78 Derngate Archive

New Ways

13 Jan
Ken Simpson
New Ways - rear elevation
New Ways – rear elevation. Photograph: After 1926 – possibly W.J. Bassett-Lowke

Apparently Bassett-Lowke would have liked Mackintosh to have designed his new house, but lost contact with him when he moved to the South of France. It took some time to find a suitable alternative architect but after reading about Peter Behrens’ work in the German magazine ‘Werkbund Jahrbuch’, Bassett-Lowke decided to ask him to design the house. Behrens was one of the most important modernist architects of his time, his designs appealed to Bassett-Lowke who was a founding member of The Design Industries Association. He had in fact, adopted its motto ‘Fitness for Purpose’. Engineering design is all about efficiency, of space, materials and labour, Behrens’ designs would have fulfilled these requirements whilst having little respect for more conventional building methods. Why have an expensive pitched roof, when a well designed and constructed flat one would do the job more efficiently? Why have gables and projecting wings to a house when a cube would be cheaper and simpler to build?

The design had to take the parameters of the site into account and Behrens did this admirably. The approach to the house is from the north, first sight reveals a cube with central door under a cantilever canopy, two ground floor windows and a tall vee shaped window from just above the canopy to roof level. A stylised parapet surrounds the flat roof. The rest of the wall is plain rendered plasterwork, the house us built of conventional brickwork rather than concrete as used on the continent, probably to comply with English building regulations. To say that this elevation is dramatic is an understatement.

The sides of the building are quite simple, each with several relatively small windows, but the south side has large windows on both floors to maximise the use of sunlight.

Each floor has a balcony recess to give shelter when needed.

Inside, the hallway is almost aggressively modern, a stepped solid wall at the side of the stairway, tiled floor and a piscine!

The living room has a quite spectacular fireplace set between two small windows and an elaborate overhead light. A three dimensional panelled plaster ceiling is in the living room, hallway, stairs and landing. There is a dining room, study, kitchen maid’s room and toilet at the ground level.

On the first floor there are two main bedrooms, each with en-suite bathroom, a den, all with access to the upper balcony, a further bedroom, and a maid’s bedroom.

For Charles Green, the builder, the abandoning of convention was almost too much; he refused to advertise his connection with the construction work.

It seems risky to build such a house. Did it work? The Bassett-Lowkes moved into the house in 1926 and spent the rest of their lives there. Judging from the contemporary cine film of the family and friends at the house, they all appeared to be enjoying it enormously. Certainly, the architectural profession has been enthusiastic about it over the years. Bassett-Lowke described it as ‘The house of the future’. Sir Hugh Casson recognised it as ‘The first modernist house in the country’ and, more recently, Dan Cruickshank admired its ‘Radical Spirit’. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner said ‘ One does not know what to admire more, Mr. Bassett-Lowke’s discrimination in engaging Mackintosh at a time when genius was no longer given adequate opportunities to express itself, or his courage in engaging Behrens, one of the earliest leaders of a completely new style of architecture then completely untried in Britain.’

It stands there; it is in private ownership, if it is ever put on the market, what a wonderful opportunity for it to be purchased to be opened to the public.

New Ways indeed!

NB. The above article is the result of correspondence I had with the Telegraph attributing the introduction of Modernism to Britain by Berhold Lubetkin I pointed out that New Ways was designed in 1925 by Behrens and that the precursor to Modernism was surely the rear elevation on number 78! Rear elevation New Ways.

First published in December 2010 In The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 68.
Author: Ken Simpson
Transcribed 2019: Barbara Floyer