When it was built this elegant swan ruffled a few feathers, but today its good looks are more popular than ever
If you were reading an architectural magazine in the summer of 1934, the name ‘Ruislip’ meant only one thing: a planning case about some concrete houses in a Middlesex suburb, designed by the architects Amyas Connell and Basil Ward. The ‘Ruislip affair’ was the most publicised of the many planning battles over modern architecture in the Thirties, battles that resemble all too closely what can happen today when someone tries to build a modern house. Just as nowadays, the supporters of Modernism pointed out how dreadful the normal run of house designs was compared to the exceptional ones, which were being officially condemned. As one writer put it, ‘all the ducks quack in fear and horror because they see the unusual form of a swan in their midst.’
Today, the three houses that Connell, Ward and Colin Lucas (the third partner who joined them during the fracas) put up alongside each other are cherished by their occupants. Bill Park and Laurence Melford saw their house advertised in a local paper in the depths of winter in 1988 and did not miss a second in viewing it and making an offer at the asking price. Years before, Laurence, who grew up in the area, had visited one of the other houses and been impressed, even at the age of 11, by its unusual character. They spent time stripping away later layers that had been unwisely added to the house, including coving in the living room, Victorian-style ceiling roses and a fake Regency electric fire. Finally, they broke down a door and partition on the staircase and opened up the space as it was originally intended. The house breathed easily again. No net curtains blur the lines of its 100 per cent original Crittall windows.
The stairs were one of the main points of objection in 1934, since they appeared to be unscreened from the gaze of passers-by, with a tall window rising full-height both at the front and back. As a concession, a panel of concrete was included to provide a modesty shield, but even with this modification, the stairs are still a spectacular climb, rising up to the roof where a large model of a propellor-driven plane, left by former resident, Gerald Rossiter, still hangs in space.
Connell, Ward and Lucas were strong believers in concrete, and wanted to demonstrate its superiority. The walls are only four inches thick, with an internal insulation layer – hardly ideal in contemporary terms, when combined with single glazing in steel frames – but by reopening the original air vents in the rooms, Bill and Laurence manage to keep warm in winter without problems of condensation. Although there are occasional leaks in the walls, at the junctions of the original concrete ‘lifts’, the flat roof has never been a problem, and gives them a terrace they frequently enjoy in summer. They also take pleasure in the garden, which they have tidied up into a suitable companion to the architecture.
The design brief for the houses was essentially the same as for a standard suburban semi, but the effect is very different, owing to the larger windows, the position of the stairs and the open plan ground floor. The hall opens up to the living room through a double-width opening at the point where the stairs come down, thus making the most of the available space. The L-shaped living room was originally divided by a sliding partition to screen the dining area, in place of the partition wall that you would expect to see between front and back. Today, it makes a well-lit room with a good cross-draught when the Crittall French doors are opened in summer. The house was designed for some kind of domestic help, since the partition between the kitchen and dining room includes a pivoting door with semi-circular shelves on one side, which can be stacked from the kitchen side before a meal, and then used to return dirty dishes to the unseen domestic goddess later. Built-in furniture was one of the selling points of Modernism, and the house is well provided with cupboards, which also form acoustic partitions between the bedrooms. These have retained finely-made sliding drawers with drawer-fronts cut diagonally instead of having handles fixed to them.
At an original cost of just under £1,000, the Ruislip houses were nearly double the price of the cheapest semi, a factor that could have deterred developers from taking the idea further. When Bill and Laurence opened up for the first time for London Open House in 2004, instead of the handful of visitors they were expecting, they ushered in 800 people over two half-days so modernist enthusiasts aren’t lacking.
Words: Alan Powers Images: Elizabeth Zeschin