Landscaping to Alton West Estate
- Heritage Category:
- Park and Garden
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Statutory Address:
- Alton West Estate (Roehampton Lane), Roehampton, London, SW15
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- Statutory Address:
- Alton West Estate (Roehampton Lane), Roehampton, London, SW15
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Greater London Authority
- Richmond upon Thames (London Borough)
- Non Civil Parish
- Greater London Authority
- Wandsworth (London Borough)
- Non Civil Parish
- National Grid Reference:
Landscaping to Alton West Estate, 1954-1961 by the LCC Architect's Department. The site incorporates two adapted C18 landscapes, including the remnants of one by Capability Brown of around 1774-1775.
Reasons for Designation
The landscaping to Alton West is registered at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Influence: as a showcase estate by the largest and most influential architect's department in the world in the 1950s, including young architects who went on to have international careers. The estate is regarded as being amongst the most important examples of low-cost mass housing to be built in the period and the landscaping is an integral component of the quality of the overall design; * Landscape type: as a demonstration of a remarkable juxtaposition of innovative post-war housing with landscapes begun in the mid-C18. The carefully composed mix of distinguished architecture and the integrated elements of earlier landscaping, planting and vistas are of particular interest.
* as a manifestation of the architectonic approach inspired by the work of Le Corbusier in its architecture and landscaping which, in competition with the softer Swedish humanist idiom represented at Alton East, was a major influence on the LCC Architect's Department into the 1950s.
* the landscape survives well, with the estate plan and the principal buildings, views, planting and structural elements all remaining appreciable, albeit with more trees planted and several new features introduced.
* for the coherent and well-preserved ensemble of listed buildings and public sculptures distributed throughout the estate.
Roehampton developed with smart weekend villas on high ground close to Richmond Park following the opening of Putney Bridge in 1729. These included Parkstead House (1760-1768), by Sir William Chambers for Lord Bessborough (to the east of the landscape considered here), Mount Clare, by Robert Taylor for George Clive (a banker cousin of Clive of India), built between 1770 and 1773 with landscaping by Capability Brown of around 1774-1775 and, to the north, Downshire House, built around 1775 for Marques of Downshire (probably by R F Brettingham). The two later houses remained in family ownership into the 1940s, but in 1858 the fifth Earl of Bessborough sold Parkstead House and its estate to the Conservative Land Society. The Society of Jesus acquired the house, which it renamed Manresa House, and 42 acres of land, while the rest – the site of the future Alton East Estate – was divided into parcels and developed as Coombe Park, later Roehampton Park, an area of Victorian villas set in substantial grounds. Maryfield Convent was built on part of the land in 1939.
In the aftermath of the war, in 1946-1947, the London County Council (LCC) bought many plots of land in and around Roehampton to replenish and extend its housing stock. Already short of housing in 1939, the LCC estimated that 100,000 people within its boundary had lost their homes during the war, and of the council’s stock of 98,000 units, some 11,000 had been rendered uninhabitable. To speed up building, the council in 1945 had passed its housing programme to the Valuer's Department, and quantity rather than quality was the result. The architectural profession, led by the critic J M Richards, fought to win the programme back, doing so in 1950 just in time to save the land at Roehampton from being entirely covered with standard four-storey maisonettes. With the scheme brought back in-house, Roehampton became the first major scheme for the newly-expanded LCC Architect's Department and a new generation of young graduate architects were taken on to tackle the demand for new housing.
A large, talented but troublesome team were appointed to work on Alton West, designing new slab block maisonettes at Alton West inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. Deputy architect Leslie Martin broke this hothouse of ideas into three parts. In the revised structure Bill Howell and John Killick from the Architectural Association (AA) joined John Partridge (a product of the LCC’s in-house training programme) and Stanley Amis to work under Colin Lucas, a pioneer of the Modern Movement in the 1930s as part of Connell, Ward and Lucas; J R Galley and Roy Stout were slightly younger assistants appointed to the team. In practice the leader of the group was Bill Howell, who with Killick and Gillian Sarson (his future wife) had produced a scheme for points and slab blocks in a landscape at Pin Green, Stevenage, for their fifth-year thesis at the Architectural Association (AA). The chief architect to the council, Robert Matthew, oversaw the restoration of the C18 villas within the land parcel of the Alton West Estate.
