19 December 2022

Stony Stratford’s housing
includes some of ‘Britain’s
hidden architectural gems’

Galley Hill, started half a century ago in 1971-1972, was the first large housing scheme built by Milton Keynes Development Corporation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Suburban housing is often unremarkable architecturally. But the suburban housing on the south side of Stony Stratford includes the houses in Galley Hill and Fullers Slade, regarded as innovative and revolutionary when they they were built half a century ago and the houses in Latimer, which has been described as one of ‘Britain’s hidden architectural gems,’ offering ‘superlative modern living in landscaped surroundings.’

The housing development in Galley Hill was built as a rent-to-buy housing scheme and was designed under the influence of the architect Professor Derek John Walker (1929-2015), then the Chief Architect for Milton Keynes Development Corporation.

Derek Walker is remembered primarily for his work in urban planning and leisure facilities through his firm Derek Walker Associates. He studied architecture at Leeds Art School and planning at the University of Pennsylvania before setting up an architectural practice in Leeds in 1960. From 1970 to 1976, he was the Chief Architect and planner of Milton Keynes.

Walker recruited a team and over seven years produced a landscaping strategy for the new city, eleven village plans, the structure for the programme for producing 3,000 houses a year with supporting community, leisure, retail and sporting and cultural facilities.

He designed many buildings, and possibly the most celebrated is the Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre. When it opened in 1979 it was a unique concept for 1 million sq ft (93,000 sq m) of retail space planned around covered landscaped streets. It has since been giving Grade II listing.

Walker was involved with the architects Norman Foster and Frank Newby in New York, and he was Professor of Architecture and Design at the Royal College of Art in 1984-1990.

Galley Hill, started half a century ago in 1971-1972, was the first large housing scheme built by Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Concrete shells were delivered to the site and clad with brick. The mono-pitched roof design was reflected in later developments in other parts of Milton Keynes.

Some of the houses intially served as a post office, a temporary school, a doctor’s surgery and a curate’s house for Saint Mary and Saint Giles Parish.

The Local Centre in Galley Hill was the first of its type in Milton Keynes. It was built alongside a grid road, which was part of the plan for Milton Keynes, with a mix of shops, meeting place and a community workshop. The meeting place and workshop in the centre have been partly refurbished in recent weeks.

Fullers Slade was conceived as a reinterpretation of the traditional terraced house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Neighbouring Fullers Slade was the second large fully council owned estate built by Milton Keynes Development Corporation in the early 1970s. It was also important in establishing the architectural reputation of the city. The original design was conceived as a reinterpretation of the traditional terraced house and was built using simple modular techniques to get around the shortage of traditional building skills at the time.

The long terraces in Fullers Slade were originally cedar clad and were set in copious parkland with no rear garden overlooked at the back.

Fullers Slade was influenced, directly or indirectly, by Wayland Tunley working with Derek Walker, and it has been widely illustrated in publications, including in the Architects’ Journal (1975). However, the estate became very run down in recent decades, was beset by building condition and site security issues. It was considered one of the most deprived estates in Britain, and was one of seven similar estates in Milton Keynes earmarked by the council to be regenerated as part of an ambitious billion pound programme.

The architectural significance of all these developments is recognised in the second edition of the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Buckinghamshire, edited by the architectural historian Dr Elizabeth Williamson.

Latimer was used frequently in advertising to set the modern design agenda for Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Nearby Latimer is a significant early courtyard-based private housing scheme. It too has been recognised in Pevsner and in important publications such as the Architect’s Journal (1975). Latimer was used frequently in advertising to set the modern design agenda for Milton Keynes as a developing new town from the mid-1970s on.

The houses at Latimer were built in 1974-1975 and are perhaps the best built during this period, in terms of both location and architectural design. They were sold originally with an asking price of £18,250.

The houses at Latimer were designed by the architectural practice of Frost Nicholls in collaboration with the landscape architect Michael Ellison.

Brian Frost (1939-2021), who died last year, belonged to a generation who believed good architecture would contribute to a better future for all. Most of his work was in housing – more by chance than intention, he later maintained – and demonstrates a passion for care and quality in buildings. The partnership of Frost and Nicholls lasted until 1977, and Brian Frost later worked with the prize-winning architect Sir James Stirling (1926-1992).

Professor Cliff Nicholls studied architecture at South Bank and Greenwich Universities. He won the European prize for Architecture in 1991. He became Dean of Design at Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1994 and Head of the School of Architecture and the Visual Arts at the University of East London in 2003. He has been a visiting professor in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Jinzhou, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

No 13 Latimer was used as the show-house when the development first opened (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In their competition-winning design for Latimer in Calverton End, Frost and Nicholls were inspired by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon (1918-2008), particularly by his houses in Fredensborg and in Kingo near Helsingør in 1963. Utzon is best known for his design of the Sydney Opera House (1973), and Frost and Nicholls were inspired at Latimer by Utzon’s courtyard form.

No 13 is a good example of the houses at Latimer and it was used as the show-home when the development first opened. It is a detached four-bedroom house arranged over three levels with a large, open plan living and dining space at its core. The house is a rare example in Britain of a ‘courtyard house’ where the accommodation is arranged around an open courtyard.

The use of glass throughout the house allows for plenty of light, while the surrounding planting of trees ensure a high degree of privacy. Aside from glass, the house’s exterior is formed of dark brick and dark stained timber, which is also visible throughout the interior, beside white-painted brick.

The Architects’ Journal in 1975 devoted 11 pages to an in-depth study of the Frost Nicholls houses at Latimer, with a set of photographs by the celebrated architectural photographer John Donat (1933-2204).

The Journal covered almost every aspect of the project from the construction of the houses to discussions of details such as the timber trellises on the exterior of the houses.

Writing in the Architects’ Journal, Peter Collymore described how ‘inhabitants returning home through the open rolling landscape of Buckinghamshire will arrive in a private sheltered haven that could be pleasant and calming.’ He praised ‘the remarkable light quality – and a sense of space which is most pleasing,’ while the ‘private gardens are positioned to receive maximum sunlight and minimum overlooking.’

Half a century after it was built, Latimer remains one of the best courtyard schemes built in Britain during a golden age of low-rise housing. At the time Latimer was built, sustainability was not a significant concern, but its compact setting and choice of materials continue to offer much to learn from today.

The Local Centre in Galley Hill was the first of its type in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work. I’m sure many love reading your blog. Thank you.

md2399 said...

Hi Patrick,
You maybe interested in Iqbal Aalam's blog?
Architects: MKDC Architects. Derek Walker, Wayland Tunley, Early 1970s.
He states: "I am returning to my 'mission' of covering most of the early significant architectural developments of Milton Keynes. Where possible I attempt to show the 'ageing process' , here I am relying on plans and details as published in AJ of 10th September 1975. My blog covers this scheme and many other housing grids on south flank of Milton Keynes near Bletchley."