“I had a grandfather who was a builder and he’s probably responsible for most of the little strings of houses around West London, semi-detached. I used to go onto the sites with him and see what was being built and heard with interest from his various sons-in-law, most were bricklayers, carpenters, tradesmen. And so I drank in the very basis of building from a fairly early age”.
Though not from a “well off family”, Geoffrey Salmon, like Inette Austin-Smith and her husband Michael would go on to study at the Architectural Association, London. He had not expected to get into the illustrious college and to his delight found himself under the tuition of Robert Furneaux Jordan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Furneaux_Jordan.
Following graduation, he worked for Brian O’Rorke http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_O’Rorke, a practice Geoffrey describes as eighteenth century in atmosphere. He describes Brian O’Rorke, “watching every move you made on the drawing board, and very often after you’d left the office at 6.00pm or 6.30pm, he would come in and work till midnight rubbing all your stuff out and putting what he wanted in”. Whilst a good solid training Geoffrey knew it wasn’t for him: “I knew about modern architecture and therefore I had to do some myself”. And so he looked for an alternative, finding the small practice set up by Michael Austin-Smith and his wife Inette ( known at the time as J.M.Austin-Smith, later Austin-Smith Lord).
Geoffrey describes the freedom of working with like-minded younger architects as a personal liberation: “So I went there and I was actually allowed to draw things without the boss… I did all sorts of things like, the odd extension to people’s houses, or warehouses, or things like that, but I was doing it by myself, and without, well you know, with only the slightest supervision and I went on and I was a very willing apprentice, I worked like mad”. Geoffrey was in no- time offered a partnership along with another young architect Peter Lord. By the late 50s the practice had a staff of about 45, divided into four teams headed by Mike, Inette, Peter and Geoffrey.
And then in 1958, about four years after he joined the practice the RIBA and Ideal Home announced their competition. Geoffrey cannot remember how he got to know about it, but it seems likely that Mike Austin-Smith, who was a Committee member of RIBA, would have heard about it and saw it as just the kind of thing an aspiring practice like themselves to go in for. An opportunity (a sentiment similarly shared by Paul McLean of McLean Homes in a much later interview).
The practice fielded two entries in November 1959: Geoffrey Salmon’s and Peter Lords. Out of the 1523 entries judged in January 1960 it was Geoffrey’s that received an award, one of thirty given and later made available to the public through The Book of Small House Plans.
“It was 900 square feet and I remember that very clearly because it was extremely tight and it was for a married couple and their two children. I don’t remember anything else being said, they had a car which needed protecting and …. It must have been just central heating but whether it was gas fired or all electricity, I don’t know”.
In talking about the design approach he took, to maximise liveable space in such restricted given circumstances Geoffrey searches, hard, to remember:
” I cannot remember why I adopted a sort of cubistic shape. I think that, at the time, there was quite a lot of designing of large scale housing, small housing, and the emphasis was on squashing it in small scale, because we didn’t have the land, we didn’t have the money and everything had to be really tight. Also, I had the blissful idea that if this was successful you could go on producing them, just like a sausage machine, you know a few more added on to the end…. We were very imbued with the idea of a ‘modern architecture’, and modern architects used flat roofs, I mean it was almost as simplistic as that, I can’t remember any other reason. I mean the idea of there being some kind of organic quality about pitch roofs being more preferable, being preferable to flat roofs, I don’t think that enters into it”.
There’s an ignited enthusiasm as he continues: ” it’s simply that this was modern architecture, and modern architects used flat roofs. At the time we were modern, young, young, modern architects, you know, we were jolly well going to prove it, which we did”.
There were people around, at the AA, but not many, who thought that Frank Lloyd-Wright needed to be acknowledged also as a guiding light. But otherwise, it was international God, Le Corbusier, who set the standard for the young modern, intellectual architect.
“You know, we wanted to be modern, and modern was flat. I mean that sounds simplistic or maybe I’m making it simplistic. There were one or two students at the time who insisted on having pitched roofs and we thought they were very fuddy duddies. There was a lot of high feeling about that by the way at the time, and some wonderful, wonderful ideas coming out at that time of all sorts of things to do with form”.
