64 Heath Drive, Gidea Park 1934 Francis Skinner and Tecton
64 Heath Drive, Gidea Park
On the 20th August 1934, the Gidea Park Modern Homes Exhibition closed, having opened on July 31st. The exhibition was an estate of houses built to showcase modern home design, the idea of Major Ralph Raphael and undertaken by Gidea Park Ltd. Ralph was the nephew of Herbert Raphel, a Liberal MP and promoter of the first Gidea Park exhibition in 1911, when 150 homes were built to form what was then known as Romford Garden Suburb. Those houses were largely built in the Arts and Crafts style by architects like Geoffry Lucas, W. Curtis Green and Parker & Unwin. The 1934 exhibition would feature the influence of art deco and modernism, styles that were slowly being absorbed in Britain. The most overtly modernist of the new designs was 64 Heath Drive by Francis Skinner of Berthold Lubetkin’s Tecton practice, the subject of our 11th Anatomy of a House.
Poster advertising the 1934 Gidea Park Modern Homes Exhibition
Lubetkin had come to Britain in 1931, establishing Tecton, an architectural co-partnership that would later be home to Denys Lasdun, Lindsay Drake, Carl Ludwig Franck, Godfrey Samuel and others. Their first set of buildings were those at London Zoo, housing penguins and gorillas rather than people. The success of those structures, and the Highpoint flats in Highgate, led them to be the preeminent modernist designers of interwar Britain.
Russell Thomas Francis Skinner was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1908, training at the Architectural Association before becoming a founding member of Tecton. He was a committed modernist at a time of deep distrust to the “new style” coming from the continent in British architectural circles, and a member of the Communist party. The house at Gidea Park was Skinner’s first completed building, at the tender age of 26.
Sketch of how 64 Heath Drive would fit into a street scape of the same design
The house is a set in an L-shape around a courtyard garden, with the long face of the building to the street. The house was ideally intended to be part of a terrace, with a row of the houses along a street. In this case the short side would have faced the road, enabling more homes to be fitted into a street. The house is two storeys high, and constructed of reinforced concrete. As well as concrete, large use is made of steel, with metal windows, balustrades and balconies. A sun terrace at first floor level faces onto the garden, accessible from the bedrooms. The ground floor living area was open plan, but able to be subdivided if necessary.
A comparison of the sketch for 64 Heath Drive and its final form
The exhibition was also a competition, with different classes according to size and price. 64 Heath Drive was the winner in Class E (selling price £1475). As well as winning its class, it was well reviewed by the architectural press and even featured on packets of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as a symbol of modernity, leading it to be locally nicknamed the “Kellogg House”. Like most houses of its era, it was prey to alterations, with an added room at terrace level and corner ground floor entrance slightly changed. The biggest alteration was the interior decoration, which was apparently made over by one owner with fake beams, oak panelling and Spanish tiles. Fortunately the house has been meticulously restored and was listed in 1997.
One of the other house designs in the exhibtion, by J. Moore Simpson
Skinner wasn’t content with designing houses for the well heeled, and in 1938 travelled to civil war-era Spain to study the effects of aerial bombardment with the aim of better designing air shelters. During World War II he served with the Royal Engineers and also volunteered to join the bomb disposal unit. When Tecton was disbanded in the early postwar years, Skinner declined an invitation to join Le Corbusier in his work at Chandigarh, India, and formed Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin, continuing the social housing work started for Finsbury Borough with estates in Bethnal Green and Hackney. Skinner retired in the 1970s, living in Suffolk whilst teaching himself Russian and researching local architecture. He passed away in January 1998.
64 Heath Drive is one of the buildings featured in our new guidebook, Modernism Beyond Metro-Land, crowdfunding now. You can suppoort the book and get your copy HERE