nikolus pevsner opens his Outline of European Architecture by defining the distinction between “buildings” and “architecture”. “Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building: the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal”. This is, I think, a wrong approach to art. I am certain that it is a wrong approach to architecture, which is essentially concerned with forming, in a specific place, a setting for specific human needs and activities: which is, that is, functional. Functional, of course, is a word much used to distinguish modern architecture and as such it has many different meanings: it is both a style, for example,
My excuse for writing, in this article, about Churchill Gardens, Pimlico, is that in this area of London, as in few other parts of the city rebuilt on a large scale since the war, this feeling for ordinary human needs has gradually become absorbed by the architects and translated into the architecture. This estate has been constructed slowly, piece by piece. The architects have been able to see one section being used and lived in while they were planning those to be built later, and they have modified and changed their original plans to cater (so far as is possible within the limits dictated by the site, by economies, and by the number of flats to be provided) for the real and not the imagined needs and feelings of the community for whom they were building. The earlier and later parts of this estate confront us with the difference between an architecture based upon an abstract ideal of what people want and require, and an architecture learned and created from the usage of the people living in it. It is the nature of these changes, however, as well as the fact that they have happened, that is important. To see the architects’ problems and the solution they finally achieve is to appreciate more fully some of the factors that help to create a happy, healthy community, and to realise the implications of this for an architecture that would be really modern, and truly functional.
The thirty-acre site of Churchill Gardens, which was largely worn-out terrace housing, much of it bomb-damaged, was the subject of an architectural competition held by the Westminster City Council shortly after the war. The competitors had to provide housing at the very high density of 200 persons to the acre for the kind of people living in the immediately surrounding area of Pimlico. Most of these people work in service trades in Central London (as taxi-drivers, shop-assistants, etc.), although a small number of houses had also to be provided for people with higher incomes. All were to be, however, tenants of the Council.
The competition was won by the young architects, Powell and Moya. Their scheme was a very simple one. A large number of nine, ten and eleven-storey blocks of flats are placed in a series of parallel rows across the site. A spine road runs east-west between these blocks and the service roads to the flats branch off at right-angles to it. The buildings do not obscure each other’s light and air and there is room between the blocks for public areas planted with grass and trees. The individual flats are almost all orientated so that the living rooms and the balconies to them look over the grass and trees and catch the afternoon sun, while the bathrooms and entrances face east, towards the service roads. The few blocks at right angles to these rows of flats are never, except along Lupus Street, more than four-storeys high; They do not have sufficient authority, seen against their nine-storey neighbours, to counterbalance the stride of the parallel blocks.
Within this framework rational provision was made for all those facilities which, in a technological society, have to become the responsibility of the community and these were incorporated in the detailed design from the beginning. The estate, in fact, was conceived as a whole unit and not merely as a collection of individual homes. Refuse is tipped into hoppers on each floor and then falls to incinerators in the basement; surplus heat from Battersea Power Station across the Thames, in the form of hot water which would otherwise be wasted, is piped under the river and used to provide central-heating and hot-water for all the flats; under each block are tenants’ stores and an underground garage is provided for cars; schools, public-houses, a community centre and children’s playgrounds are all provided for, as well as the open lawns around most of the buildings.
This conception of the scheme is part of the best tradition of modern architecture, a tradition described by Max Neufeld in NLR 7 as “triumphantly successful in achieving a synthesis of technology and the humanist tradition of our culture.” It uses modern technology to produce living conditions which are intended to be as different as possible from those experienced even today in most cities. It ensures sufficient light and air to every home, grass and trees in the heart of the city available to everyone, flats that are efficient and easy to run, and provision by the community of these services which the individual cannot satisfactorily provide for himself. Architecture is used for social and human purposes, not for economic or aesthetic reasons.
But if the estate had been built as originally planned it would, I feel, have been only a number of individuals sharing certain services, it would have been a community in name only and essential human needs would have been ignored. It would have been efficient and practical but not functional.