Sputnik over Suburbia, and Serendipity

David Prichard, Co-Founder of Metropolitan Workshop

Suburb: Richmond on Thames, Surrey, now London Borough of Richmond on Thames

One cold night in 1957, my Father took me onto Ham Common to watch the first Sputnik traverse the sky. Above the cricket pitch, pond and silhouette of lime trees, we saw the first artificial satellite traverse the sky – it was the size of a beach ball – amazing! It was Russian, this was the Cold War era, with the four-minute warning of Armageddon. What next, I wondered?


From my bus stop at the corner of the Common, the panorama of buildings comprised an engineering works, an elegant pair of Georgian houses, two tiny single storey timber clad shops for a newsagent and undertaker’s showroom and a noisy pub. On the opposite side of the road there was a solicitor’s office in an old cottage, a paint shop, second-hand car dealer’s yard. Behind a long brick wall, a psychiatric hospital in an imposing Victorian mansion. Such a variety of land-uses accrued organically over centuries, and are mostly still there, because they are compatible and are still economically viable for their separate owners. Up the road was Hawkers aircraft factory (where they built Hurricanes and later Hunter jets) and a mile upstream on the Thames the coal fired Kingston Power Station. Both those sites went to housing in the 1980s and 1990s. The Town and Country Planning Act came into force in 1948, introducing the template for the system we use today. Arguably, the advent of use classes in 1972, to support development control, prevented the creation of incompatible neighbours, and have deny such rich and at times chaotic juxtapositions in future.

Next door to the noisy pub was home. We occupied the first floor of a crudely adapted, late Victorian coach house set back and sideways on to the busy road. We lived in the subdivided former billiard room, a small first floor flat really, above unused stables and a coach room with hay loft above. The billiard room only had two big windows on opposite walls and those had been divided to light four rooms – two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. Access was up a steep flight of stairs, with bathroom under it, which was clad in corrugated asbestos sheeting, having once been an outside stair. We walked through the living room to reach the other rooms, so no space was wasted on a corridor. It was sociable and warm in winter with its pre-war coke-fired Cosi-Stove. I shared a bedroom with my older sister, so little calm or privacy for us. Rooms off rooms are a death trap, but possible now, with modern misting systems. The windows were high up too, like a Victorian school. Divided windows are the expedient device used to carve up old buildings. But years later I appreciated the virtue of them gently illuminating the wall. Vermeer’s domestic scenes celebrate such an effect.

We didn’t have much furniture, probably because we did not have many things in those days. I had a wooden toy box for all my treasures – it was a Second World War ammo box – which I still have. I could fill it a few thousand times now! The deep window ledges were places for family photos and treasured objects. Later, I appreciated bay windows, one of the emblematic motifs of suburban homes, as places for family memorabilia acting to scoop in light for much of the day. Many of our housing schemes at MacCormac Jamieson Prichard in the 1970s used corner windows and windows-in-corners. Most memorably, was the first scheme I worked on with Richard MacCormac was a home for children with physical and learning disabilities. We designed the shared bedrooms with corner windows with integrated seats and each bedhead tucked into a nook with shelves and cupboards. This created a little place for each child to retreat.

Window seats are a delight for children, a safe place to dream of the world outside. It was by climbing up on the high window cill in the living room as a child that I watched the world beyond our home change. Outside stretched a long, thin garden bordering a rundown fruit farm with dilapidated greenhouses, tall elm trees and a majestic cedar of Lebanon. The nursery gardens and the wilderness bottom of our garden were bought for development when I was five. I saw two and three storey flats going up very close to us, poaching our prospect over orchards. The developer did keep the big trees. The flats, mostly two beds, looked very modern with flat rooves, and the airy entrance stairs had communal drying cupboards because washing lines were prohibited. Built of simple blockwork cross walls, concrete floors, timber joist roof, the elevations were strips of windows and coloured panels; it looked thin and flimsy compared with our thick brick walls. No balconies or private outdoor space, just well-landscaped communal gardens. That appealed to many, especially young couples and the elderly. The ground floor flats did not have doors directly onto the communal gardens, access to them was via the entrance halls. That meant residents could not privatize any of it. A good move, I think. All the flats had built-in window boxes below the living room windows, allowing for personalization.

The new suburbia that sprouted at the end of my garden was Parkleys, the first Span Development by Eric Lyons (1954-1956). With hindsight, he and his builder/developer colleagues really did create a new lifestyle offer. The courtyards were beautifully landscaped places and that ‘‘rus in urbe’ civility was new, and very appealing. Langham House Close was nearby too – the first major work of James Stirling and James Gowan (1955) – likewise flats with communal gardens but on a small back land site. Those flats are 3 storeys, in rugged brickwork and exposed concrete. The small scheme created one side of a street rather than the sequence of courtyards achieved in Parkleys. These design-led developments spoke of modernity and contrasted with the conventional lifestyle offered by neighbouring inter-war semi-detached houses with their gang-mown wide verges, and near absence of trees. Most of my secondary school friends lived that modern life with parents driving two-tone Ford Consuls (two-tone cars are back in fashion!); they teased me when visiting my home with “can’t you afford a proper house and a new car?”. My Father drove a 1933 Alvis, which he had rebuilt in his big garage and workroom. I suppose I did grow up in quite a non-conformist environment! The power of landscape to shape settlements and make distinctive places, was an early appreciation that has continued to profoundly influence my approach to residential design.
My Father moved away and to make ends meet my Mother had our stables converted into a flat for rental income. Eventually, the last bit of garden, where we had kept chickens and I had grown vegetables, was sacrificed for a boring bungalow. A ‘plop’ plan done by the local builder, long before I went to University. Eventually, the old house was sold and we moved into the bungalow, which did make a comfortable and practical home for Mother well into her eighties.

From age twelve, I spent my holidays and weekends gardening for some of the big houses around the Common. Gardening enabled me to get out of the house, be out of doors and earn some money. When doing A levels, one avuncular client, enquiring what I was going to study, and invited me to a studio show where he taught at Hammersmith College of Building. I didn’t know what architecture was, but I was excited by the students’ work. So, I added the Bartlett to the bottom of my University Central Council Admissions form (UCCA), after mining geology and earth science courses. Serendipity!

David Prichard founded Metropolitan Workshop with Neil Deely in 2005, having worked together at MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. He has contributed to the development of suburban developments across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, including contributions to the new towns of Milton Keynes and Warrington, and the London Docklands. At Metropolitan Workshop, he led the Ballymun Regeneration Masterplan.

A chance encounter in suburbia 1960s and serendipity saw him apply to the Bartlett School of Architecture, where he met Richard MacCormac in crits. After graduating, he travelled overland to India, won a scholarship to work at the Swedish Building Research Institute, later joining Alex Reid’s research unit at UCL/ LSE to contribute to a project into the ‘Impact of Telecommunications on Planning’. He spent another year out working on site building a crematorium, before returning to the Bartlett where he won the Sir Andrew Taylor Prize for a suburban housing competition entry, joining Richard MacCormac and Peter Jamieson when they formed their practice in 1972.