“In his life, as well as his work, he tried to pare away the superfluous and concentrate on the important”. Colin Ward
Walter Segal (1907-1985) was born in Switzerland and moved to London in 1936, after training as an architect in Berlin. He was a modernist who maintained an ongoing interest in traditional building techniques, in particular those of traditional Japanese architecture.
He gained recognition and respect for the development of the ‘Segal Method’, which was designed to enable people to build their own homes without the need to learn so called wet trades such as bricklaying, plastering and cement pouring which Segal considered superfluous to house building. We are lucky enough to have some fantastic examples of the Segal Method in South East London, in the form of the Segal Close and Walters Way homes - they felt like a great fit for the High Rise issue, even though they don't tower above the surrounding buildings; in fact their stature is rather modest but because they all rest on stilts raised above ground level, nestled on hillsides amongst the trees they resemble a cluster of tree houses and benefit from beautiful views.
The Segal projects were born out of collaboration with Segal and Lewisham Council. Colin Ward of the Lewisham Council's Architectural Department had read and studied Segal's ideas for the timber framed house and devised a plan to offer those on the Councils waiting list for accommodation a chance to build their own house. The first project - known as Phase One, started in 1979 and due to the success of this Phase Two commenced in 1984. In total twenty-seven houses were completed in the two Lewisham self-build schemes, providing quality detached houses with gardens for local people.
The Segal method is in essence a bolt-together form of timber frame construction, which relies on using all the materials in their standard off-the-peg sizes, both user friendly and reduces the amount of cutting and waste. Segal famously said you just need to be able to saw a straight line and drill a straight hole.
This type of timber frame construction also lends its self to awkward sloping, soft-soiled plots of land with lots of trees (the timber houses can be in close proximity), like the Walters Way site, which had been vetoed by the council for building housing on, Segal thought this sight was perfect for the project. Segal carefully arranged the houses in a constellation, which made the most of the beautiful mature trees and meant none on the site would have to be felled. This preservation of the environment aspect along with the building materials used result in the houses having high eco-friendly credentials.
Having visited Walter’s Way on London Open House weekends, I always found such a wonderful quality of light in the homes and a sense of being close to nature. I also enjoy the way the houses are tied together in external design but completely different internally, each being modified to the occupants needs and personal preference – it’s hard to think of any other form of social housing being so self-empowering and responsive to the needs of its dweller’s; the Segal homes make houses of standard brick construction seem ridged and stifling in comparison.
Now, more than ever, this kind of method feels like a relevant and very important reference point in finding another option in the face of a housing crisis which shows no signs of relenting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in need of housing could be assisted to respond to that need in a self-empowered way - just like the Segal self-builders - to create not only a eco-friendly home but a nurturing community and a legacy of wonderful houses in South East London that respond to each occupant’s requirements.
We caught up with Taran, a freelance lifestyle photographer, who lives with his partner Celine, an Exhibition Designer at the Victoria & Albert Musuem and their two young sons Sohan and Nayan to find out about his home in Segal Close.
How long have you lived in your home?
We moved from North London to Honor Oak Park in 2008 and have been living in Segal Close since 2011.
Were you aware of Walter Segal’s work before you moved to Segal Close?
Yes, our passion for everything Segal began in 2009 after visiting Walters Way where a few of the homes were open to the public during Open House London. We fell in love with the uniqueness of the street, the architecture, the sense of community, the layout, the light, the timber…the list goes on.
In early 2011, we spotted a Segal home on sale with Modern House and although it was under offer at the time, we asked them to keep us on file should the house fall through. Although we knew there was little chance it would, low and behold three months down the line, we received a call notifying us that the house was due to be put back on the market. Celine is from Switzerland so for her it made total sense to live in a timber house and for me having lived in Japan for several years, was also inspired by the compact living style and sense of close-to-nature Segal’s projects have. We knew this was the home we could see ourselves living in and found a way to make it happen!
Do you know much about the history of your home such as who built it and its original lay out?
We know that Segal Close was part of phase one of Lewisham Council's answer to council housing back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, with Walters Ways forming phase two. Walter Segal became the only architect in the UK at the time to have two streets named after him.
