. 

However, Ian Nairn was rather alarmed by the monocultural aspect of the Span way of life. He recounts how, on entering one Span estate, he was challenged by a six year old who told him sternly that the grounds were private.

It seems that the communal aspirations of Span were already rubbing up against an increasing tendency towards the privatisation of space. One of the concerns expressed by some original Span residents was the overlooking of one flat by another across the courtyards. Barbara Simms suggests that, in response, today’s residents use drawn curtains and shrubbery partitions to guarantee their privacy.16Simms, B, “Community and common space: the role of residents’ societies”, in Simms, B (2006).

In Lyons’ defence, his most ambitious project for Span was the brand new community of New Ash Green in Kent (1967-1969). Here, in addition to a wide range of housing types made available for sale, 450 homes were offered to Greater London Council for tenants on their waiting list.17Ellard, P. “New Ash Green: Span’s ‘latter 20th century village’ in Kent”, in Simms, B (2006).

To help cement this diverse community, New Ash Green included a shopping centre, primary school, church and even a swimming pool. Unfortunately, only the first phase of the development was built before the property crash of the late 1960s put Span into financial difficulties.  Although the company continued into the 1980s, later phases of New Ash Green were completed by a variety of different developers, with a consequent loss of the community ambitions.

Lessons from Span

Span developments admirably met the company’s objective of bringing the benefits of good architecture into the realm of speculative housing, and within the budgets of a wider group of people. The premium that buyers are still willing to pay for a Span house or flat attests to its success.18In 2022, for example, The Modern Home website made a Span apartment at Parkleys in Ham, south-west London, its “Listing of the week”. https://www.themodernhouse.com/journal/listing-of-the-week-apartment-eric-lyons-first-span-estate/ accessed 23rd February 2024.

The influence of Span has been extensive. My partner grew up on a small 1960s estate where the houses formed a semi-courtyard around a large open space planted with mature yew hedges where she and her friends played. Later on, she recalls baby-sitting for her neighbours, who lived in the same kind of house as she did – a comfortable if rather boxy open-plan house whose brick elevations featured timber cladding and small windows.

Communities form around shared social spaces. Yet it is precisely these shared social spaces that are fast disappearing from cities like Brighton. Developers don’t like them because they reduce the number of apartments they can sell. The kind of towers being built in the city therefore feature flashy, tokenistic soft and hard landscaping and public spaces that are often cramped, dark and uninviting.

Perhaps the time has come again for a company like Span. Judging by the numbers of middle class homes in Brighton where bow and bay windows have been shaved off and replaced by the flat white render of the International Style, and judging by the ubiquity of open plan kitchen-cum-living-space rear extensions, Modernism is once again functioning as a sign of affluence, informality and advanced taste.

And yet it is unlikely that a relatively small developer such as Span could thrive today. Eric Lyons often complained about the difficulty of obtaining planning permission from local authorities for his modern buildings. Since then, our planning system has become even more cumbersome and convoluted.

The result is that only big developers have the kind of deep pockets required to steer a scheme through planning over the course of what is often many, many years.

The consequent disappearance of smaller developers such as Span is one reason why every new housing scheme is beginning to look the same. Yet Park Gate continues to offer a model of what living in a central suburb might be. Low-rise, high density modern housing that offers sociable green spaces to enhance the quality of people’s lives by encouraging them to get to know their neighbours.

It doesn’t seem a lot to ask.

All photography by Richard Bingham unless stated.

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