Walter Segal has another self-built architect launch today

Walter Segal Self-Built Architect launches once more this afternoon at Alice’s event on Walters Way for London Open Houses 2021

I planned to link my 17 minute presentation which, unfortunately I couldn’t make in person, here – but I now realise it is an mp4 file 100 times bigger than I am allowed to upload into my website’s media library. Ah too bad.

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Seagulls fly in over the white cliffs of Dover (Segal Part 105)

The two Insiders/Outsiders events on Thursday 8 July 2021, focused on Arthur Segal and then Walter Segal have, within 48 hours, generated yet more fascinating snippets. 

Both sessions are now on the web, at the Insiders/Outsiders Youtube channel, here!

I have been shown Dan Teodorovici’s article on Walter Segal published in December 2018 by Friends of Marlowes here. What a pity we didn’t know of this useful short German-language introduction to include in the new book’s bibliography.

A different participant from Berlin pointed out that Lewisham (where Walter Segal’s only self-build for a housing authority was actually built) had been twinned with Charlottenburg (where the Segal family lived and Walter studied architecture) back in 1968. Did Segal know this? My Berlin correspondent amuses himself, every time he crosses Lewishamstraße, wondering how the locals pronounce it.

In Stuttgart, Dan mounted the most recent Walter Segal exhibition a couple of years ago. In Eindhoven in 1978, Myriam Daru with others mounted the very first Walter Segal exhibition.

Myriam’s friendship with the family of Bernhard Mayer, the key patron of Arthur and the first patron of Walter, continues to this day. She participated from the Netherlands on Thursday and has added further important thoughts to me today:

Walter Segal was not an ideologist of sustainability – I would rather describe him as anti-dogmatic – but sustainability was a consequence of his matter-of-fact approach, an undercurrent of the method. Within the method, trying to produce as little waste as possible is an economic goal that has ecological benefits.
What we at the hfg Ulm had in common with Walter Segal, is leaving behind the architect as a hero and the author of unique works of art. But in Ulm, the ideal result of the designing process was to be mass production. The one-to one relationship to the patrons which Walter had, is certainly a big difference. Another difference is Walter’s acceptance of imperfection, which makes it easier to leave the implementation in the hands of unexperienced self-builders.

It is ironical that it takes a housing crisis to return to Walter Segal’s way of thinking and doing. I think it would be interesting to look at all the forces in all these years which prevented the seed from spreading and taking root in the whole world.

This morning Mary and I visited an exhibition of paintings by Rebecca Weissbort.  She was also showing some paintings by her late husband, George Weissbort, which – I mentioned to Mary – reminded me of Arthur Segal’s late style. The artist overheard us, and we soon established that her husband (who had been 20 years older than her), had in fact been a pupil at the Arthur Segal (& family) painting school in Oxford at the start of the 1940s. A most unexpected link. 

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Old and new glances at Walter Segal (Segal Part 104)

Discussing my ancient book on  Water Segal in 2017 with architectural historian Dr. Kate Jordan of Westminster University. 

With her encouragement, it is finally superseded in July 2021, by Walter Segal Self-built Architect written with Alice Grahame who contributes the tale of his posthumous influence.

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Twelve questions about Walter Segal (Segal Part 103)

In the week that Walter Segal Self-Built Architect by Alice Grahame and myself is published, the authors have both (or do I mean each?) been asked twelve questions. 

I have not seen Alice’s answers.

Here are mine:




  1. How did you each first become aware of Segal’s work? And what first struck you as most interesting about it?

The Architects’ Journal news editors in the 1960s and ‘70s (I was one from 1972-5) would invite friends for a weekly drink in The Bride of Denmark, our basement pub; this, ‘the Astragal meeting’, purported to gather material for our weekly gossip column, Astragal. There I first met Mr Segal, of whom I previously only knew the very cheap temporary house in his garden. What was most interesting about him was the remarkable breadth of his culture and historical reading, and his cheeky inquisitiveness always ready to deflate pomp.

I was attracted to him; we became neighbours and friends and, when the German publisher Kramer proposed a book about him, Segal suggested I write it. That project died but, after Segal’s death, the Swiss publisher Birkhäuser revived the idea.

