PROPERTY / Living Histories - No 6 The Sixties House: Experiment in living

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All architects who worked or studied during the Sixties know about New Ash Green. Indeed, many seem to have lived there at one time or another. Local gossip has it that in the early days, 70 per cent of the population were architects. Now they make up a mere 30 per cent of the residents along these leafy lanes.

The Kentish village - a social and architectural experiment launched by the pioneering developers, Span housing, with the blessing of the Wilson government - is hallowed ground to those in the know. To many outsiders it might seem like just another modern residential estate cluttering up the countryside, the houses themselves nothing much more than stark little boxes. But once you're on the inside, a whole world opens up.

Brian and Alison Emby were there right

at the start. Brian, having worked with Southwark council in south London on some of the vast council housing schemes of the period, was keen to move to the country. He is now chief architect to Rochester upon Medway district council.

'We were very trendy,' says Alison, an illustrator and mother of teenagers. 'I used to make him fabulous Liberty-patterned ties. Nothing was too bright. There were architects in every house and everyone was under 30 years old. We were very trendy indeed.'

This was, after all, the age of dolly birds and oral contraceptives as well as faster building methods and unskilled labour. The Sixties put an end to the chimney and the panty-girdle; the expandable house and the disposable dress alike were experimented with; smaller cars came with smaller houses, mini-skirts arrived at the same time as minimalist interiors.

And, at the sharp end of domestic architecture, the Sixties gave the Embys a classic steel- frame terrace house with huge picture windows in a village which, though neither suburban nor rural, is as heavily planted as Kew Gardens. About 6,000 people altogether came to settle on its 430 acres. Houses were ranged in tight clusters like densely built modern hamlets, wedged haphazardly between woods and greens, with shops, schools and a community hall at the centre. The important point is that this central focus was designed to be reached on foot, rather than by car. Part of the New Ash Green ideal was that visitors and residents should park in leafy bowers nearby and stroll along one of the many pathways through the communal front gardens to their homes. Traffic and pedestrians were kept apart according to the Radburn Principle (named after a pioneering scheme in the United States).

The entrance lobby to the Embys' house protrudes at an angle, as if a caravan had crashed into the side. From the burrow of an entrance hall you can catch the whole of the ground floor at a glance. The entire floor-plan is an elastic space controlled by room dividers. The rigid house-plans of previous centuries have been discarded. To one side is the sitting room, painted white and furnished with an eclectic collection of Sixties furniture - an original low-backed boxy Habitat sofa; a nest of bent plywood Marcel Breuer tables; the famous Sixties egg-chair that revolves on a stand resembling a steel chicken's-foot. Alvar Alto steel coffee pots are on display, and there is an Anglepoise lamp.

This house was built at a time when plywood was turned into chaises longues and tubular steel into armchairs and coffee tables. One- piece polypropylene injection-moulded stackable chairs, now associated more closely with dentist's waiting-rooms, were highly desirable pieces of furniture. (In New Ash Green, they still are.)

To the other side of the ground floor is the kitchen-diner, all square-edged white Formica with the original open bookcase-style partition. 'We took off the awful yellow and pink flowery wallpaper that was in here because we couldn't stand it,' says Alison. Could it have been one of the first easy-to-clean paper-back vinyl wall- coverings introduced into Britain by ICI in 1962? Purple and orange would have been just as likely a colour combination.

But the overwhelming feature of the house, the hallmark of the Sixties period, is the wall of window. 'You couldn't get these windows past building regulations today because of the high insulation requirements,' says Brian. 'These houses don't have chimneys either. But back in those days energy was very cheap. You could have really large windows and you didn't need smelly, dirty chimneys. We have warm-air heating, gas-fired, circulating round the house in underfloor ducts.'

The developer Eric Lyons and architect Leslie Bilsby, pioneers of the Span system and of New Ash Green, were idealists about communities as well as architecture; they planned democracy along with the houses. The village is run by residents' committees, providing a kind of social glue to the scattered clusters of houses, all of which report to the Village Association that acts as a quasi-parish council. In this way, everyone is encouraged to feel a sense of responsibility for the village. The association, which levies an pounds 80 annual tax, also administers the communal front gardens, the footpaths known as 'wents', the commons called 'minnis' (both old Kentish words), plus the remaining meadow and woodlands.

