Private house, 1935-36, by Elisabeth Bejamin for Arnold Osorio.
Reasons for Designation
East Wall, a private house, 1935-36, by Elisabeth Benjamin for Arnold Osorio is listed at Grade II, for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: an accomplished design in the international modern style of the 1930s, it is a crisp and elegant composition that combines modern and traditional materials, angular and sinuous shapes, and was immensely practical in its planning and design;
* Structure and materials: it is an early use of reinforced concrete in a domestic building, and it used cork tiles for the shuttering which were left in place for insulation;
* Plan: the curvilinear spine wall that divides the principal rooms and service areas, and that forms the stair tower and dining room, is a striking feature, and the original layout of the main spaces and routes of circulation are extant;
* Intactness: the general form of the exterior is unaltered, and internally, the deliberately minimally detailed principal rooms retain the great majority of their original features;
* Historic interest: Elisabeth Benjamin was one of a pioneering group of female architects that emerged in the early C20, finally unfettered by gender restrictions in training institutions, and she was an early female member of Modern Architecture Research Group (MARS); East Wall is one of only three houses that she designed, and the best surviving example.
Elisabeth Benjamin (1908-1999) was one of the pioneer generation of female architects in the early C20. In 1898 the RIBA began to admit women, after which training institutions gradually followed suit, and women began to set up private practice and the credence of their work was recognised by the architectural press. Benjamin began her training at the Architectural Association in 1927, a ‘chief institution’ which began to admit women only in 1917, and she spent a year as a student assistant to Lutyens, where, she stated, she ‘learnt a lot from his unswerving insistence on quality and consistency in design’.
Benjamin’s career was relatively short, curtailed by motherhood, but was of great impact and influence. She opened her own office, joined the RIBA, and was an early member of the Modern Architecture Research Group (MARS). Private houses became ‘the architectural preoccupation of the avant garde’ and women were considered well-placed authorities on their design, due to their perceived greater understanding of domestic matters. East Wall was one of three houses Benjamin designed before leaving the profession in 1937.
Benjamin generously gave joint credit to her friend Godfrey Samuel, with whom she studied at the AA, for the design of the house, which was conceived as the ‘St George and Dragon House’. The dragon was the winding brick spine wall, and St George the rigid concrete framed structure upon it.
The house remains largely unaltered externally, though was renovated following a period of dereliction, and extended with a large separate block to the north in the early C21. The original layout of the principal living and dining rooms is extant, as are the routes of circulation, including the service door between the dining room and the kitchen. The brick spine wall and apsidal stair tower are untouched. The plan of the service rooms and bedrooms has been reordered to accommodate changing patterns of use – the kitchen has been enlarged and the maid’s quarters subsumed into the general accommodation, and the bedrooms and bathrooms on the first floor have been moved around. All windows have been replaced following material failure. During construction cork tiling was used internally as shuttering for the concrete, and was left in place as insulation; it does not survive. Much of the cork floor tiling has been replaced. The timber storage unit separating the dining and living rooms has been modified to house a television.
Private house, 1935-36, by Elisabeth Benjamin for Arnold Osorio.
MATERIALS: a steel reinforced concrete frame with a red brick spine wall and cork floors.
PLAN: the building is sited in a large plot, with the eponymous east wall bounding the garden to its west. The original two-storey building was rectangular on plan with a central internal east-west spinal wall that continues to the exterior and forms apsidal projections to the north-west and south-east corners, and is serpentine on plan. The principal rooms lie to the south of the spinal wall, at the front of the house on the ground and first floors, with kitchens, service and servants accommodation to the rear. There is a roof terrace above the single-storey dining room.
A C21 extension adjoins the house the at the north-west corner.*
EXTERIOR: elevations are board-marked concrete, painted white. The original steel-framed windows have been replaced throughout, following the original pattern; they are in plain openings with shallow cills.
The main entrance is on the west and is a glazed door in a plain recess in an otherwise blind elevation. A full-height apsidal brick projection on the left hand side forms the stair tower, a sculptural form and a bold union of contrasting red brick and beton brut.
The garden-facing elevation has three bays with wide, three-light full-height windows to the ground floor, and smaller windows to the first floor. Two shallow steps lead to the window on the left. Projecting beyond the south-east corner of the building a full-height square section pier supports the overhanging roof, creating a shallow canopy over the dining room roof terrace.
The two-bay east elevation is recessed on the left and steps forward on the right. It is dominated by a single-storey, apsidal brick projection on the left which forms the dining room and has a roof terrace above. The dining room has wrap-round windows of multiple lights, with a deep cill and cornice, the latter of which continues to form a drip course. There is a door with full-height glazing on the left, and on the right is a window to each storey. The roof line is straight, forming a partial canopy above the terrace. The terrace has tubular balustrades with metal grilles.
The north wall has been built upon. Of the original design the left hand side survives, and retains a window opening to the ground floor – originally the kitchen and three out of a row of five regularly spaced, small windows to the first floor.
INTERIOR: the living and dining rooms are to the south of the central spinal wall, which is exposed red brick laid in stretcher bond. The living room has a fireplace recessed behind a round-arched surround within the brick wall, and a square, tubular metal feature follows the shape of the fireplace and adjoins a low shelf along the mantel. The dining room is at a higher level, almost a dais, reached by two steps and separated by a built-in timber storage unit of shelves and cupboards. A door leads from the dining room through to the kitchen on the north side of the house, which has been opened up to include a number of smaller service rooms, including a former maid’s parlour. The cork flooring has generally been replaced, but remains on some steps and the circular stair.
The stair has cork surfaces to the treads and risers, and the exposed brick semi-circular well and round top-light create a dramatic passage between floors. The stair rises to a solid masonry balustrade at landing level, and has a central, vertical wooden handrail, originally varnished, now painted.
As on the ground floor, the principal bedrooms were on the south side of the house, and the bathroom and maid’s room to the north. An axial corridor runs west to east, and access to the terrace on the dining room roof is via the south-east corner bedroom. Rooms have been reconfigured to provide an additional bathroom. The cork flooring has been replaced and the cork skirtings lost.
* Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest.