BY Gillian Darley in Opinion | 12 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 190

A Way Out?

Thirty years on, could a pioneering self-build scheme – documented in a new book – help solve London’s current housing crisis?

BY Gillian Darley in Opinion | 12 SEP 17

As the search for alternative solutions to London’s housing crisis intensifies, the resounding success of a self-build scheme initiated in the 1970s continues to offer inspiration. In 1974, the Swiss-born architect Walter Segal, then nearly 70 years old, was introduced to Brian Richardson, deputy architect for the southeast London borough of Lewisham. Segal had developed a simple, cost-effective system for constructing timber dwellings, suited to individual and first-time builders; Richardson recognized the method’s potential for social housing. From that meeting grew a self-build association, its members chosen by ballot from the council’s long housing list. The sites allocated to the scheme were awkward plots, judged unsuitable for ordinary development. The first, now called Segal Close, consisted of seven houses (with seven more scattered nearby) and the second, Walters Way, of 13.

Marking the 30th anniversary of the completion of Walters Way, a new book produced by two of the street’s residents – writer Alice Grahame and photographer Taran Wilkhu – opens with a letter Richardson wrote to Segal after the completion of Segal Close in 1980. ‘Well, we did it. Or, rather, the self-builders did it […] Fourteen of the most satisfactory council houses ever built and, what is better, fourteen families imbued with a new self-confidence and sense of control over their own lives. Your method of building is certainly vindicated.’ With Walters Way and Segal Close, Grahame and Wilkhu have brought the story of these unusual streets back into the public eye, ready for a new generation to pick up the baton.

Born in Ascona to Romanian Jewish parents, Segal grew up in progressive circles in Switzerland and Berlin, in which a radical version of communal life was the norm. (His father, Arthur, was a painter involved with the Zürich dadaists and the Cabaret Voltaire.) Reacting, Segal took a practical path into architecture, first in Delft and then at the Technischen Hochschulen in Berlin and Zurich (having turned down an invitation from Walter Gropius, via his father’s friend Lyonel Feininger, to join the Bauhaus). Despite his enviable contacts, Segal was disenchanted by mainstream modernism, though the traditional route offered by his studies did not appeal either. In 1932, he built a prototype for a lightweight, single-storey, wood-frame house: the basic elements of what became known as the ‘Segal Method’. It took three weeks to build, for a patron of his father’s in Ascona, and epitomized Segal’s modest, self-explanatory approach to architecture. As Adolf Hitler’s accession splintered Europe, Segal moved overseas to work as an excavation architect for the Cairo Museum. In 1936, he arrived in Britain from Mallorca, joining the émigré architectural diaspora in London. Another member of that circle, Eva Bradt, was completing her studies at the Architectural Association (where Segal taught from 1944). Soon, they went into practice together, marrying in 1940.

Segal was a passionate proselytizer for the empowerment of ordinary people through practical, self-fulfilling action.

Segal’s first postwar architecture was Queen Anne’s Close on Highgate West Hill, envisaged as a co-operative development of eight brick houses: two detached, the rest a terrace. But Eva’s sudden death in 1950 – which saw him become a lone parent to their two-year-old son, John – along with the dilution of the original principles, left Segal deeply disillusioned. He built widely but was increasingly exasperated by the planning system, each encounter tending to start with a brief honeymoon period followed by a prolonged fight. Dealing with Segal was never easy: he had an obsessive streak – the hallmark of many remarkable people.

His little Highgate house, dating from 1962, was hardly more than a cabin constructed while work continued on a new home to accommodate his much-expanded family (his second wife, Moran Scott, and her five children). The ‘temporary’ house followed his modular system and, as in Ascona, was built quickly using timber components, bolted together, which could be reused or resold for future use. No ‘wet trades’ – bricklaying or plastering – were required. It was a simple, carpentry-based construction easily learned by novices. As critic Martin Pawley wrote, revisiting the bungalow for an Architect’s Journal building study more than 20 years later: ‘Walter Segal has found a way to keep the social ideals of the modern movement alive. His own personal crisis in architecture ended
at the bottom of his own garden in the shadow of Berthold Lubetkin’s towering Highpoint flats. The contrast is instructive and humbling.’

The single-storey houses of what is now Segal Close were the children of the little house in Highgate (and the grandchildren of the Ascona property): timber framed with wood wool panels and single-glazed sliding windows. Interior partitions were flexible. The rigorous simplification made it hardly more complex than assembling an over-sized piece of flat pack furniture.

Walters Way – two-storey houses flanking a curving, steep-sloping private road – was begun in 1985, the year of Segal’s death. The construction was overseen by Ken Atkins, a veteran of Segal Close and chair of the self build group. For Jon Broome – an architect and former student of Segal’s, who became his right-hand man – Segal demonstrated ‘how you could build simply and economically; how you could use building technology to liberate people’s understanding of how to design and build for themselves’. John McKean, Segal’s biographer, writes that he held steadfastly to ‘the modernist principles of equality of access, of an equivalence of amenity; of creating rational, unassuming, likeable houses that semi-skilled people could fabricate and dwell in, with the processes of which they could themselves grow – self building, building selves’.

Exterior view of
Ian and Shiree’s home, Lewisham, London.  Courtesy: Park Books. Photograph: Taran Wilkhu, 2016

As one current resident, who was introduced to Segal’s work by the writer Colin Ward, explains, the tight, wooded sites with houses ‘jostled together’ still offer something unusual, ‘a quality of openness and privacy’. Why, he asks, is this mode of living not more common? The occupants profiled in Walters Way and Segal Close talk of the strength of the community – ‘a legacy of the original ethos’ – despite the fact that the UK government’s Right to Buy scheme means almost all the residents are owner-occupiers, rather than council tenants, and only four of the original builders remain. Yet, these houses were designed to accommodate change and the shared values are embedded by default: everyone commits to looking after the common areas, the streets and lighting.

Now, Architype – the practice set up by Broome and Bob Hayes, another of the original self-build group – is helping Broome’s current firm prepare a sustainable scheme for more than 30 houses at Church Grove in Ladywell, Lewisham. This is a Community Land Trust venture under the aegis of the Rural Urban Synthesis Society: a membership organization for self builders founded by Kareem Dayes, whose parents, Dave and Barbara, built their home on Walters Way between 1985 and 1987. It is a case of the wheel coming full circle.

In a special issue of the Architects’ Journal in 1986, Broome listed key points of the Segal Method, beginning with ‘an attitude of mind rather than a system of construction’. In Segal there was something of the prophet: his beliefs were neither entirely utopian nor wholly pragmatic, but a bit of both. I remember him lecturing, endearingly talking away (often for much longer than programmed), with his famous dentures slipping and sliding up and down as he spoke: a passionate proselytizer for the empowerment of ordinary people through practical, self-fulfilling action. Thirty years on, the drive and the tools that Segal gave to a handful of able, but cash-strapped, Lewisham residents is still a viable model, if land can be released for the purpose and obstacles overcome.

Main image: Interior view of Jim and Janna’s home, Lewisham, London. Courtesy: Park Books; photograph: Taran Wilkhu, 2016.

Gillian Darley is an architecture writer and broadcaster based in London, UK. She is the author of several books, including Villages of Vision: A Study of Strange Utopias (2007) and the President of the Twentieth Century Society.