But the only committee worth belonging to in this architect-rich community, apparently, is the amenity committee; this is the one that controls house extensions, landscaping and trees. Brian Emby is on it. 'Trees are very emotive at the moment,' he says. 'They were knee-high when we first moved in, but now some people find them oppressive.' The committee is also fighting off the DIY enthusiasts, or the pink door brigade, who came in with the second wave of residents. 'No changes can occur unless approval is given. Anyone who lives here has to sign covenants.'

This attempt to combine idealism with pioneering architecture, within the constraints of the private sector and tailored to the pocket of the ordinary housebuyer, was revolutionary at the time and would still be now.

Another resident, Brian Hardcastle, formerly director of the large architectural practice YRM Partnership, and his wife Lesley, felt it was a great act of faith to buy a house before it was built. 'Everybody at that time was interested in bulk and prefabrication, in making houses like you made cars,' he says. 'This was a bit different because it was in the country, but it crystallised a lot of the ideas of the Sixties. No architect would be given so much power today.' Their house, overlooking the five-acre common or minnis, retains the minimalist spirit of the age.

Unfortunately, the Span company ran into trouble when the market turned sour in 1967 and was forced to sell to Bovis in 1970. Bovis completed the scheme in its own way, much as it would have done on any other estate. This is why the village is in two halves - the older Span residents move determinedly from one Span house to another as they grow older, while the Bovis generation keeps very much to its own familiar patch.

John Taylor, another architect, reckons he probably bought the last Span house to be built in the village. 'The great thing about these houses is that they used old materials in an industrialised way,' he says. 'You had the brick side walls, a steel frame down the middle, and wall panels dropped in either side. From the purlins you hung the cladding. The exposed purlins are a big feature.' (The purlin is a kind of horizontal beam.)

'The Modern Movement had introduced concrete, which created new ideas of space. The walls that divided up the rooms no longer had to be load-bearing. They became partitions. The great advantage of the steel frame was that it made a wide frontage for a terrace house, which had previously always been narrow and thin because it was suited to the length of the old timber beams.'

There is no welcoming front door because the focus of the house lies at the back, with the huge windows and the private garden. And since the kitchen was promoted from the back to the front of the house during the Sixties, as housewives had replaced servants, so the kitchen window began to dominate the front.

'In the Sixties, we thought we could do anything,' says John Taylor. 'Go to the moon, whatever. We had the technology and the social conscience and we thought we could do as we liked.' Taylor describes the Span style as a kind of secret language. 'Timber was used on the outside to clad non-load-bearing walls. So everywhere you see timber, you know that underneath there is a non-load-bearing wall. Bovis houses don't speak the same language, because they use timber on brick walls.'

Taylor has the Sixties passion for talking in numbers. Some of the Span house types, for instance, were numbered as K2s, with A to N variations (just as Chanel was No 5 and Levi's were 501). And he rails like a die-hard conservationist against the rash of plastic window replacements spreading through the village, and against the uniform white paint being applied in place of the old colours (also numbered) which included ash-mauve or hop-sack with chocolate window openers.

The paradox is that house prices here are low, because the Sixties house has not yet been accepted as 'desirable' by the ordinary buyer. For pounds 64,000 you can get a three-bedroom Span house with a garage. As housing, it has weathered a great deal better than the vast council estates that went up at the same time, which were trumpeted as cities in the sky but soon came to be seen as urban hell-holes.

With the hope and optimism at the beginning of the Sixties, there came a new level of wealth. People talked of the Affluent Society which allowed people of all classes to treat their homes as hobbies. Terence Conran provided bright colours and clean lines with what was then known as 'pre-digested' shopping at Habitat (where Sassoon haircuts and Quant outfits were compulsory for shop assistants on launch day). And so the aspirations and living patterns of the working and middle classes gradually converged. Aristocrats abandoned their historic country houses, or demolished them, and began to party with hairdressers and pop stars.

