Local architecture: Walter Segal’s unusual buildings

There’s a lot of interesting architecture around here, but I’m going to start with Walter Segal’s famed timber-frame style of build, the most famous example of which locally is probably the grass-roofed extension to the Horniman Museum, the “CUE”, designed by the firm Architype, using Segal’s methods.

In his lifetime Segal was known for designing a method of constructing distinctive, flexible, timber-framed self-build homes, usually financed as a collective by the local council – and Lewisham used this method quite a lot, meaning we have a lot of Segal buildings to enjoy.

Segal was an interesting fellow – born in 1907 and brought up in Switzerland, he studied architecture, financed by a rich benefactor (do such things exist, any more? If you wish to be MY rich benefactor, please apply at the end of this post).

Having built a wooden holiday cabin for his benefactor in 1932, he basically repeated the exercise in the 1960s and built what was intended to be a temporary, wood-framed home for himself and his partner in Highgate, while they were having a permanent home built. It is still standing. The techniques he used aroused a lot of interest: instead of building with bricks, cement and plaster – all technologies which require various levels of expertise – he built using a wooden frame, and simple methods which would allow anyone, whether or not they had any experience in building houses, to put up a home. Additionally, he didn’t use foundations, but instead seated his building on pilings, which meant the construction could be placed on sloping sites, or on sites where the ground was too soft for conventional construction methods.

Lewisham Borough Council was scrabbling around for sites for council houses in the 1970s and had bought several small sites which proved impossible to construct conventionally built homes on (anyone who has taken a stroll around Honour Oak Park will confirm that there is no lack of “slope”). Segal’s techniques were perfect for these sites, and Lewisham took the exciting step of making three sites available for people to build their own houses on, following Segal’s method. Another was released for this purpose later.

Unfortunately Walter Segal died in 1985, halfway through the Honour Oak Park project, but he has two roads in the area named after him – Walter’s Way and Segal Close. No other architect has roads named after them, in London.

There are still building projects which use Segal’s methods to this day – a community project in Brighton recently featured on a Grand Designs programme, and another in Cambridge allowed people to build their own meeting room.

Segal method buildings regularly feature in heritage open days and in London’s Open House events in August.

Some great pictures of Walter’s houses can be seen here – but if you get a chance to stroll past one of the streets or buildings created to his designs, do take it:

Walters Way Honor Oak Park, London, SE23
Greenstreet Hill, Drakefell Rd, New Cross London, SE14
Timberland Walk, Peckham, London
Segal Close, Honor Oak Park, London
Surrey Docks Farm, Rotherhithe SE16 (open to the public. http://www.surreydocksfarm.org.uk)
Horniman museum, Forest Hill London SE23 (the new bit with the grass roof)
Longton Ave, Sydenham, London SE26

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