Sugden House, Watford, Hertfordshire 1955-56 Alison & Peter Smithson
Our first Anatomy of a House featured the stark modernist High and Over in Amersham, a perfect example of the Heroic period of modernist architecture between the wars. Our second Anatomy moves about 8 miles west to the outskirts of Watford, to visit a house designed by a pair of architects determined to revive that heroic era, Alison and Peter Smithson. The Smithsons had come to prominence in the mid-1950s with a design for their own house at Colville Place in Soho. As they themselves declared in Architectural Design, had it been built “it would have been the first exponent of the ‘new brutalism’ in England”. Their design showcased the building materials, with no internal finishes leaving the brick and concrete structure for all to see.
Design for a House in Soho by Alison & Peter Smithson.
Plans for other houses came and went in the 1950s, but their first built house was to be for Derek Sugden, an engineer with Ove Arup & Partners. Sugden was born in Hitchin, attended Harrow Weald Grammar then worked for a couple of engineering firms before moving to work with Ove Arup. He and his wife Jean commissioned the Smithsons to build a house at the end of Devereux Drive, to the north west of Watford town centre. Sugden's brief was for "a simple house, an ordinary house, but… this should not exclude it from being a radical house", and this is what the Smithsons would eventually give them. Sugden was an admirer of the Smithson school at Hunstanton, and Derek asked Peter for the name of an architect to design a house. To Derek's surprise Peter said that he and Alison would do it.
First design for the Sugden House by Alison Smithson
The first draft was drawn up by Alison. She produced a design with a split pitched roofline and irregular arranged windows. The Sugdens did not approve this design, with them wanting more natural light inside and a kitchen facing north. Peter reorganised the house, giving the outline a more traditional appearance and enlarging the windows, whilst keeping Alison's off key intentions. The architects said they intended the house to look like “a blackish solid block pierced with windows in the manner of Vanbrugh Castle, Blackheath”. Despite the obligatory dispute with the local planning committee, the house was approved on appeal. A covenant on the land specified that any house had to be built in brick with a tiled roof, leading to the ordinary but quietly radical design.
South East facade. Image from Architects Journal.
The house was constructed of reused London stock brick around a brick crosswall frame with concrete beams. The windows are large and metal framed, with an unusual arrangement, especially on the side facade. The roof is finished in concrete tiles and is much longer on one slope, covering the integrated garage. The front of the house faces south west, and sits at the top of a sloping lawn. Inside the house is arranged in a semi-open plan around a freestanding fireplace, with the flooring finished with chequerboard vinyl tiles. As intended with the unbuilt house in Soho, the interior is left with minimal finishes, showcasing the brick, concrete and timber construction materials. A timber, open staircase leads upstairs to four bedrooms and a bathroom.
Interior of Sugden House. Image from RIBApix.
The Sugdens were very pleased with the finished house and lived there for nearly 60 years. The garden was an ongoing project with Jean slowly landscaping the grounds, with shrubs, trees and wild grass eventually complementing the exterior of the house. The house was listed in July 2012 and is currently Grade II. Jean died in 2007, and Derek later married Katherine Douglas. Derek died in 2015, and for the first time the house was put on the market and sold.
The Smithsons would go on to a career of many words but few buildings. Their most famous works post-Sugden House are the Economist Buildings (1965) in St James Street, SW1A and the Robin Hood Garden Estate (1972) in Poplar, now in the process of being demolished. You can watch the Smithsons talking about the design and building of Robin Hood Gardens in the short film The Smithsons on Housing by B.S. Johnson. The duo produced a handful of other domestic designs in their subsequent career, most notably Upper Farm Cottage (aka Solar Pavilion) in 1962, a timber framed house cum studio in Wiltshire. The Sugden House stands as a testament to both the Smithsons unique vision of what a house could be and to the Sugdens wish to make a house of their own, a simple but radical home.
References Alison and Peter Smithson (Works and Projects)- Marco Vidotto
Alison and Peter Smithson (Twentieth Century Architects)- Mark Crinson