Tag Archives: Maxwell Fry

Better living through gas: Kensal House

This post is an  appendix to the journey up Ladbroke Grove I’ve been on in the last two weeks. I won’t bother you with many more of my personal reminiscences but I do remember being struck by Kensal House in the time when I was working in North Kensington and taking the 52 bus home every night to Kensal Rise. Looking down from the upper deck of a bus I recognized the unique character of Kensal House sitting below the level of the road next to the railway. I wasn’t any kind of expert on the architecture of the area then but I could see it came from a more optimistic time than the late 1970s and had seen better days.


Kensal House 1936 K66-702 - Copy

[Ladbroke Grove 1936]

In the 1930s planners and architects were enthused with the possibilities of new forms of housing, and possibly were no longer in thrall to paternalistic Victorian notions of raising up the working classes by improving their living conditions. Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a machine for living in was a fresh idea. (from 1923) It was a brave new world of course as of 1931 (although Aldous Huxley’s phrase was ironic). The housing scheme which utilised a no longer needed corner of the Gas Works site was sponsored by the Gas, Light and Coke Company. There was a team of architects headed by Maxwell Fry, with Robert Atkinson, C H James and Grey Wornum (whose work has been on the blog before). They were joined by a housing consultant, Elizabeth Denby.

In 1938 Ascot Water Heaters Ltd published a survey of recent developments called “Flats: Municipal and Private Enterprise” which featured the new estate.

Kensal House site plan - Copy

In the introduction Bernard Friedman says: “To the Greeks physical fitness, beauty of form, and congenial environment were essential to the harmony of life.”

Kensal House 1936 p68 top

[On the left, the school]

Maxwell Fry goes on to describe the thinking behind the scheme. Although he sounds a bit patronizing (“The idea that animated both sides of the work was the desire to build a group of homes where people whose incomes allow them little above sheer necessity could experience as full a life as can be”.) it is also clear that he was concerned with the lives of future residents – ” hardship centres around the lack of practical things, such as space, sun, air hot water, cooking facilities and so on. If these things are not remedies in the new home…then it is no great change for the better.” He goes on to explain that a “type plan” for three and two bedroom flats. The bedrooms would be all on one side of the flats allowing them to be smaller and the living rooms bigger with light on the bedrooms in the morning and the living rooms in the afternoon. Above the ground floor the flats all had balconies with built-in flower boxes. The kitchens were equipped with “drying balconies” and of course Ascot Water Heaters provided constant hot water. (Fry emphasizes these, but then they were the publishers.). Fry also emphasizes the “more civilised” internal staircases (“a nice feeling of going up your own staircase.”)

Kensal House 1936 p68

[1936. Note the balconies]

The consultant to the project, Elizabeth Denby describes it as “the first urban village to be built in Britain“. The design committee also had responsibility for ensuring the new residents settled in and that rent and fuel costs remained reasonable. She remained on the new estate for a while in her consulting role. She reports on the success of the Club Rooms and the social club which took in members from the surrounding area, and took particular pleasure in the enthusiastic take-up of the gardening facilities. “On a sunny evening or at the weekend each balcony was its tenants leaning elbows on the rail, smoking, gossiping,  happy, like a group of cottagers perched above each other on a steep cliff. The possession of canaries by some of the tenants intensifies the country illusion.” Again, you can see a degree of condescension in her surprise that working class people responded to improved living conditions by looking after their new homes but the scheme was well-intentioned and did succeed in showing the way forward for planners.


Kensal House 1937 K70-565

Both Denby and Fry mention the light available in the new flats – big windows, airy spaces, the feeling of a garden. This was an idea that was taking hold in the sun-worshiping 1930s. Sun lounges, gymnasiums, fresh air and exercise. I’ve encountered that enthusiasm for the outdoors in various spheres such as the Bauhaus houses in Chelsea and the dancing philosophy of Margaret Morris.

As it grew older Kensal House got a little worn down, as I saw it in the 1970s but its fortune revived and the atmosphere of pleasant living in a garden-like environment is still visible in a set of photographs from 1992.

Kensal House 1992 K-191

This one and the one below show the same walkway between blocks, possibly even the same trees.

Kensal House 1992 K-197

So that little pocket of 1930s optimism remained.


Kensal House 1992 K-192

The gas lamps have been replaced as in this view of a grassy knoll, but the sense of separateness is still intact.

Kensal House 1992 K-193

Behind this picture you can see the same water tower from last week and the site of the Sainsbury’s super store as it was.

Kensal House 1992 K-194

The fenced gardens and the curved facade.

Kensal House 1992 K-196

The shaded lane between the blocks.