Alton West followed the LCC’s Portsmouth Road Estate, now Alton East, developed in 1951 and built in 1952-1955 (lead designers A W Cleeve Barr and Oliver Cox). The Roehampton Lane Estate, as Alton West was initially known, was designed in 1952-1953 and built in 1954-1961. The point and slab blocks to this later phase were completed in 1958; construction of the blocks delayed in part because the Minister of Housing and Local Government, Harold Macmillan, objected to the initial layout which placed the slabs in a line across the top of the hill, thinking it would present a wall of buildings when seen from Richmond Park. The blocks were followed by a shopping precinct in 1958-1959, and Allbrook House and the Alton Library, which were built in 1960-1961 (these however fall outside of the registered landscape area).
The contrasting styles of the distinct Alton estates represented two traditions in the LCC Architect's Department in the 1950s, which because of its great size – with 250 architects in its Housing Division alone – was divided into small groups who developed their own team spirit and methods of working. Alton East and Alton West mirrored a debate between supporters of a humanist Swedish idiom, and those who favoured a tougher, more architectonic approach inspired by the work of Le Corbusier in the Alton West team. As John Partridge said in 1956, ‘We no more wanted to work in the manner of the Portsmouth Road chaps than they would have in ours’ (AA Journal, p148). The landscape also reflected this contrast, with Alton East offering a greater sense of enclosure and privacy than the more expansive, open landscaping to Alton West that emphasised the monumentality of the later scheme.
An exceptional element of the Alton West scheme was the opportunity presented by existing C18 landscapes associated with Mount Clare and Downshire House. The LCC Architect's Department considered important views, approaches, mature trees and the topography of the landscape carefully in determining the placement of key buildings within the estate. To these ends, an accurate scale model showing every tree was used to inform the design process. The architects were also actively involved on site in directing the remodelling of the landscape: John Partridge recalled being given a bulldozer and a driver and, from one of the point blocks, coordinated manoeuvres to remodel the slope. As Partridge explained in 1996, ‘what we wanted to do was link up the two eighteenth-century villas with the certain same elements of an eighteenth-century landscape’ (quoted in Franklin, p22).
Alton West was at the time of its design the largest and most complex embodiment the idea of ‘mixed development’ planning, a principle notably espoused by J H Forshaw (architect to the council in 1941-1945). By introducing eleven-storey blocks, there was more land for family houses and pensioners’ bungalows, and possibilities for greater visual variety in social housing than was possible before. The tall flats and maisonettes also allowed more of the landscape and many existing trees to be retained, particularly seen in the slope of land between Mount Clare and Downshire House. Forshaw’s own pioneering scheme at Woodberry Down, now largely demolished, was the first to experiment with mixed development, and in 1950 Colin Lucas devised a tall point block at the Ackroydon Estate in Wimbledon, but Alton constituted what H J Whitfield Lewis (then LCC Principal Housing Architect) referred to as the ‘full flowering of the idea’ (AA Journal, January 1957, p142).
Since the completion of work at Alton West in 1961, there has been some alteration to the landscaping of the estate. A cluster of two-storey blocks were early additions to the land around Mount Clare. The lawn surrounding Robert Clatworthy’s Bull sculpture has been reduced in size, with some of this area given over for car parking spaces for residents of the adjacent Brockbridge House. The most notable change to the sloped landscape in front of the slab blocks has been the spreading copse of trees, planted at random over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. More recently, in 2016-2017, land associated with Downshire House was developed as Chadwick Hall student accommodation (architects Henley Halebrown), this has also seen this part of Downshire Field enclosed, meaning that Lynn Chadwick’s sculpture The Watchers, sited by the LCC in 1963, is now screened behind a fence.
Landscaping to Alton West, 1954-1961 by the LCC Architect's Department, group leader Colin Lucas, architects in charge Bill Howell, John Killick, John Partridge, Stanley Amis, J R Galley and Roy Stout, who produced their own landscaping, adapting elements of the existing C18 landscapes associated with Mount Clare and Downshire House.
Alton West lies on the edge of the former county of London to the west of Roehampton village, land that remained largely open until the late 1940s.
AREAS AND BOUNDARIES
Alton West is bounded to the north by Clarence Lane and the grounds of Grove House. To the east it is defined by the land boundaries of the buildings fronting onto Roehampton Lane and to the south-west by Richmond Park. To the south-east it is separated from Alton East by the grounds of Parkstead (or ‘Manresa’) House and other later development.
ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES
The main approach is from Roehampton Lane, where there is a turn into Danebury Avenue. This is the primary route through the estate, running west-north-west through the site, ending at Priory Lane close to the Roehampton Gate of Richmond Park. The slab blocks of Alton West can also be reached via Highcliffe Drive, set-off Clarence Lane to the north of the estate. Pedestrian avenues and tree-lined winding paths provide additional routes between the housing and give an informal counterpoint to the regimented slab blocks.
Views played an important part for the architects designing the estate, determining the position and orientation of the Alton West point and slab blocks within the landscape. The upper storeys of the blocks give views spanning around ten miles taking in Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park. The blocks can also be clearly seen from Richmond Park, which along with the foot of Downshire Field (at the junction of Danebury Avenue and Minstead Gardens), give the clearest sense of the monumentality of the slab blocks. To the south side, the seven point blocks and Mount Clare House sit within generous, gently sloping greens.
HISTORIC BUILDINGS AND STRUCTURES
The building with the closest integration with the wider Alton West Estate is Mount Clare (Grade I; Nation Heritage List for England (NHLE) entry 1184436). This is a Palladian villa by Robert Taylor (previously attributed to Henry Holland) and dates from 1770-1773. A timber Doric portico was added by P Columbani soon after 1780. The site was restored in the 1950s by the LCC and repurposed as the common rooms for Garnett College teacher training centre (now part of Roehampton University). Residential units have been added to either side of the house, stretching along the boundary with Richmond Park. A temple moved from Parkstead House in 1913 lies the south-east within the former grounds (Grade II*; NHLE entry 1065545), although this is not situated within the registered landscape.
The other former villa within the landscape is Downshire House, erected in the 1770s for Marques of Downshire (probably by R F Brettingham) and is Grade II* listed (NHLE entry 1065522) with the garden gates listed Grade II (NHLE entry 1184718). The house fronts Roehampton Lane with three stories divided into six bays and a north wing. A parapet conceals the roof and the multi-paned sash windows are surrounded by red brick dressings. Only a small part of the once extensive formal gardens to Downshire House, built by Oswald P Milne between 1912 and 1920, now remain. The section included here is the vista to the west of the house, which overlooks Alton West and takes in Lynn Chadwick’s The Watchers (see SCULPTURE below).
ALTON WEST ESTATE BUILDINGS
The dominant housing blocks are the five slab blocks set into the side of Downshire Field, all listed Grade II*, these being: Binley House (NHLE entry 1246040), Winchfield House (NHLE entry 1246041), Dunbridge House (NHLE entry 1246042), Charcot House (NHLE entry 1246043), Denmead House (NHLE entry 1246044). Flanking the slab blocks are the twelve-storey point blocks (not listed), set in two clusters, to the south-east and south-west: ten are located along Tangley Grove and Ellisfield Drive (Egbury, Brockbridge, Holmsley, Hurstbourne, Finchdean, Redenham, Overton, Woodcott, Lyndhurst and Wheatley House) and a further seven are on Turnworth Crescent (Warnford, Tatchbury, Allenford, Swaythling, Penwood, Bramley and Shalden House). The treatment of the slab and point blocks contrast with those at Alton East, being entirely clad in the same carefully crafted, storey-high pre-cast panels – a new venture in their scale and quality of finish (using Dorset shingle and Derbyshire spar aggregates).
Another feature of Alton West is the inclusion of a series of small pensioners’ bungalows, built in 1957-1958, notable for their picturesque staggered arrangement and tall chimneys. These are all listed at Grade II, with a group on Danebury Avenue (NHLE entries 1246018 and 1246019) and the rest positioned along Minstead Gardens (NHLE entries 1246017, 1246045 and 1246046). These were set in rows and staggered to fit round the existing trees within the landscape. The bungalows along Minstead Gardens are carefully positioned to afford Mount Clare precedence in the view from the north. The small scale of the bungalows is a deliberate counterpoise to the towering slab and point blocks.
The Bull at the foot of Downshire Field (Grade II*; NHLE entry 1376742), is situated on the green adjacent to the bus stops on Danebury Avenue (north side). It was commissioned from Robert Clatworthy in 1961 at the suggestion of the architect Cleeve Barr, who had admired a plaster version exhibited at an LCC triennial exhibition in 1959.
Set behind Downshire House, on part of the now enclosed Downshire Field, is Lynn Chadwick’s The Watchers (Grade II; NHLE entry 1031600) created in 1960-1961 and sited in 1963 by the LCC to overlook the Alton West Estate from this high vantage point within the landscape. It was restored in 2016 after one of the figures was stolen in 2006. The sculpture is now set behind a fence, forming part of the enclosed land associated with the Glion Institute of Higher Education.