In the design of the experimental house, Geoffrey Salmon gives it an internally high ceiling – a height and a half, so from the outside it affords the impression of a two storey house. Inside there is a loftiness which rarely fails to caputre the breath of visitors, surprised to be looking up at the sky:
“The high ceiling…well it was a brave new world, we could do anything and no-one was going to stop us. We’d been through all that, you know, we’d had the war not far behind and so it was going to be a brave new world. I mean it was endemic, it wasn’t just on the cusp of victory, it was a few years after that, but it’s still… that feeling still gave a momentum to things we did. It’s amazing how long that went on before it gradually subsided, it was rather like a great froth if you like, we’re going to win and then, gradually,….it sort of slipped away”.
When Geoffrey designed the house, he did not know he would see it realised in Coventry. How this came about was down to RIBA and Ideal Homes.
The two decided that a series of show houses should be built to promote the scheme and, critically, to provide the magazine with valuable magazine content. The minutes of the Small House Committee suggest that RIBA drew up a list of speculative builders in Britain, and invited them to see an exhibition of the 30 award-winning plans. McLeans, a growing speculative housebuilding firm based in Wolverhampton, but with ambitions to reach beyond the Midlands, were one of those invited.
Geoffrey McLean, heading the company by this time, with his brother Paul chose the Austin-Smith entry from the available thirty. A brave move, given its unconventional design. “He always had an eye for a good opportunity”, says Paul of his brother back then.
The two Geoffreys would meet on a number of occasions in Coventry and London from 1959 and in the run up to the opening in March 1960, making plans to get the project realised at the entrance to the new village estate, to be known as ‘West Point’. Planning committees were attended, amendments to the plans made, and they eagerly awaited for the permission to be given ( another story, see West Point entry), pressing the Council to meet their deadline.
Geoffrey Salmon remembers a committed developer, full of enthusiasm for the design. Certainly, the Committee minutes bares this out, talking of the ‘courageous effort of Mr McLean’ who ‘came to the office full of enthusiasm for this design, to the extent that he wanted to buy it outright’.
Regrettably, for the practice and for Geoffrey Salmon, the award-winning design did not go into mass production. There were no housing estates of the experimental bungalow built across the country, and indeed, only the four houses in Bexfield Close, Allesley Village were built. However, 17,000 people visited the show house with its designed and furnished interior, an aspect of the project that Geoffrey Salmon took on himself; unusually for an architect, he was as interested in interior design and furnishings as architecture, being a member of the Council of Industrial Design form many year.
Geoffrey would eventually set up his own practice, extending his victorian family home in Hemel Hempstead to include an architectural studio. He became interested in office design and work flow, visiting Germany to study the latest projects there; and wrote books on the subject, as well as the new fangled idea of ‘storage’.
When looking at the photographs of the house today, that I take to show Geoffrey, he is amazed at the restriction of space. “How do you live here?”, he asks, “it’s so small”. He remarks on how much space he has in his generously sized Victorian terrace, modernised in the late 1950s, with a styling and approach that I can also find in my much smaller home; we have, in fact, almost the same kitchen. We talk about his observation being true, that it can be tight in the house; with a lack of storage ( for all the stuff of a modern life); and the open plan ( meaning ‘doing one’s own thing, a value of today, commonly involves negotiating just ‘where’ it can be done), but how this is compensated by a sense of space, light, flexibility and flow….
Geoffrey was then, and continues to be interested in ‘flow’, the flow of space and movement within.
“It seemed to me [then], and still does, and I’m certainly not the only architect to think of this, that is, if you have space then make it as fluid as possible, subject to the needs of ventilation etc, etc. But really, it’s simply that 900 square feet really is a bit small for these sort of ideas to flourish – I think the word is ‘flourish’ – if they’re going to flourish and they’re going to lead to an enjoyment of living in space. …. at the time, 1959, the size, it was just acceptable, but nowadays, for a modern building, newly built, it would be, I think, unacceptable…”.