But in the end, the adaptation of Modernism for the mass market - which produced the 'little boxes' syndrome in much the same way that the Arts and Crafts movement eventually produced the Thirties semi - brought only a feeling of disillusionment. The Modernist Herbert Read wrote in Art and Industry: 'The supermarket and the bargain basement replace the museums and art galleries as repositories of taste, and any ideals of beauty or truth, refinement or restraints, are dismissed, in the language of the tribe, as 'square'.' -

Notes to buyers

MUCH Sixties architecture relies in part for its effect on large sheets of glass, a series of rectangles or squares which keep elevations simple and unfussy. Frames, mullions and transoms, made of wood, tend to be narrow and unobtrusive. Should the wood fail, windows should not be altered; like should be replaced with like. UPVC replacement windows look inappropriately thick and chunky, changing proportions and distracting the eye with white plastic.

The Sixties was the era of open-plan living. Whole ground floors intercommunicated. Typically there were open living-rooms, sometimes incorporating a dining-room in an

L-shape. Staircases too were often stripped down to their essentials to form a feature and draw the eye. This style should not be tampered with. Partitioning up the space and enclosing the stairs sacrifices the intended effect - one of uncluttered space, full of light, symbolising an open society averse to being sequestered in little rooms.

Internal wall surfaces reflect the interest in texture, natural materials and in experimentation common during the Sixties. A wall of exposed brick might meet another of teak slatting; ceilings were often timber-clad. These bold decorative features were an essential part of the style and should never be painted or plastered over.

Do not be tempted to update the typical internal flush door with a panelled version. Flush doors are in keeping both with the clean lines of the architecture and the forwardlooking technological spirit of the age. Panelled doors, on the other hand, with their cottagey feel, introduce inappropriate nostalgic resonances of the past and are over-fussy.

For sale

DATING from 1965, Priory Orchard, Nr Midhurst, West Sussex was built in a restrained style of red brick with a tile-hung upper floor under a pitched roof. It stands in the orchard of the Easebourne Priory, which was founded in the 13th century. The four-bedroom house is on the market through Jackson-Stops for pounds 265,000.

Five-bedroom Pettings Park, Hodsoll Street, Wrotham, Kent stands in 10 acres of landscaped park and is being sold by Knight Frank & Rutley for pounds 620,000. The striking flat-roofed house, a grouping of geometric forms, white-painted and swathed in wisteria, has a wall of window in virtually every room.

GA Property Services have three Span houses for sale in New Ash Green, Kent (see main feature): the two-bedroom 89 Punch Croft for just under pounds 50,000; the three-bedroom 30 Knights Croft at about pounds 63,000; and the three- bedroom 1 Lambardes for pounds 75,000.

Pevsner approved of Cray Clearing, Nr Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, standing in a natural clearing within a beech wood, and built in 1963 by Francis Pollen, who first worked in Edwin Lutyens's office. The house is long and low, made of honey-coloured bricks, and has an enormously overhanging flat roof. Hamptons' pounds 1.25m price tag includes a helipad, swimming- pool complex, tennis court, gym and sauna. Another unusual property of the period is for sale in Oxfordshire, this time through Knight Frank & Rutley for pounds 375,000. Christmas Common Tower, Watlington was built in the mid-Sixties by the then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Lord Esher. Tall and outwardly austere, the moated six-storey brick tower has five bedrooms and a passenger lift.

Another property typical of the period, but on a far more modest scale, is 52 Broadlands Road, Great Sutton, South Wirral. This three- bedroom semi, plainly built of brick, is on offer through Jones & Chapman for just under pounds 57,000. Strutt & Parker are selling Muyden Chace, Copt Hewick, Ripon, North Yorkshire for pounds 350,000. Built around 1962 of mellow stone, this enormous four-bedroom bungalow features a panelled study with bookshelves by the celebrated joiner Thompson of Kilburn, the 'mouse man' who carved a little mouse in relief on everything he made.

