Character and community drive Proctor and Matthews’ designs of homes and spaces – not only for the comfortably off
Housing is a hard world. With planners under pressure to deliver units more than places, with speed and cost targets, awkward masterplans and contradictory regulations, it’s hard to bring design to it. It’s a wonder that any places that people would want to move to, let along mortgage their future to, get built.
So it makes no sense that the very nice Stephen Proctor (left) and Andrew Matthews (right) have designed so many good places and homes, from large parts of Greenwich Millennium Village to Abode in Newhall, Harlow (both completed 2004), and the two projects that gave them a prominent position in the Housing Design Awards earlier this year: Abode Great Kneighton, a mixture of great court and back lanes just outside Cambridge, and Horsted Park on the edge of Chatham.
‘As a profession we are becoming masterwallpaperers,’ says Proctor regretfully. Skinning formulaic perimeter blocks gives him no pleasure. ‘Whether they are apartments or terraces they don’t allow for the wonderful spatial incidents of traditional towns.’ If there is another way it is to use local and traditional forms, but in a modern way. ‘We think about how people live today and how typology informs the masterplan,’ adds Matthews.
This is clearest in Trumpington, south of Cambridge. The huge expansion is still under way so hard to judge at the moment, but nearby Accordia is a reminder of the city’s high ambitions. Abode Great Kneighton is a development of 450 houses for Countryside. The Proctor and Matthews reworked masterplan is based on an investigation of both the university city and its courts, and local fenland villages. They couldn’t do away with the roundabout, but they have built high around, following the form and dimensions of Trinity College Great Court. There are flats with protective winter gardens and routes under and through blocks (more satisfying than a straight gap) to three-bed houses with great views but no gardens – an unexpected hit with downsizers. Along another side are two-storey family houses with flats running over two of them, and houses with living rooms set back by a terrace to keep any overlooking at least 20m away. The urban scale breaks down into lanes, with long houses allowing the space to tumble away to the green edge of the development, and little offsets lending serendipity.
Residents, interviewed for the Housing Design Awards, mentioned the pleasure of the small brick details – black headers sliced and reversed out – and others designed into these houses where staircases are light and bright, windows long and generous, rooms lead out naturally to terraces, ceiling heights are decent (sometimes reaching the lofty pitched roof) and thresholds generous enough for key fumbling or a neighbourly chat. Fragments of green are ready to be planted, sheds are part of the streetscape. Proctor and Matthews deals with the nitty gritty too: meters and bins are carefully placed. The sense of care and spaciousness is there even in smaller homes. ‘The debate around housing has gathered around space standards,’ says Proctor. ‘We would argue for volume rather than square meterage – a double height space is invariably taken out.’ Matthews quotes the huge public majority that prefer period properties to new – a problem he diagnoses at all scales of new developments. ‘The problem is they are devoid of character. There is a lack of care in execution or a narrative that anchors it in its place.’
‘Developer housing is too often about net to gross ratio with no celebration of the communal,’ Proctor believes. Proctor and Matthews is lucky to have worked on many of Countryside’s housing schemes, since the early days of Greenwich Millennium Village, when they were brought in by chairman and Urban Task Force member Alan Cherry. Preparing to work with Swedish architect and masterplanner Ralph Erskine, Proctor went to stay in his project at Byker Wall. ‘Erskine knew how to work on a domestic scale,’ he says. ‘Still very few volume housebuilders want to make a place. There is a lot of tokenism: window dressing on standard house types.’
The practice can and does turn work down – helped in a way by the fact it is often assumed to be a bigger office than it is at under 30 people. As well as housing people,it has had a healthy set of work housing animals. At ZSL London Zoo, it designed homes for gorillas and squirrel monkeys and the visitor experience around them. In Chester its Heart of Africa will house numerous species in a sunken biome – though still awaiting funding. This has led to work abroad like Ocean World India, and international competitions.
But it is in housing that it’s left its strongest mark so far. The highly articulated envelopes of earlier schemes – government-driven prefabrication mixed with staggered balconies, projecting timber and colour panels, has boiled down to essentials. This mature form, informed by revisits and paired with masonry, still surprises you with different volumes and habitable spaces: the protective enclosed stairs of a Family Mosaic project in Colchester or sneakily grand conservatories sliding down the side of houses in Chatham. The expressiveness has, by and large, retreated to the building skin, where bricks are used to great delight. But it’s back, guns blazing, on projects such as Lett Road in Stratford with its periscope astride a five storey tower.
They justify on social grounds even that rather mad scheme, with its flying cantilever, for giving roof space to the people who live there. But both Proctor and Matthews feel a social calling that is not answered with £1m Cambridge houses. So our second stop is in Colchester at the £4.5m Hargood Close: we are taken round by Julie Thompson, who runs these 35 flats for those in dire housing need. She is forthcoming with suggested improvements for future schemes – no unseen corners for dealing drugs and stashing stolen bikes for a start – and blunt about tenants’ needs. ‘This glass is to stop people throwing themselves off,’ she says pointing to one walkway. This is a place that takes hard knocks and you can tell – it misses the landscape softness that humanises other schemes but the spaces still lend themselves to sense of self-respect. And it’s not just there: a strong social agenda can be seen in the work of ex-Proctor and Matthews associate Claire Bennie, who is putting quality and design back at the heart of the Peabody programme as the housing association’s development director. The practice’s influence also reaches wider through teaching over the years at Sheffield and Brighton.
Theirs has been a practical approach to academia with research applied directly, so at Horsted Park, Chatham, our last stop, the ideas went back to Kent farmsteads in a landscape, clusters of roofs with walls along their garden edges and landscape frontages to the houses which are illuminated by their conservatories. The communal is served in the layouts and the facilities to come which, though initially planned just for the elderly, can be extended to the whole scheme thanks to the design. At Ebbsfleet Station my tour of Proctor and Matthews’ projects in the south east draws to a close, and I find myself wishing that developers of this huge tract of well connected but unremarkable land might knock at Proctor and Matthews’ door – to give us neighbourhoods of character and distinction rather than housing estate sprawl.