London County Council Architects Dept
1958 (Alton East)
1959 (Alton West)
By the 1950s, a battle was raging within the British Modern Movement about the best way forward. Internal spats about the nature of Modernist architecture for Britain were by now no longer of interest to a few architects and intellectuals: Modernism had become the official architecture of the welfare state.
The physical need to build hundreds of thousands of new homes and the success of Modernism's first great public outing, 1951's Festival of Britain, had given the Modern Movement a central role in British post-war public policy.
But for many Modernists, the architecture of the Festival of Britain was deeply disappointing and represented a step away from the pioneering, heroic Modernism of Le Corbusier and others which had dominated the pre-war era.
Prominent Modernists like Alison and Peter Smithson, (often called 'New Brutalists'), worried that fellow architects and planners were keen to develop a softer, 'humanist,' Modernism, along the lines of the architecture of the Swedish welfare state. This architecture was more cautious than pre-war Modernism, and tended to be more in tune with the national vernacular.
Alton East estate, in Roehampton, is a good example of this branch of Modernist thinking made real. Its sister estate, Alton West, on the other hand, owes much more to a determined homage to Le Corbusier. This difference means that Roehampton in Surrey is often seen as an architectural battlesite.
Both estates sit in the rolling greenery of Richmond Park, on the southern edge of London. Alton East consists of a mix of high-rise and low-rise housing, and its tower blocks are carefully set amongst mature trees and parkland, (just as Le Corbusier and CIAM had envisioned). However, the external decoration of the houses at Alton East irked the hardline Modernist faction in the London County Council's Architects' Department. The brightly coloured brickwork, painted window frames and wide bands of concrete at regular intervals on the exterior were all considered frivolous, and lacking any obvious function. However, the housing at Alton East has proved to be popular with residents.
Alton West, completed one year later, would return to Le Corbusier for inspiration. Like Alton East, Alton West consisted of mixed development housing, with tower blocks and maisonettes set amongst shared areas of parkland. But unlike Alton East, Alton West attempted to import a version of Le Corbusier's recently completed Unité d'Habitation to Britain.
The original Unité, in Marseilles, was seventeen storeys high and housed 1,600 people. It also included a hotel, recreational facilities, and meeting rooms along a central enclosed "street". At Alton West, the plans were less ambitious, but still included gallery access to each of the five Unités in the estate. The absence of frivolous detailing and the angular simplicity of the concrete frames signalled a return to basic Modernist principles.
The failures of both Alton East and Alton West were not dissimilar to the failures of estates elsewhere in the country. Both were isolated from decent transport infrastructure, and suffered the usual problems with vandalism in the 1970s. However, as council estates go, both Roehampton estates are amongst the best managed in the country.
The local borough of Wandsworth, for a long time an isolated Conservative municipal stronghold, simply stopped building council houses and concentrated instead on the upkeep of the stock it already managed.
Concierges were a feature of Roehampton's tower blocks long before they became an essential element of the gentrified high-rise of the 1990s and (unlike Keeling House or other estates which have needed a degree of gentrification to save them), both estates at Roehampton still work well as council housing.
Despite this relative success, neither Alton East or Alton West became models for urban renovation as their champions had hoped. System built blocks like Ronan Point would dominate the architecture of the 1960s, obscuring the merits of Roehampton for a generation.