An important piece of architectural history is on the market through Tufnell & Partners for pounds 395,000. Five-bedroom Grovewood, West Drive, Wentworth, Surrey was designed by the architect Patrick Gwynne in 1965 and built in the form of a Y, with three slightly curving, extensively glazed wings. Gwynne's other Sixties masterpiece, the Serpentine Restaurant in London's Hyde Park, was recently pulled down in a storm of controversy.

Directory

Paint and wall coverings: 'Kinky Pink', 'Purple Heart', 'Black Power' and 'Pyschadahlia' are among the authentic Sixties colours mixed to order by John Oliver, 33 Pembridge Road, London W11 3HG (tel 071-221 6466). Colours then were strong and vibrant as a reaction to the depressing beiges and browns of the previous decades, he says. Wallpaper was not overly popular in the Sixties, but when people opted for it they really went to town. Mr Oliver still sells some of the designs he was selling 30 years ago, among them 'Happy Valley Cloud' (a dreamy cloudscape), 'Razmataz' (fierce blue zigzags on a metallic background) and 'The Holy City Zoo' (Op Arty black curves on silver).

Wood: Better-quality houses of the Sixties often used wood extensively in their interiors. Tongue-and-groove pine covered walls and ceilings; panelling was made of European hardwoods such as ash and cherry; block or parquet flooring of African hardwoods like iroko. Strip wood floors used maple or oak. James Latham, Leeside Wharf, Mount Pleasant Hill, London E5 9NG (tel 081-806 3333), a family firm of timber merchants established in 1756, supplies specialist woods. Brick: Owners of Span houses built of the distinctive Smeed Dean stock brick who want to find exactly matching bricks for an extension should visit G Orpin & Son, The Forge, Ash, Nr Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 7HW (tel 0474 872203). The family firm bought up the last supplies of the brick, made the old-fashioned way - fired in a heap on a bed of coke (a clamp) rather than in the kiln.

Lights: Span houses feature small elements of design which contribute to the overall effect. Missing detail, such as the white glass porch light shaped like a brick, should be restored. The light is available through Concorde Lighting, Avis Way, Newhaven, East Sussex BN9 OHX (tel 0273 515811). Contact the sales office for information about local suppliers.

Furniture: Fiell, 181-183 King's Road, London SW3 5EB (tel 071-351 7172) specialises in avant-garde furniture from 1945 to the present, including a wonderful selection of Sixties pieces. The successes of the space programme fuelled an optimism about the future, says Peter Fiell, and design responded with bright, exuberant colours and expressive futuristic shapes. He sells Pierre Paulin's boldly sculptural furniture, including the celebrated 'Ribbon' chair. Other pieces include an American chair in the form of a white plastic hand on a chrome base, and the 'Sacco' sire of the bean bag, a leather or PVC bag full of polystyrene beads, its shape in tune with the informal lifestyle of the decade.

The Sixties celebrated the rise of pop culture. Few people are better versed in its style than Tommy Roberts, 34 Arundel Gardens, London W11 2LB (tel 071-229 4351), one-time owner of Kleptomania and Mr Freedom, who specialises in items from the period. Authentic pieces include a 7ft-high chrome and neon light in the shape of a safety pin; a white vinyl ottoman which inverts into a coffee-table set with a painted eye; a disposable bucket-shaped chair made of card and covered in purple polka dots by Peter Murdoch; and the essential part of any Sixties decor, Family Dog and Big O psychedelic posters of cult heroes such as Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.

Fabrics: Some Sixties fabrics were Scandinavian-influenced, open-weave and in natural colours, explains Dorothy Bosomworth of Warner Fabrics, Bradbourne Drive, Tilbrook, Milton Keynes MK7 8BE (tel 0908 366900), while others were made from interesting combinations of fibres, such as cotton and rayon or wool and nylon, to give sheen and texture. Colours tended to be bright and sharp, perhaps lime-green and tangerine. Designs could be graphic or sploshy, figurative or traditional. Art Deco and Art Nouveau experienced a revival. Warner sells a handful of designs that started production in the Sixties, including 'Kubas' - a geometric Oriental design.

