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Stockley Park: sanitised arcadia

Stockley is a successful ‘80’s business park on the northern edge of Heathrow. DEGW did the research and briefing; Arup Associates were the master planners and the architects for many of the early buildings in a place where issues of typology loom large within an equation of two-storey development and 25% ground coverage. SOM have buildings on the west side of the scheme; Foster, Troughton McAslan, Ian Ritchie, Geoffrey Darke, and Eric Parry have buildings on the east side. Everyone struggled with the same developer constraints that offered tenants a carefully structured, shell-and-core option (a suburban, low-rise version of Canary Wharf — or vice versa). This strategy culminates in recent Arup buildings at the western edge, where ingenious geometrical variations strive to creatively cope with the realities of architecture as a building type set within a landscape that is the undoubted feature lending the place its character of acceptability.

And the landscape is the real, hidden achievement: the reclamation of a heavily polluted area of land and its transformation into the business park and a local authority golf course to the north. Ducks and flowers flourish above the barriers that keep a frightening toxicity at bay. It’s a beautiful place where people bring the kids on Sunday to feed ducks and carp.

But it is also a place where buildings hide behind bushes, globalised tenants identified only by discrete signs labelled with acronyms and offering instructions with regard to acceptable behaviour. Luxuriant nature hides security cameras and the stealth of guards who slowly cruise in neo-military vehicles looking for those ‘who don’t belong’. The entertainment of sanitised arcadian landscape beauty lulls the mind into contentment and the illusion that all is well in the world. Somehow, even the dull, constant background sound of aeroplanes is comforting. It is very clever, very modern, and rather strange. . . But it is, nevertheless, a classic example of this genre. Make a visit, then escape back to Soho in order to discuss it midst the sex shops, bums, homeless, and ethnic offers. These might constitute their own variety of theatre and inauthenticity, but I know where I want to hang my hat.

Homewood, in Esher, was designed by Patrick 31 Gwynne as a young and promising architect then working with Denys Lasdun at the office of Wells Coates. At 24, Gwynne persuaded his father to allow him to design a new family home on their land (the existing family house was, apparently, too near an increasingly noisy road). Daddy agreed and Patrick lived there ever after — after his parents died, turning the place into a pad for himself and boyfriend, who together held, we’re informed by the guides, rather entertaining dinner parties (featuring, for example, a central table lamp that flashed when Gwynne considered a speaking guest was getting boring!). Completed in 1938, the house is clearly inspired by a mix of Corbusier (Villa Savoye) and Aalto (Villa Maira) and is as good as it gets as an example of English Modernism of the period. It’s a simple enough place, with spacious principal rooms on the first floor — separated into a living wing and a sleeping wing — plus servants and study, garaging etc. on the ground. And the surrounding gardens are very pleasant. It all makes quite a contrast with London’s East End and underscores the capital’s westward orientation. Overall, it’s not on a par with the European masters and has none of their originality, but it’s good stuff and well worth a visit, most especially for the 1950’s and ‘60’s modifications (very James Bond and all that in Gwynne’s study) rather than the ‘30’s references. You have to book through the National Trust (see their web site for details) and prospective visitors gather at Claremont Landscape Garden, outside Esher.

Also see Erno Goldfinger’s house in Willow Road, Hampstead. Another comparison to make is with the 1930’s parts of Eltham Palace (Court Yard, Eltham SE9; an English Heritage property).

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