Rising on the Wings of the Dawn
It’s one of the least well known and best architectural juxtapositions in London. A lesson in harmony over conflict. A sylvan setting softens any jarring of design. The Cator Estate in Blackheath is where the 18th century meets the 20th century. In the 1780s, businessman John Cator acquired 100 hectares of parkland on the southeast corner of the heath and gradually developed it for low density housing. Little did he realise many moons later the postwar residential developer Span would continue the work. Span Developments was formed in 1957 by architects Geoffrey Townsend and Eric Lyons in the late 1950s as a property development company. They set out to bring modern architecture to leafy environments.
Graham Morrison of Allies and Morrison Architects relates, “The two of them were masters of the value of systematic repetition. They knew the value of a well planted landscape and were unafraid of bringing buildings and landscape together in deliberately picturesque compositions to the benefit of both.” There are 73 Span developments totalling over 2,000 dwellings in England. Minimising car dominance, shared landscaped areas, standard house types and open plan internal layouts are just some of the characteristics that current housebuilders take on with varying degrees of success. Art and sculpture are another one. ‘Eric Lyons and Span’ (2006) edited by Barbara Simms is the seminal work on Span, collating key voices from the industry.
Alan Powers, “The vast majority of the houses built in Britain, other than those erected by local and national government during the middle six decades of the 20th century, have never been the work of architects. The process of speculative building by which they were developed was not wholly ignorant of architecture, but generally managed quite well at the bottom of the food chain… Span was exceptional in breaking this pattern – its architects did not just design individual houses, but also the layout and landscaping of their setting.”
Jan Woodstrau: “The layout of Span developments used a number of standard house types, rather, than specific ones designed for each site, which had distinct marketing advantages. The standard types were mostly designed so that they enabled some flexibility with regard to the orientation, or with a number of types arranged so that they could all face a central communal space. The lack of front gardens in the later schemes enable the central lawn to be extended up to the building blocks, whilst in other places shrub and tree planting was used to break up the monotony of repetitive housing. Planting provided its own rhythm and created places in conjunction with the buildings… in Span schemes the dominance of the car was challenged not by dictating the layout in favour of the car.”
Elain Harwood: “Span set out to show, in Townsend’s words, that ‘architect designed houses and flats can be produced to sell at competitive prices, and to show the developer the necessary margin of profit’. The choice of sites was critical. Around London they chose desirable, leafy areas already popular with commuters, beginning in Richmond and Twickenham, and later advancing to Weybridge and Byfleet. Outside London they built in Cambridge, Hove, Oxford and Taplow; schemes in Bristol and Cheltenham were only partly realised due to lack of demand.”
Madeleine Adams and Charlie MacKeith: “The core ingredients of Span are simple, even modest: an indivisible boundary between landscape and building design; the provision of attractive shared spaces; architectural design that allows the homeowner to be part of the shared space or separate from it; and management structures that sustain the immediate community over many years. The architecture provides the important elements of housing (a series of comfortable interior spaces with a view) with wit and attention to detail. Span is a homegrown response to providing in English suburbs that has been tested over 50 years… Recent appraisals of Eric Lyons’s and Span’s work come from many directions. The historic importance of the estates has been recognised by English Heritage and local authority conservation officers.”
Elain Harwood: “Span’s attention had turned to the Cator Estate in Blackheath, a charming preserve of late 18th century terraces and villas, most notably Michael Searles’s The Paragon, a terrace of linked pairs dating from 1794 to 1805 which had been carefully restored after war damage by Bernard Brown with Leslie Bilsby as his builder. The area’s history was stoutly defended by the Blackheath Society, founded in 1937, and Blackheath Park – the core of the Cator Estate – was becoming admired for its Regency character. But many of the houses had been damaged beyond repair, and the long gardens and backland nurseries of Blackheath Park and the roads immediately to its north and south were ripe for speculative development. Leslie Bilsby was on hand to do just that.”
Builder Leslie Bilsby lived in The Paragon and would become joint Managing Director of Span alongside Geoffrey Townsend. Objectors continue to be the bane of housebuilders lives: they’re usually people with houses who don’t want other people to have houses. The most extreme example is when objectors living in the earlier phases of a development object to later phases. Housebuilders construct homes for everyone, even objectors. “Since housing has become a political question much abuse and nonsense has been spoken and written about the housebuilder and his misdeeds in the past.” That was Sir Harry Selley, President of the National Federation of Housebuilders, introducing Manning Robertson’s publication Everyday Architecture, 99 years ago.