A Visit to St George’s Fields
They say never meet your heroes. Well I met mine yesterday. Sort of. I’ve been a little obsessed with St George’s Fields over the last year— the low rise ziggurat estate near Marble Arch. Mainly because it’s a bit mysterious, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never see it. The architecture has been mistakenly attributed to Patrick Hodgkinson, the architect behind the Brunswick Centre, and I can see why. Visually it bares a striking resemblance, albeit on a smaller scale and perhaps a little tamer.
Last week Douglas Murphy tweeted to me (at me?) “I have a note that it was built by a housing association called: ‘Utopian Voluntary Housing Group’!!! Architects were called ‘Design 5’, apparently”. Design 5? Who? Never heard of them. The mystery continued. Until Friday, when I received an email from Phil Smith, a musician and resident of SGF, who was incidentally been the winner of the Pedway Film ticket I gave away last year. He contacted me to ask if I wanted to have a look around the estate. Hell yes!
Marble Arch is a ridiculously posh residential area—which is why the peculiarity of St George’s Fields appeals to me, surrounded by tall stuccoed houses it’s just so out of place. The estate is reached by a number of gated walkways, and Phil met me at the end of Frederick Close, a quaint cobbled mews. Once inside we walked about the estate, and the design and plan became clear. Four ziggurat blocks (Hanover Steps, Archery Steps, Park Steps and Kendal Steps) and three ‘link’ blocks (South Rise, West Rise and North Rise’ joined by pedestrian walkways around two squares.
The ‘Step blocks’ are seven storeys high—made up of single aspect duplex on the ground and first floors, one bedroom single storey flats the second floor, another duplex on the third/fourth floors, another one bedroom on the fifth, and finally the penthouses, dual aspect two bedroom flats. Phil told me how he’d just missed out on buying one of these particular flats before he moved in 2010. He himself living in one of the two bedroom duplexes.
The fact that they were designed as luxury flats is a misnomer. Prices may be reaching £800,000 for a two bedroom now, but when they were built, by the ‘Utopian Housing Association’ they were designed as low cost affordable homes. The estate is built on a former burial site, and the Utopian Housing Group bought it in 1964. The architects ‘Design 5’ (Michael Fry and Anthony Mottram) were part of this association, and their brief was to obtain as many habitable rooms as possible in one, two and three-room units, to Parker Morris standards within very tight cost limits. At the time, a two bedroom flat would have cost £24 a week in rent, the equivalent of £140 in today’s money. Apparently.
Phil and I were invited for a cup of tea with his neighbour Jennifer. Jennifer has lived on the estate since it was built in 1976. She’d seen the flats advertised for sale one day as she was driving past, so she applied for and was offered one of the studio flats in the ‘Rise’ blocks. She talked about how small it was and how she later moved into the flat she is in now: a one bedroom flat, with an unusual curved wall feature maximising the space between the bedroom and and the living room. All of the flats in the ‘step blocks’ have full height windows onto a generous private balcony. They also all have underfloor heating. According to Jennifer there was a very strong sense of community when she first moved in, which she claims has diminished a little over recent years as landlords buy up multiple properties on the estate with more transitory residents. Phil who has lived on the estate four years is clearly very happy living here, “I find it rather like a village, where many people smile and say hello as you pass in corridors and gardens…I feel more of a community here than I did in the suburbs a few years ago.”.
In 1981 the residents bought their properties and a share of the freehold from the Association outright— the reason for this I’m slightly confused about, Jennifer mentioned they ‘had to buy them due Thatcher etc.’—huh? I can’t work out why they would have had to. Maybe some residents just wanted to as they were now able to do so through the Right to Buy scheme, but in order to get a share of the freehold, all residents would have had to be on board.
The estate is very well cared for with full time maintenance staff polishing and buffing the communal areas on a daily basis, according to Phil, and the gardens are immaculate. A resident shortly after moving into the estate in 1976 wrote of the communal areas, “The architects took particular care to get the right amount of lighting to discourage rape, but it avoids excessive glare, and the open effect of the car park must be a deterrent to potential malefactors”. Wandering about taking these photographs, I couldn’t think of anywhere that felt safer. Not even the Barbican!
For more information on buying or renting a flat on the state, visit the St George’s Fields management website.
A big thanks again to Phil Smith for the tour and the extra info.