Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.
His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.
In 1966, when Nairn’s London was published, the ‘tower block’ or ‘point block’ was an exciting architectural statement. It combined style with social mission: modernist in design, modern in materials, and progressive in its ambition to replace inadequate homes with decent ones.
Oatlands Court on the edge of Wimbledon Common was the first tower block built by the London County Council (LCC) Architects’ Department.
It went up in the mid-1950s, and ten years later it was still, in Nairn’s view: “one of the best: compact, not too tall (eleven storeys), with one of those plans, immediately lucid, which architects dream of, fuss over, but rarely achieve”: T-shaped, with the stairs and services in the central junction, and a flat on each arm of each floor. And the whole was done, in Nairn’s view, with “charm … humanity and above all … modesty … “.
Oatlands Court is part of the Ackroydan estate, designed from the late 1940s and built between 1950 and 1954. Nairn doesn’t name the architect in his 1966 book, which is surprising because the architect was someone he admired and had praised in print elsewhere. Colin Lucas was a pioneer in Britain of the style which later came to be called ‘brutalist’. In the 1930s he and his partners designed several private houses which explored the practical and aesthetic potential of concrete as a domestic building material, including this one at Bessborough Road in Roehampton.
Nairn described another of his creations, in Hampstead, as “the best pre-war house in England”.
Lucas joined the LCC in the late ‘40s and stayed there, through its transformation into the Greater London Council (GLC), until the early ‘70s. Oatlands Court gave his LCC career a good start, but it was the next project, Alton West, which made his name. The two Alton estates in Roehampton were built by the LCC in the 1950s, across a rolling landscape, previously a private estate adjacent to Richmond Park. Alton East was built first: its primary material was brick and its style was informed somewhat by Swedish modernism.
Lucas’s Alton West followed on, built between 1954 and 1958: its primary material was concrete, and its style was brutalist informed by Le Corbusier’s work in France. It was widely praised, won the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal, and achieved a Grade 2* listing.
In his later years Lucas spoke of his passion for “High buildings in a park landscape”, and of all his projects Alton West best expresses this ideal.