Exactly a year ago I moved from sunny California to London and (with my wife and two kids) we now live in a lovely community – I jokingly refer to it as a commune to colleagues at work. We knew no one when we arrived and now we and our kids have new friends. I never thought I’d have such good neighbours in a big city like London. How is this possible?
We live in a Span House – a mid-twentieth century architectural invention that sought to create well designed family homes that would span the gap between the inaccessible expensive English homes and the failed council estates of the earlier decades.

When we were in the buying process, we discovered that we had to buy a share in the company which owns the shared land of the estate, which cost us the princely sum of ten pounds. In signing up for your share you have to agree to a set of community principles which encourage respect of your neighbours and a highly inclusive set of behaviours.

Winter in the Plantation, BlackheathIt’s not just the shared principles but also the architecture itself: I realised one day that my own tiny front garden has no borders or fence, but also I couldn’t work out which was mine and which was my neighbours because they both overlap exactly halfway on either side of the party line. It’s a deliberate ploy to make you feel (strangely) more responsible for it. I’ve never lived anywhere where it feels so participatory and inclusive. You end up feeling like you want to take care of the shared environment because it’s also yours.

Span houses were the brainchild of Eric Lyons, Leslie Bilsby and Geoff Townsend and the Span team built some 2,100 homes in 73 developments between 1948 and 1969.

At the time a lot of new towns were being created to support the expansion of London and the population expansion of Britain post war. Eric Lyons felt that the architecture of these new towns was not conducive to community – there was too much emphasis given to cars and access for them and the properties themselves were too widely spaced.

Community Design Principles of Span homes:

  1. Community as the goal
  2. Shared landscape as the means, and
  3. Modern, controlled design as the expression.

Nothing was left to coincidence, the planting used in Span developments breaks up the repetition and monotony and creates a natural playground for kids. You can see this by observing the countless games that the kids all create after school and at the weekends. Lyons believed in the idea of a “Building landscape”, that visual and functional space should come first, and landscaping should enhance this space. That might sound like the spaces would feel rigid and inhuman, but quite the opposite effect is achieved, with the plants giving a warmth that softens the rectilineal buildings.

Summer in The Plantation, Blackheath

Some of the qualities of Eric Lyons’ architecture include:

  • No front gardens, and communal gardens that start at your front door.
  • Design for pedestrian encounters not for cars (cars parked so that you have to walk through communal gardens)
  • Design for collisions (pathways are deliberatly intersecting from your door to your car to the road – there’s also only one way in or out)
  • Garages arranged together created a sense of shared security and thus community
  • High density living. Lyons believed that Density = interaction = community

However it wasn’t enough that community success was left purely to the design of the space. Lyons placed a strong emphasis on the role of the user: a framework for communal interaction and involvement was created. Lyons believed community was reliant upon the role of residents taking ownership and creatively participating in how the environment was run.

Atelier 5, Halen, Switzerland

Lyons was inspired by the Bauhaus, having worked alongside Walter Gropius in the thirties during his brief period in Britain, as well as various developments in Switzerland, especially one by Atelier 5, Scandinavia, including one by Syndey Opera House architect Jørn Utzon, and others in England and Scotland.

Some of the inspiration for Span houses which were not necessarily carried forwards:

  • Leave some things flexible and allow for change. Allow for the possibility of experimentation
  • Provide basis for further growth and evolution
  • Design for individuality in each community

How can we design places, both physical, and virtual so that they have that sense of shared ownership?