Sir Owen Williams,
The Peckham Experiment
In 1935, two pioneering doctors opened the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, south London. Their aim was to conduct a huge experiment into the effect of environment on health. The Pioneer Health Centre (usually known as the Peckham Health Centre) was a bold departure in the medical field in the 1930s, concentrating on a preventative, rather than a curative approach to health. In order to facilitate their grand project, the two doctors housed their centre in a purpose built Modern building, creating an early example of how new architectural techniques could help further bold new social experiments.
George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse were a husband and wife team who believed that an individual's social and physical environment could decisively affect his or her long-term state of health.
Nine hundred and fifty families signed up to be part of 'the Peckham Experiment'. For one shilling a week, they relaxed in a club-like atmosphere: physical exercise, games, workshops, or even simple relaxation were all encouraged. All the time they were observed by Williamson & Pearse, and their team of doctors.
There was no set programme of exercise at Peckham, and members were obliged to attend a thorough medical examination once a year.
The design of the building was crucial to the success of the experiment. A traditional hospital, split into corridors and small rooms would not have been conducive to the natural and observational elements of the experiment. Instead, Williamson and Pearse turned to Sir Owen Williams, a noted structural engineer.
Williams had already designed the huge Boots Factory in Nottingham and the celebrated Daily Express Building in Fleet Street, and was one of the first engineers to successfully grasp how new engineering techniques could complement the aims of the new Modern Movement.
Williams (who frequently called architects "decoration merchants") was ideal for the new Health Centre. The interior was spectacularly simple: cruciform columns supported the floors and meant that the number of internal walls could be kept to a minimum, freeing up space for the Centre's doctors to properly observe the members at play (and members could see one another- no-one was hidden away in darkened treatment rooms).
A giant swimming pool, covered by a glazed roof, was at the heart of the Centre. This, combined with long stretches of almost uninterrupted windows allowed light to flood in.
As at Berthold Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre, light was considered key to a healthier life, and was at a premium in Britain's inner cities. The windows could slide back to maximise the members' exposure to light and fresh air. Floors were covered in cork so that children could wander around barefoot, and other surfaces were left exposed and unadorned.
The only concession to decoration on the exterior was the wavy, scalloped cantilevered concrete floors, which appeared to be supported by the glass which follows the curved shape of the concrete.
Eclipsed by Finsbury
Although arriving three years before the Finsbury Health Centre, Peckham does not occupy the same elevated position in the Modern Movement canon. Its closure in 1950 occurred after several funding crises (although the building itself continued to be used as a public centre) and also because the Centre's experimental ethos did not fit the new NHS's curative approach, unlike Finsbury.
The building itself is more functional than explicitly social- Finsbury represents more of a marriage between the technical and social aims of Modernism. And Williams himself was not fired, like Lubetkin, by a political desire to change people's live through architecture.
Nonetheless, Peckham Health Centre is an early indication of how the new construction techniques pioneered by the architects of the Modern Movement could serve an ambitious social purpose.