Landscape rather than streets informed Mary Duggan’s dense but leafy Red Clover Gardens housing in south London
Mary Duggan Architects’ Red Clover Gardens in Coulsdon, south London, is something of an anomaly among recent housing projects in the capital. Yes, it’s got the brick facades and punched portrait windows of the near-ubiquitous new London vernacular, but it doesn’t adhere to the associated streets-and-squares syntax of the traditional city. Instead, it is rooted physically and conceptually in publicly accessible parkland. Adopting a ‘landscape-first approach,’ says Duggan, meant seeking alternative ways of engendering the neighbourliness, security and navigability commonly ascribed to streets, which has resulted in some distinctive and original apartment buildings.
The emphasis on landscape is a general and specific response to context. Commissioned by Croydon Council’s arm’s-length housing company, Brick By Brick, the 157-home scheme lies at the confluence of three valleys in the foothills of the North Downs. Get up high and you see little clusters of clay-tiled roofs among trees, not vice versa. It’s a picturesque scene that Duggan was keen to emulate while building at an inner-urban density.
That instinct was supported by the site’s tricky topography, a squarish 1.4ha piece of open ground on the edge of the town centre, with a fall of 8m from south to north. At the bottom it faces a row of little houses across Lion Green Road. At the top it merges with a wooded embankment built for a horse-drawn railway – a scheduled monument – precluding much re-sculpting of the terrain. Initial explorations showed that low-rise streets with DDA-compliant access routes would leave little green space and deliver too few homes. Ribbons of apartment buildings would have been overbearing, says Duggan, and obscure views of the monument.
Instead, she treated the site as a green extension to a hilltop park that lies beyond the embankment, and concentrated the flats intended for both private sale and affordable rent in five freestanding villa-blocks that rise to the height of surrounding mature trees. Ranging from five storeys nearest the road to seven higher up, they stand in a loose cluster, set on gentle grassy mounds and hemmed by curving beds of broadleaf shrubs and tufty grasses.
As the pavilions are seen in the round, Duggan has avoided ‘fronts’ and ‘backs’. All buildings share the same plan-form – an irregular 13-sided tridecagon – making pleated facades. The repetition is economical, but not apparent. Rotating or mirroring the plan in each has created a convincing impression of informal variety that is enhanced by setbacks on the top of some blocks, making space for key views or spreading tree canopies.
As townscape it works very well. On the winding paths that lead to and between the pavilions, every turn brings something new – a sudden shift from openness to a sense of enclosure, a beautiful vista of serried corners, or the jutting cantilever over an entrance framed by trees. Projecting headers in the pink, brown and grey brickwork give the angular buildings a softness, especially when seen through a veil of leaves.
The walls are a little less stubbly than intended – a small casualty of inevitable value engineering on a design and build project. Duggan points out others as we walk around. ‘It’s housing,’ she says wearily. ‘All about the spreadsheet.’ Disappointment is understandable, but overall the build quality looks very high for such a challenging project, rewarding intensive work by both Duggan and Ruff Architects, which led the delivery.
Much thought also went into security and privacy, discreetly addressed through both architecture and the landscape which was designed by Duggan in collaboration with Planit IE. The kinked facades that lend formal interest are also a defence against anti-social behaviour; instead of ‘eyes on the street’ they put eyes everywhere. At the base of each building the fall of the ground and deep beds of dogwood subtly distinguish a residents’ terrace from the public realm, and keep passers-by away from windows, without need of fences.
Maintaining a sense of openness was central to the project’s ethos. ‘I’m really proud that we were able to avoid cellularized, compartmented gardens,’ says Duggan. ‘Instead we have a shared landscape that can help to foster a new community.’ That’s actively promoted by the distribution of amenities across the site, from allotments to a ‘village green’ with a children’s playground. The total landscaped area isn’t actually all that large, but with linked sequences of outdoor ‘rooms’ between the buildings, and several routes to each destination, it asks to be explored.
Encouraging full use of the grounds is also important to avoid the dead spaces that blighted some ‘towers in the park’ postwar estates, and the buildings play a key role through clever design of the ground floors. To contend with the sloping ground each has a split section and entrances on two sides, both needed for the activities of everyday life. The higher ones lead to bin stores and parking – quite well hidden on the perimeter of the park – while the lower, with greater headroom, make notably roomy foyers. With timber bench seats set below big picture windows overlooking the gardens, they are places you might happily linger.
Above, six flats on each floor pinwheel around a central core and comprise a mix of one-, two-, and three-beds. All follow London space standards – a minimum requirement that has, of course, become a default maximum in many developers’ cost models. ‘There isn’t half a metre over in any of them,’ says Duggan, ‘but I think it’s as good a plan as you can get within those constraints.’
Every home has at least a dual aspect, giving decent daylight. Despite the buildings’ eccentric footprint, rooms mostly meet outer walls at right angles, with few cramped corners. And in the kitchen-living rooms inset corner balconies open on two sides for expansive views of the park and surrounding hills. Even inside, you retain a sense of the landscape.
‘For me the real success of the scheme is the pavilion type,’ says Duggan. ‘In material terms most new London housing defaults to a formula: you find a brick – at a given price – and there aren’t many decisions left to make. But you can still develop new ideas in the plan.’ Coming away from Coulsdon, that was a cheering thought. The dominant style in recent London housing has undoubtedly raised quality, but risks lapsing into unthinking repetition. Red Clover Gardens shows that there’s life in it yet.
Site area 4,200m²
Town centre car park 3000m²
Gross internal area (flats) 9549m²
Architect Mary Duggan Architects
Landscape Mary Duggan Architects with Planit-IE
Delivery architect Ruff Architects
Client Brick By Brick
Funder London Borough of Croydon
M&E and sustainability Max Fordham
Structural engineer Symmetrys
Planning consultants DP9, Gerald Eve
Project managers Gleeds, Cast Consultancy