Landscaping to Alton East Estate

Overview

Heritage Category:
Park and Garden
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1468240
Date first listed:
10-Jun-2020
Statutory Address:
Alton East (Portsmouth Road), Roehampton, London, SW15

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
Alton East (Portsmouth Road), Roehampton, London, SW15

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County:
Greater London Authority
District:
Wandsworth (London Borough)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ2254673311

Summary

Landscaping to Alton East Estate, 1952-1955 by the LCC Architect's Department; group leader Rosemary Stjernstedt, architects in charge A W Cleeve Barr and Oliver Cox, with Graeme Shankland, J N Wall and H P Harrison.

Reasons for Designation

The landscaping to Alton East is registered at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Historic interest:

* Influence: as a showcase estate by the largest and most influential architect's department in the world in the 1950s. 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 the juxtaposition of innovative 1950s housing with elements of the retained landscaping to the Victorian villas which had occupied the site. The carefully composed mix of distinguished architecture with integrated elements of earlier landscaping, planting and openings is of particular interest.

Design interest:

* as a manifestation of the Swedish humanist idiom in its architecture and informal landscaping which, in competition with the tougher, architectonic approach inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, was a major influence on the LCC Architect's Department into the 1950s.

Survival:

* the landscape survives well, with the estate plan and the principal buildings, views, planting and structural elements all remaining appreciable, albeit with several new features introduced.

Group value:

* for the coherent and well-preserved ensemble of significant post-war buildings within a contemporary designed landscape.

History

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, 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.

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.

The Portsmouth Road Estate, as Alton East was initially known, was the first part of land acquired by the LCC in Roehampton to be developed. Designs produced in 1951 and construction was undertaken between 1952 and 1955. It was followed by the Roehampton Lane Estate (Alton West) designed in 1952-1953 and built in 1954-1961. The leading designers of Alton East were A W Cleeve Barr and Oliver Cox, both of whom had previously worked on the innovatory programme of prefabricated schools at Hertfordshire County Council, Cox after spending some time in Sweden. He brought in his friend Graeme Shankland from Planning Division, with whom he had visited Stockholm. The group leader was Rosemary Stjernstedt, who had worked as a town planner in Sweden during the war. Cox and Shankland went on to form a private practice, working extensively in Britain and the West Indies; Stjernstedt went on to be a team leader at LB Lambeth in the 1960s, while Barr became chief architect of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The Alton East architects team, epitomised a new approach in the 1950s, concerned with every detail of design, planning and landscape, committed to the principle of mixed development and strongly influenced by Swedish architecture and design from the 1940s.

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.

A key element of the Alton East scheme was the design of an innovative type of ‘point block’ (derived from the Swedish term ‘punkthus’). This new structure advanced the ‘T’-shaped block devised by Colin Lucas at the Ackroydon Estate in Wimbledon, which was ultimately deemed too expensive. The new block had a compact square plan integrating four flats per floor with internal, artificially-lit and mechanically ventilated bathrooms - then an innovation - inspired by Reinius & Backström’s towers at Danviksklippan in Stockholm, built in the 1940s. The ten towers at Alton East stand at 100ft, which was the maximum then permitted under the London Building Acts (a relaxation in favour of taller buildings came in 1956). The blocks were set at the top of the slight rise to make them appear taller in contrast to the flats and houses on the slopes below. By placing several of the blocks on the sites previously occupied by villas, a large number of the mature Victorian trees (estimated at around 700 in 1951) were preserved. An emphasis in the Victorian planting on Cedars and Pines, relieved by Silver Birch, gave a Scandinavian feel to the development, enhanced by the addition of boulders, which bear the influence of Vällingby; the most distinctive of the new towns built to the west of Stockholm from the late 1940s.

There has been some additional planting at Alton East in more recent years, including the addition of numerous deciduous trees from the 1990s between the point blocks. Treatments of the boundaries of private gardens to the houses and maisonettes have also changed over time, with new walls and planting added, as can be seen on Durford Crescent. The other notable change has been the addition of new car parking spaces and sports/play areas, which have been cut-out of the public greens.

Details

Landscaping to Alton East Estate, 1952-1955 by the LCC Architect's Department; group leader Rosemary Stjernstedt, architects in charge A W Cleeve Barr and Oliver Cox, with Graeme Shankland, J N Wall and H P Harrison.

LOCATION

Alton East lies on the edge of the former county of London to the west of Roehampton village.

AREAS AND BOUNDARIES

The landscape to Alton East is bounded by Bessborough Road to the north-west, Petersfield Rise to the north, Roehampton Lane to the east, Alton Road to the south-west and Norley Vale and the wooded embankment to the Kingston Road to the south-east.

There is relatively little evidence of original boundaries to the villas in the present landscape, although there are some remnants of the later-C19 boundary walls, including the partially-rebuilt stock brick wall to Roehampton Lane that encloses Eashing Point and Hindhead Point, which has piers and openings created for pathways into the estate. Heights and treatments of the estate boundary walls differ; the stepped spanning wall to Alton Road and Bessborough Road is of gault brick with the height varying along the road.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES

The primary route through the estate is Bessborough Road, with curved connecting roads and pedestrian paths planned around the ten point blocks and the existing mature specimen trees.