General advice: Extending a house should be carried out sensitively to avoid compromising the clean lines of the architecture. Edward Samuel, 80 Lamble Street, London NW5 4AB (tel 071-267 7567), an architect who designed a number of houses in the Sixties, respects the contemporary style and sympathetically adapts such properties. John Taylor, 88 Punch Croft, New Ash Green, Longfield, Kent DA3 8HR (tel 0474 872519), is an architect with specialist knowledge of Span housing. The British Flat Roofing Council, 38 Bridlesmith Gate, Nottingham NG1 2GQ (tel 0602 507733) has just published the Householder's Guide to Flat Roofing, available free in return for an SAE. The Royal Institute of British Architects Drawings Collection, 21 Portman Square, London W1H 9HF (tel 071-580 5533) is a 400,000-piece research collection of architectural drawings, models and photographs. The Sixties is well represented, with contemporary work by Eric Lyons, Erno Goldfinger, Patrick Gwynne and others. Telephone for an appointment.

Period Crafts: The Walter Segal method of building houses: The modular

Meccano man

A REVOLUTIONARY method of building simple houses, first devised in the Sixties, still flourishes today. The late architect Walter Segal, born in Berlin but resident in London since the Thirties, demolished his house in Highgate and built another in its place. To accommodate his family in the meantime, he built a little house in the garden. Flat-roofed and boxy, with long horizontal windows, it was timber-framed, made of light materials and on stilts. It took two weeks to complete and cost pounds 800. It caused a stir in architectural circles and was the genesis of the Walter Segal method.

'It is the architecture of liberation,' says Jon Broome, an architect who worked with Segal. Now part of Architype, a practice which constructs buildings along similar lines, he built his own house in south London the Segal way. 'Segal rethought building from first principles, simplifying the whole process to make it quick, cheap and easy,' he says. Not only architects employ his techniques. Segal gave power to the people. Virtually anyone can build a sound home using his methods. 'All you need are basic DIY skills,' says Broome.

Segal's approach to building is modular; design is determined by the size of standard materials. A self-builder is armed with instructions, a simple freehand sketch of the house on graph paper and a giant shopping list - 80 joists, 20 beams and so on. 'You hawk it round the builders' merchants to get the best price,' says Broome. 'It's all unloaded on site straight off the back of a lorry. There's no cutting and no waste.' The house is assembled rather like Meccano.

A single-storey Segal house needs about 18 timbers, 8in x 3in and up to 16ft long, for the main frame. These hold up the roof and pass through the floor as stilts, which avoids the need to level the site. Their length depends on the slope, and each rests in concrete poured into a hole. There are no foundations; the house is anchored by its own weight. The outside is fitted with perhaps 70 panels, infilling between windows, doors and timber supports, and mirrored inside by plasterboard panels. 'It's all fixed together with galvanised bolts and screws,' says Broome. 'There's no messy stuff; no bricklaying, no plastering. If any part needs replacing you can go down the road with a pounds 10 note and buy another bit.'

This flexible method has been embraced by self-build groups countrywide - the first in Lewisham, south London. Houses can be made bigger or smaller, storeys can be added. 'You can change your mind as you go along about where doors and windows should be,' says Broome. Yet the houses are unmistakably Segal: outside, the geometric panelling looks faintly Japanese; within, they are rugged with exposed timbers, and bright because of their wraparound windows.

The Sixties was the Brave New World of public housing. Segal, fiercely independent, did not join in the general applause then, although he shared some of the architectural language - modular construction, building materials exposed, a preoccupation with light, geometric form and the flat roof. Segal was largely scorned by his peers during his life - he died in the mid-Eighties - yet his method has endured, because he believed in human scale, with people in harmony with their surroundings and in control of their lives.

Architype, 4-6 The Hop Exchange, 24 Southwark St, London SE1 1TY (tel 071-403 2889). The Walter Segal Trust, Room 212, Panther House, 38 Mount Pleasant, London WC1X OAP (tel 071-833 4152), trains people to build their own homes.

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