Housing for secretaries and tomb raiders

I would be surprised if New Gourna and Hampstead Garden Suburb have ever appeared together on a page – and I don’t expect they will again. Yet the similarities in intent behind these two apparently radically different places make the relationship an illuminating one.

New Gourna, situated on the edge of Luxor in Egypt, is a harsh sandy place where everyday life is difficult. Hampstead Garden Suburb is something close to an Anglo-Saxon suburban dream, a faux-historical English village recreated for the north London bourgeois intelligentsia. Yet the architecture of both settlements has more in common than it might first appear.

Both these housing schemes aim to recreate something which has been lost, a kind of traditional architecture suited to climate and place; both revive folk elements which are characteristic of each place; and both were tailored to suit the inhabitants and their lifestyles.

If the intent was similar, however, the genesis of the two projects could hardly be more different. Hampstead Garden Suburb is the earlier of the two, established at the beginning of the 20th century by the social reformer Dame Henrietta Barnett.

Pupils in classroom at New Gourna in 1955

It was planned by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker along garden city principles – which called for the picturesque siting of houses and plenty of green space. But for our purposes what is interesting is that most of the architects employed an arts and crafts vernacular, creating a development that looked like a traditional English village.

I am going to pick one building in particular, Waterlow Court. It was built in 1908-09 as dwellings for working women, who mostly would have been secretaries. It is an exquisite courtyard development by the architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865-1945), one of the greatest of all the arts and crafts designers.

Baillie Scott made his name designing grand houses for newly wealthy clients, which were rarely ostentatious and created an impression of modesty and appropriateness to local tradition and to the landscape.

At Waterlow Court, however, he used that vernacular – a kind of plain, late-medieval style – to group the small, simple dwellings into a communal unit with real presence in a suburban setting.

Shady interior of home at New Gourna

In the reverse of his usual practice, his architectural style lent a kind of grandeur to the modest homes. The court also contains, perhaps a little nervously, an echo of a béguinage or nunnery, a suitably picturesque environment to house newly independent women, who were not quite that independent yet (the first women would not get the vote for more than a decade after Waterlow was completed – and even then only those over 30 years old).

Waterlow Court is entered through a half-timbered gateway, an echo of the “lychgate” which gave refuge to travellers at the entrance to a churchyard. The cloister-like courtyard, the steep pitched roofs with their dormer windows and the impeccable green rug of a lawn create an idyllic, archetypal Englishness. Right down to the materials – the wrought-iron details, the elongated strap hinges and turned timber balusters – this is a reinvention of an idealised rural past on the edge of Finchley Road.

Archway at Waterlow Court, which was designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott to provide homes for working women

The apartments were very different in scale to the country houses that Baillie Scott usually designed, yet Waterlow Court remained an imposing building.

It was a way of urbanising (or at least suburbanising) a rural form but also simultaneously ruralising that most urban of forms, the block of flats. It made communal living – then (and arguably still) not part of the English psyche – acceptable through aesthetic means.

New Gourna was begun near Luxor in 1946, with Egypt then still effectively under British rule. It was designed by one of the greatest architects of the modern era, Hassan Fathy (1900-89), to rehouse a community of light-fingered amateur archaeologists who had been stealthily stripping Luxor’s tombs of their treasures.

Corringham Road, Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London

Wary of losing their livelihoods, the residents – working-class people and with little interest in design – were initially reluctant to move. Fathy tried to persuade them with a new kind of architecture. Or rather, with a very old kind of architecture.

Fathy looked to the buildings in a traditional Egyptian village, an architecture of domes and courtyards, of cool arcades and thick walls sheltering shady rooms from the fierce heat. He began building not with concrete, which had become the default construction material of the age, but with mud-brick, the material used to build the first villages around the Nile at the beginning of civilisation.

Children at Hampstead Garden Suburb, circa 1907

When Fathy embarked on building the village there was no electricity or running water. The architect adopted the traditional Egyptian malqaf, or wind-catcher, a small chimney built on the roofs of houses to draw down a breeze into the heart of the house.

He also eschewed any ideas of modernist town planning, instead creating tight shaded alleys, giving houses small windows or no windows on south-facing walls and centring the structures around the courtyards that had traditionally formed the core of Arab houses.

The secretary of Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust with a map of the area in 1957

The natural ventilation, the use of low-impact materials, the revival of traditional forms (particularly the beautiful domes and open-work grilles which gave even the smallest houses a sense of grandeur and symbolism) all contributed to making this a prototype in sustainable development. Its legacy lives on through the book that Fathy went on to write based on his experiments in New Gourna, Architecture for the Poor, which remains one of the great texts of 20th-century architecture.

New Gourna was not an unqualified success. The foundations proved inadequate, the mud-brick was occasionally unstable and residents altered many buildings, often for the worse. But it has survived as a real village and it continues to inspire architects across the world, especially on the fringes of developing cities.

Both these settlements addressed the problems of housing communities which had sprung up spontaneously around new types of professions. There might be some distance between secretaries and tomb raiders but both Baillie Scott and Fathy attempted to revive indigenous architectures to create a sense that these new communities were somehow rooted in their particular place. Both housing schemes look backward rather than forward yet, ironically, foreshadow developments into the following century.

The vernacular, the idea of learning from the past, is ingrained in ideas of contemporary sustainability. Yet both these schemes are open to accusations of nostalgia, of a rose-tinted view of buildings of the past as an ideal age embodying some lost knowledge, which can appear both conservative and defeatist. But it is perhaps the modesty of both these schemes which has made them so influential.

Both look to the architecture of the everyday and the poor rather than the high architecture of fashion and wealth for their inspiration and, if we think of social housing from almost any period since, both still emerge from the comparison pretty well.

‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £12.99

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