1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 16

Out of the Prison House ALTHOUGH it is widely be-

lieved that the only way to house a lot of people in a small space is to stack them in a skyscraper, this is not strictly true. The flaw in the argument is that it is necessary to leave lots of room at the foot of a tower for the inhabi- tants to use when they come down to earth.

For the last few years architects who under- stood this and realised that flats were prisons for families with children have tried to see how compactly houses could be built without creating anti-social conditions. One such experiment is Acorn Place, in Camberwell, designed by F. 0. ' Hayes, the Borough Architect. Part of this neigh- bourhood is like an Oxbridge college, a tight- knit group of houses overlooking courtyards linked by passageways. Compared with the super- scale of the LCC's famous Roehampton estate, its intimacy is remarkable : it is the difference between the sweep of the Regent's Park terraces and the enclosure of Charterhouse. Some people have criticised Acorn Place for being too intro- spective, but the tide of children and tricycles that ebbs and flows through the cleverly land- scaped spaces banishes monastic seclusion.

A single courtyard similar in scale, though not closed to cars, is Hollywood Mews, in Kensing- ton, a rare example of a mews that is rectangular. The houses in it have been gutted and modern- ised and given a simple appearance reminiscent of a Cornish fishing port. Every one has an un- pretentious glazed porch and looks out on to three trees and fans of cobblestones. The price of a four-bedroom house is £15,500. At Acorn Place the construction costs of the centrally- heated houses averaged under £3,000.

The moral of this story is not that there is one price for the rich and one for the poor, but that it is possible to build houses for about 110 people to the acre, the ratio at Acorn Place. However, in Central London the prescribed resi- dential density is 200 persons to the acre. What this means can be seen in Williams Mews,' near Knightsbridge, where fourteen houses and eighteen flats have been skilfully fitted into an awkward site. In fact, a height limitation pre- vented a density of more than 150 per acre being achieved, but, even so, the small houses are the size of rabbit hutches and the larger ones (£22,000 for a sixty-year lease) have a plan

that makes it possible for passers-by to see the occupants silhouetted between the windows of their living-rooms.' Such drawbacks can be avoided at high densities only by building on larger sites and mixing very high flats with lower buildings, as at Golden Lane, in the City. But although prospects for houses are poor in the sardine-tin zones of Central .London, they do not have to be just outside it in Hampstead, St. John's Wood or Wandsworth. A row of houses in South Hill Park, NW3, designed by Amis and W. and G. Howell, although more conventional in overall planning than those at Acorn Place, satisfy most of the needs of a 'family of city-dwellers. Similar deSigns are already in widespread use elsewhere and may become as ubiquitous as their Georgian ante- cedents. A row of such houses has a structure resembling a brick toast-rack. This is cross-wall construction and each dwelling fits where a slice of toast goes. At South Hill Park the architects made this clear by projecting the cross-walls slightly beyond the non-structural windows and panelling of the façades.

As they were built on• an existing street, these houses have the classic London narrow frontage. They have garages at street level, living-rooms on the first floor and bedrooms on the second. This verticality and the stairs that go with it would appal a Los Angelo accustomed to low, spread- ing houses, but in land-starved London it is almost the only solution