Eric Lyons, Cunningham & Partners
Borough of Richmond upon Thames
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The concept of a historic award for schemes that meet the current Sustainable Communities Plan of places where “people want to live... now and in the future” underlines why the enduring appeal of good design will prove the test of what those plans procure.
This year’s historic award goes to Mallard Place by Span Environments and the Span legacy. In the postwar period there were few opportunities for young people to buy affordable imaginatively designed houses and flats. Rigid professional codes separated architects from developers and there was little incentive to pay good designers out of their margins in a sellers’ market.
Span set a gold standard for innovative private development from 1961 onwards. The results were achieved by a design-educated business directed by Geoff Townsend, a former architect who resigned from professional practice and appointed his former partner Eric Lyons to provide full design services.
The prime movers were great entrepreneurs with vision and a keen eye for house and estate forms which young people could enjoy and just about afford. Span's later work included more upmarket schemes on prime sites but they all demonstrated Eric Lyons and Ivor Cunningham's determination to build and landscape unique housing concepts with attention to every detail. The success of the concept is still evident today and the visionary approach to effective long-term estate management by resident association has served residents well and maintained the quality of environment that they enjoyed at the start.
Span recognised the saleability of well thought out economic plans offering good daylighting, orientation and views onto lush gardens. Above all, they were planned with private roads and footpaths which escape the dead hand of adopted road standards.
Span and its legacy
Think span, think 1960s. Flat roofs, glazed porches, painted timber, Formica worktops and parquet floors. Those who know a little about Span assume it all ended in tears with New Ash Green, the end of the decade and of a vision.
Mallard Place was completed in 1984 and won a Housing Design Award in 1985, five years after Eric Lyons died. Surviving partner Ivor Cunningham says he and Lyons had “a Damascene moment” after they won a competition to design an Algarve resort. They thought their Villas Moro so much fun that they wanted to repeat the vibrant designs in Britain.
The Twickenham site fronts a quiet stretch of the Thames and has its own moorings. The scheme contains two apartment blocks of one- and twobed flats, one with parking inside its perimeter and the other without. The latter has a patterned brickwork bridge cutting over a fish-filled pond in an exotic garden upgraded for the millennium with ravishing planting.
There are also 45 townhouses of three and four bedrooms. These step off tree-lined lanes up to piano nobiles where the luckiest on the Thames side have views onto the river. The sections are stepped so that kitchens on this floor are higher than the living space, which give great views over to the river from the dining area.
Outside your eyes are hypnotised by the rich natural clays of the hand-made hanging tiles: there are four different tile shapes, each used to create swirling geometry patterns similar to the Moorish patterns the architects would have admired on the Iberian peninsula. Another hint of influence is the dark hardwood balconies.
But the chief clue to the Algarve’s impact is the residents' swimming pool – outdoor, heated and popular. In most schemes, this would have sent charges soaring, but not here. Income from the moorings, few maintenance issues arising from Cunningham's skilful hard landscaping, and a proudly close-knit community that self-polices the 102 homes means charges are low.
Here is a scheme built at just under 58 homes to the hectare, with one- and two-bed flats, two, three and four-bed houses, Kew-like planting, charming architecture and unparalleled amenity. Local agents say people queue to pay over the odds to live here. Anyone seeking an irresistible higher density model need look no further.