Kensal House 1992 K-198

Kensal House (a Grade II* listed building) is still in the architectural text books, still praised as an example of well designed urban development. So Fry and Denby and their committee could claim to have done something useful and interesting on a small slice of industrial land.


A little while ago I worked with the SPID Theatre Company on a project they were doing with residents of Kensal House so thanks to them and the residents’ group who visited the library during the course of their project. Read more at their website: spidtheatre.com/wordpress where you can download a brochure about Kensal House.

From Bauhaus to our house: Old Church Street 1936

I’ve borrowed part of this week’s title from the book by Tom Wolfe which is probably a little unfair as on the whole Wolfe is against “modern” architecture as practiced by the Bauhaus school. I’m looking at two houses that were distinctly modern in 1936 but are now regarded as elegant features in the varied architecture of one of the oldest streets in Chelsea. Strictly speaking only one of them is a product of the Bauhaus, the Levy house as it was known in 1936, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry. The other, the Cohen house was designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff.

Although they are two distinct houses they were designed to fit together. Here they are in 1936, the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house in the foreground, the Gropius/Fry house further up the street.

street view 1936

I’ve walked past these houses hundreds of times, and always liked them. I used to think the Mendelsoh/Chermayeff house with its long street frontage looked more like a factory or an academic building, (or the location for a Kraftwerk video), than a house.

But inside they were definitely ultra modern living spaces:

MC plan - Copy

As you can see the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house was equipped with its own sunken squash court and library.

GF plan- Copy

And next door there was space for some traditional functions with rooms for the butler, the secretary and on the roof floor for three maid’s rooms. There was a viewing platform looking down on the garden. The 30s was one of the first decades of sun worship.

GF south view 1936

The plot of land the two houses were built on had once been the grounds of a single house. This was divided into two with a pair of more conventional houses on the Chelsea Square side. The two sets of architects on the Old Church Street side and their clients agreed to create one spacious garden they could share.

GF garden view 1936

The Gropius/Fry house had its long axis at a right angle to the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house which made the garden space larger. It also means the house is mostly hidden from the street so it looks a little insignificant next to the long facade of the other house. The view above from the garden shows it best. You can see the large windows, the terrace and the covered space which links the two properties. Below is the garden terrace of the second house:

MC 1936

On the left you can see a side door and window on the southern wall of the house. The view below is from 1982.

MC 1982 01 exterior

You can almost (probably not quite) make out the glass conservatory that was built on this side in the 1970s. There have been two of those. I remember the first one from when I first lived in Chelsea. It had a rounded top like a traditional glass house and seemed to be full of thick vegetation almost to bursting point. This was replaced by a slightly more spacious square-topped conservatory. This version has now also filled out with plants.

The interiors of the houses are arguably more striking than the exteriors.

GF staircase 1936

An austere hall and staircase in 1936.

The picture below is from a magazine feature. The original owners of the Gropius/Fry house the playwright Ben Levy and actress Constance Cummings had lived there for many years and had filled the house with conventional furniture.

GF 02 detail

By contrast in 1982 minimalism was back, as you can see in this interior view of the Mendelsohn / Chermayeff house.

MC 1982 03

The white 1980s decor suits the house quite well.

MC 1982 04

The view below shows the garden terrace of the Levy house after extensive changes to the exterior.

GF 01 exterior

Some grey cladding has been added, and that viewing platform has been filled in, no doubt for a sensible reason although it does detract from the sweep of white along the street view.

You might prefer to think of it in those bright summer days of the mid-1930s, looking like a pavilion at the beach in a fictional resort like Vermillion Sands or like part of an ocean liner. This photograph seems to catch the essential optimism of these houses. (This optimism is all the more remarkable when you consider that both Mendelsohn and Gropius were in London after recently fleeing from Nazi Germany. Both of them subsequently moved on to the USA. )

GF 1936


The 1936 pictures are from the Architectural Review (Volume 80). The 1982 pictures are from the Connoisseur magazine. The other pictures are from a cutting in our collection, undated and unattributed, but possibly Good Housekeeping, and possibly from the 1950s.

Thanks to David Le Lay for his thoughts on the buildings and an explanation of the grounds. Obviously any misconceptions or errors are my own.

Finally here is a picture I took late this afternoon as the sun was going down showing the Mendelsohn / Chermayeff house with its second conservatory. The now dark grey Gropius / Fry house is just visible in the distance.

Copy of DSC_2712

Another postscript (June 2016)

One of the comments below leads to this excellent article about Chermayeff:  https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2016/06/30/career-case-study-7-serge-chermayeff

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