Several low concrete retaining walls are carefully poured with long curved sections, notably seen to the north of the slab blocks (off Highcliffe Drive) and to the eastern point blocks by Ellisfield Drive. Other sloped parts of the site, including a steep section next to the eastern group of point blocks (behind Hartfield House), are supported by retaining walls of stock brick. Most original street surfaces have been removed or overlaid. However, there are sections of cobble stone paving in certain areas (such as Harbridge Avenue and the junction with Minstead Gardens and Danebury Avenue).
The Alton West architects acknowledged from the start that the quality and scale of landscaping was a major factor in the layout and design of the estate. The area slopes consistently, sometimes gently, sometimes quite dramatically, from north-east to south-west, with land at its highest around the five slab blocks. Danebury Avenue acts as a spine through the estate, from which the landscape opens out to green spaces on the slopes to either side. Downshire Field, the centre point of the estate, was remodelled so that there was a slight valley rising against the hill towards the north. In the original scheme a single copse of trees was planted in front of the five slab blocks, leaving a vast expanse of green to dominate views from the foot of the hill - ‘aiming at a feeling of endlessness to the grass carpet’ as John Partridge put it (Twentieth Century Architecture, p118). However, since the 1990s additional trees have been planted which have softened the impact of the contrast between the open landscape and the monumental slab blocks. There were always more trees in among the point blocks, the grouping of which was arranged to work with pre-existing open vistas and mature trees. To the south-west, several mature trees shield the seven point blocks when viewed from Danebury Avenue.
To the south of the estate the dominant feature in the landscape is Mount Clare. The villa overlooks an unbroken sloped green, with some later obstructive planting having been added. This is an open public space, although it also visually reads as a formal vista up towards the villa, giving it a sense of distinction within the estate. Only the trunk remains of the very large cedar tree that stood to the west of the house until the 2000s, but many other mature trees do survive, these being important legacies of the 1770s estate planting that defined boundaries, framed views and formed secluded walks. A notable later approach which was created in the early C20 as a private drive to Roehampton Court (now Maryfield Convent) is retained as Harbridge Avenue; this was formalised in the LCC estate plan through the planting of lime trees bordered by granite setts to flank the road. The soil throughout Alton West is heavy London clay.
Books and journals
Bridget, Cherry, Nikolaus, Pevsner, The Buildings of England London: 2 South, (2002), 688-95
Franklin, Geraint, Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis, (2017), 19-31
Harwood, E, Space, Hope and Brutalism, English Architecture 1945-79, (2015), 67-71
Harwood, Elain, 'Post-war Landscape and Public Housing' in Woudstra, Jan, Ratti, Cristiano, Reviewing the Twentieth-Century Landscape, Garden History, vol.28, no.1, (2000), 102-116
'Mixed Development: A New L.C.C. Housing Project' in Building, , Vol. 26, no.12, (December 1951), 464-8
'The L.C.C.'s Roehampton Lane Project' in Architectural Association Journal, , Vol. 72, no.808, (January 1957), 142-8
'Roehampton Lane Housing Estate' in Concrete Quarterly, , Vol. 39, (October-December 1958), 2-9
'Community Problems of the Space Age' in Prefabrication, , Vol. November 1958, (5, no.61), 588-94
'Housing at Roehampton-Lane, London, SW15' in The Builder, , Vol. 196, no.6043, (23 January 1959), 174-81
'Housing at Priory Lane, Roehampton, London SW15' in Architectural Design, , Vol. 29, no.1, (January 1951), 7-21
'Slab and Point Blocks' in Architecture and Building, , Vol. 34, no.4, (April 1959), 129-36
Pevsner, Nikolaus, 'LCC Housing and the Picturesque Tradition' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 126, no.750, (July 1959), 21-35
'Housing at Alton Estate (W) Roehampton' in Architects Journal, , Vol. 130, no.3368, (5 November 1959), 461-78
London Parks & Gardens Trust, London Gardens Online: Roehampton University: Downshire House, Manresa House (Whitelands College), Mount Clare and Downshire Field, accessed 16 January 2020 from http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.php?ID=WND047
E Harwood, Alton Estate Research Report, Historic England, 2019
This garden or other land is registered under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953 within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England for its special historic interest.
End of official listing