VIEWS

Views played an important part for the architects designing the estate, determining the position and orientation of the ten point blocks within the landscape. The point blocks occupy the highest ground within the estate and their upper storeys give views over Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park. In contrast to Alton West, which was arranged to provide key set-piece views of the monumental slab blocks from the foot of Downshire Hill, the Alton East team aimed at creating more informal vistas of the point blocks from winding, tree-lined roads and paths which cut through the estate.

STRUCTURES

The ten point blocks are the key buildings within the estate, all listed Grade II, these are: Blendworth Point (National Heritage List for England (NHLE) entry 1246030); Eashing Point (NHLE entry 1246031); Witley Point (NHLE entry 1246032); Hilsea Point (NHLE entry 1246033); Hindhead Point (NHLE entry 1246034); Cadnam Point (NHLE entry 1246035); Dunhill Point (NHLE entry 1246034); Westmark Point (NHLE entry 1246037); Longmoor Point (NHLE entry 1246038); Grayswood Point (NHLE entry 1246039). The blocks are clad in pale grey brick with projecting concrete balconies, intended to contrast with the red brick used for the four-storey maisonettes and two-storey houses set along curving roads lower down the hill, on Durford Crescent, Dilton Gardens and Norley Vale. The only remnant of the grouping of Victorian villas that formerly occupied the landscape is the entrance lodge to the demolished Alton House, at 33 Bessborough Road. Additionally, one large villa survives amongst later development at 66 Alton Road, although this falls outside of the registered landscape.

MATERIALS

Most original street surfaces have been removed or overlaid with modern surfaces, however, there is some visible evidence of historic surfaces remaining, including cobble stone sections at the corner of Horndean Close and Bessborough Road. Several large boulders are scattered throughout the grounds of the five point blocks, located on Wanborough Drive (Blendworth, Hilsea, Eashing, Hindhead and Witley Points), demonstrating influence of 1940s Swedish planning, specifically of Vällingby to the west of Stockholm. Original metal bar railings, concrete bollards and stock brick retaining walls define the greens between the point blocks.

LANDSCAPING

The landscaping of Alton East has a much tighter grain and a greater sense of enclosure than the later Alton West scheme. The point blocks were clustered near Roehampton Lane and the Kingston Road, where they could stand on the sites of largest of the former villas which exploited the natural topography of the landscape in occupying the highest ground and also allowed for the retention of mature trees within the former villa gardens. Consequently, Alton East retains dense coverage of mature specimen trees, including cedars and Scots pine (pine trees being suited to the acidic soils of the former heathland). The boundary planting to Bessborough Road is mainly of lime and beech trees, together with yew and holly hedging. The informal arrangement of the estate is principally derived from the absence of any uniform definition between streets and the estate buildings; green open spaces flow between the point blocks and the paths and roads that meander around the buildings and the largest specimen trees. The point blocks are set-back from the principal roads (Roehampton Lane, Alton Road, Bessborough Road and the Kingston Road) and this in combination with the mature trees that shelter the connecting paths works to create the impression of reaching a clearing when arriving at the blocks – an effect that is particularly pronounced from Norley Avenue from the west with the opening vista towards Grayswood and Longmoor Point to the east.

The series of open greens are an important part of the cohesiveness of the landscape at Alton East. These are seen at Durford Crescent and Wanborough Drive, where the generous greens are sheltered by mature oak, beech and lime trees. The greens reflect the gentle undulation of the site, although retaining walls of stock brick both level and give definition to the steeper parts of the land. In the same way that the houses are laid out in informal terraces or groups, so the boundaries were designed to match this informality, with no separation of the point blocks from the landscape in which they stand. Original boundary treatments to the four-storey maisonettes and two-storey houses are mostly of low timber fences on dwarf concrete walls. However, in some cases, gardens simply come to the end of paths with no demarcation other than planting, emphasising the informal planning and the intention to seamlessly integrate the buildings within the landscape.

Sources

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), 102-16
Partridge, J, 'Roehampton Housing' in Harwood, E, Powers, A, The Twentieth Century Society Journal 9: Housing the Twentieth Century Nation, (2008), 115-20
'Mixed Development: A New L.C.C. Housing Project' in Building, , Vol. vol.26, no.12, (December 1951), 464-8
'Housing: Roehampton' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 115, no. 655, (January 1952), 52-57
'The L.C.C.'s Roehampton Lane Project' in Architectural Association Journal, , Vol. 72, no.808, (January 1957), 142-8
'Alton Estate Roehampton' in Architect and Building News , , Vol. 213, no.24, (11 June 1958), 767-774
Pevsner, Nikolaus, 'LCC Housing and the Picturesque Tradition' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 126, no.750, (July 1959), 21-35
Websites
Alton Conservation Area Appraisal & Management Strategy, Borough of Wandsworth , accessed 13 January 2020 from https://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/media/1575/alton_caaandms.pdf
Other
E Harwood, Alton Estate Research Report, Historic England, 2019

Legal

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

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