We also know our property was built by a carpenter in the early 80s and we still have blueprints and some images of the original layout which came with the house. There are also some interesting internal features of our home designed by him, such as shelving and storage space, which have remained the same.
The houses were designed to grow and adapt to the occupants requirements, how have the spaces evolved in your home?
Internally, since we have moved in we have changed the layout of the toilet and bathroom, modernised the kitchen and repainted all the timber to create a sense of light and airy openness to the home. Externally, we have added some decking in the garden and have plans to potentially extend the house in the future.
Do you feel a sense or pressure of having to preserve an important part of self-build social housing history?
There is only one house remaining of the seven on the Close, which has the original self-builders still living there. It's always great to call upon them as a historical reference point and query them on how the homes were built and maintained, as well as how the ambience of the street has changed over the years. All the other homes are now privately owned and although we feel proud and appreciate the ethos of self-build, we know we can't call ourselves self-builders.
How did you decide how to decorate this kind of unique home, did you limit yourself to certain materials, furniture or colours?
My wife, who is an interior designer, had a clear vision and idea of how she wanted the look and the feel of the house to be. The beauty of the house is that each room has built in storage, which helps keep it tidy and minimalist. This dictated the contemporary look and feel that we wanted to create in the house. Consequently we re-selected our furniture choice to a more mid-century feel, and we repainting the majority of our interior walls Farrow & Ball Strong White to create a blank canvas with accent walls of grey throughout to contrast.
Do you have good views from your home?
When friends and family walk into our home, they often comment how they feel they have walked into a holiday home, the views from our balcony and main living spaces are incredible, overlooking trees and gardens from a high vantage point as the Close is positioned on top of a hill. We often recall one of the first evenings we spent at the house was on Bonfire's night and how we watched the fireworks going off across the borough all night from a fantastic view.
The houses feel almost rural, do you enjoy the sense of being elevated and tucked away?
We love the rural, elevated and private feel you get when you step into our home, and the Close, yet we also appreciate the fact that we are only three stops away from London Bridge and the City of London. Although it was not an easy move for us initially coming to Honor Oak Park, after having spent many years living in hip and trendy areas of Dalston and Stoke Newington. Never comes a day now that we regret moving south of the river.
Other residents of Segal’s projects have often spoken about the strong sense of community they feel a part of, do you think Segal hit on something special and possibly hard to create in other forms of housing?
Without a shadow of a doubt, it is rare in London to know your neighbours and although it is inevitable that over time people come and go, more often than not, the Segal homes seem to continue to re-attract people with similar values about community living. Having also visited many of the homes of our cousins in Walters Way as photographer, I can honestly say the one thing we all have in common, is our sense of pride in living amongst our neighbours who share our community values. Walter Segal hit the nail on the head with this one!
How does this sense of community enrich your experience of your home?
Children and pets also seem to bind the community and although this is more apparent in Walters Way with 13 homes compared to 7 on Segal Close, there remains a sense of pride knowing that you can rely upon your neighbour to look out for one another. I am also aware that Walters Way often have annual summer fayres, perhaps our Close will look to create something similar in the near future too.
Has living here given you a passion for self-built homes?
Although we are proud to live in a self-build home and perhaps even one day would like to build a home ourselves, its difficult for us to say that we know the real graft, sweat and tears which would go into making your home from scratch. Inspired and proud through Segal, that is without question, so much so that together with other residents in Walters Way and Segal Close I am putting together a self-published book, which will hopefully provide a sense of the personalities living in these homes and provide contemporary photographic examples of Walter Segal's legacy and work.
What are your favourite South East London places?
We love the village feel of Honor Oak Park, its parade and many of the independent shops on it. Similarly Forest Hill has blossomed over the years with some fantastic places to hang out from Montage, Sylvan Post, St Davids Coffee House, The Signal, and Canvas and Cream to the award wining Horniman Museum & Gardens. But as a family we love spending lazy Sundays in secret woods of Sydenham Hill and the Dulwich haunts, which are only a stones throw away.
PHOTOS: Taran Wilkhu