The architects and SPAN
Eric Lyons (1912–80) and Geoffrey Townsend (1911–2002) met in the 1930s, whilst students at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. Lyons worked for Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry before joining Townsend in practice in 1938. After an interregnum for wartime service they collaborated again, this time as architect and developer. Frustrated by contractors’ and financiers’ belief that people preferred fake historical designs, Lyons and Townsend decided to design and build modern speculative housing themselves. At the time, RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) members were not allowed to act as developer and architect, so Townsend resigned his membership to form the development company which later became known as SPAN.
In 1955, Ivor Cunningham, whom Eric Lyons had met in Sweden whilst on an architectural tour, joined the practice and became the landscape architect for SPAN estates. The formation of a design and construction team which shared the same values allowed Lyons’ practice to conceive and design not only the buildings but entire developments, including site layouts, landscape and street furniture. Over its lifetime SPAN developed 61 sites varying in size from three houses to a new village of over 500 units in New Ash Green, Kent. During his career Eric Lyons served on the RIBA Council, numerous committees and boards and, in 1975, he became RIBA president.
A new model for suburban living
Parkleys was the first of Lyons’ and Townsend’s major developments and exhibits many of characteristics that have become identified with SPAN. The development was considered in its entirety and designed throughout, from the interiors to the exteriors and landscape. All the details were considered, including the ironmongery, signage and the colour schemes. SPAN aimed to provide modern architect-designed housing at affordable prices.
Landscape and common space
Span promoted the seamless integration of the landscape with the architecture, eschewing private gardens for shared external spaces in which there are no physical barriers between the buildings and the landscape. The use of interlinked courtyards, continuous glazing, and glazed doors and screens, promote transparency between the interior and exterior landscape.
Lyons promoted a sustainable system of self-managing communities through the residents’ societies which over the years have been credited with the preservation of the original design intent, detail and general good repair of SPAN estates. Geoffrey Townsend himself managed the Parkleys’ committee until it became fully established.
Two- and three-storey blocks are arranged around a series of interlinking courtyards, with garages located at the perimeter of the development.
This was the first of SPAN’s ‘ABC’ type developments, in which A, B and C describe the three different floorplans that are used throughout the estate. All the flats are designed in 12’ 6’’ bays, however within the courtyards horizontal bands of glazing and tiling express a continuous homogenous wall; the same device used in Georgian squares where the ascending bands of stuccoed piano nobile, repeating lines of windows, and continuous cornice form an enclosing wall to the square as opposed to expressing the individual dwellings.
Parkleys was laid out on the site of a former nursery, existing trees were retained and the nursery stock and its gardener were taken over as part of the development. The landscaping and courtyards are integral to the overall concept. Gaps below and in between the buildings and the extensive use of glazing promote transparency between inside and outside and courtyard to courtyard. This was intended to contribute to the safety and general welfare of the estate as shared spaces are well overlooked. The perimeter of the courtyard provides a notional boundary although there are no physical barriers. On the lawn at the entrance to the estate stands Pastorale, a sculpture by Keith Godwin on the subject of homemaking.
Internally the efficient plan with minimal circulation maximises useful space. Lyons did not wish to prescribe any particular layout of furniture but to endorse flexibility. The kitchen’s generosity (for its time) and adjacent relationship to the living room foresees our current use of this room as an extension of the social spaces in the flat. The use of glazed doors and screens promotes transparency between the rooms following the principle of the dissolution of the interior and exterior boundaries.
Detail design extended to the external lighting, ironmongery, letterboxes, door handles and knobs, and to the signage and flat numbering. One font is used throughout for block names and ancillary signage. Whilst the combination of two and three storey blocks is unique to Parkleys, many design elements were repeated in subsequent developments including the brick and tile hanging, flat roofs and signature mushroom lamps.
Watch films about SPAN
A recent project by Chocolate Films which was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund interviewed a number of residents of three SPAN estates in London, including Parkleys. You can see the films, including residents from Parkleys and other SPAN estates on YouTube.