  1. How did the book project come about?

Various people had been talking about republishing my old Segal book; the 20th Century Society (via Alan Powers) was promising to commission a new book by me in their ‘20th Century English architects’ series. On a few more years, that book was in the pipeline with a contract from Historic England, and then my text was submitted. While that seemed to be getting nowhere, I was approached by Alice, for whom I’d previously given talks at Walters Way and contributed to her book with Taran, that I join her in an idea she had with Lund Humphries, where she had previously worked.

John and Alice with Segal’s partner Jon Broome, Taran Wilkhu, Tom Dyckhoff and others

  1. The subtitle of the book, ‘Self-Built Architect’ is meaningful on two levels – can you give us a little insight into how Segal’s reputation and career was ‘self-built’?

Segal was throughout his life an instinctive Marxist. Marx had famously written that he would never join a club which allowed people like himself (Groucho) to become a member. Segal, having scoffed at the pretentious antics of artists around his childhood, and architects around his youthful years, always trod his own path. From turning down Gropius’ offer of a student place at the Bauhaus, to never joining the RIBA and almost always working on his own, Segal built his own, very unusual, career by himself.

  1. Who were Segal’s influences, and how do we see these influences manifest themselves?

He loved his father, the painter Arthur Segal, while considering Arthur’s theoretical pretentions around art to be very thin. Walter was not beguiled by the ‘form-making’ pretentions of artists and architects around his youth, seeking out both Bruno Taut (an ‘outsider’ as Gropius called him) as mentor and colleague, and the considerably older Hans Poelzig as tutor.

  1. Where can we see Segal’s influence in current housing design?

Probably not in Senegal? (despite the review of my 1989 book about him)






  1. Why do you think his legacy is so enduring?

He was interesting; and what is interesting about him is not revealed all at once – as every Segal student and every self-builder slowly learned.

  1. What makes a building quintessentially ‘Segalian’?

It is as unobtrusive as George Smiley’s costume, but also, when seen close to, as perfectly tailored and keeping its surprises hidden.

  1. Which comes first… building material or design? How does the process of self-building begin?

As Harry Potter says, “attempting to identify the first case of a circular cause and consequence is an exercise in utter futility.”

What comes first is the desire to design homes which are pleasant to make, and to make homes which are pleasant to inhabit.

Walter Segal was always fascinated by how we can best make “homes pleasant to inhabit”. His love of detailed design was more about providing desirable (and often unexpected) convenience – from the height of light switches by a living-room door handle to that room’s daylight provided from two sides; to its link to a garden and then to shared social space beyond. While it was not primarily about material economy, his uniquely unprejudiced common-sense showed in myriad, witty and unexpected details: doubled internal doors to reduce sound transmission between two living rooms or a window directly over a fireplace, doubling the life of a stair carpet or using water as external roof insulation.

The process of self-building then began with Segal realising that (in 1970s England) material economy alone was not enough to produce affordable homes; and finally that “homes pleasant to make” is so much more than saving building costs. And so, latterly with Jon Broome, his enabling of the convenient assembly of homes then also opened to his clients the convenient design and ordering of their own spaces within ‘Segal’ construction rules.

Segal, Broome and self-builder Ken Atkins

  1. The book stresses that Segal’s architecture was based in a belief in democratic and social equality. How might Segal’s ethos be useful for practising architects today?

Democratic and social equality demands decent ordinary housing for all. It is an ethos for practicing humans today.

It is now a century since the British post-Great War report called for three-bedroom dwellings with modern fuel and sanitation as a basic requirement for family life, alongside health, education and employment. The government very soon watered that down while passing the responsibility to local authorities. After the Second World War Segal was one among many arguing that only the public ownership of land would make this possible and affordable. When Segal began building houses, 5% of the cost was the land (80% the actual building cost, 15% infrastructure and services). By 1960 land was already 40% of a Segal house’s cost and its proportion rising rapidly. In 1971, Segal said with this inflation in land cost ‘it sounds absurd that one should try to search for methods of building cheaply.’

After his death, the Guardian wrote in 1988, ‘the Segal system of house design and construction – but for the insane economics of the housing market today – could see every homeless family in Britain housed in a dwelling of their own design and construction by the turn of the century.’

Every public-minded citizen – architects included – today can fight that ‘insane economics of the housing market.’ As Home Secretary Winston Churchill argued so well, ‘land monopoly is by far the greatest of monopolies. Unearned increments in land are positively detrimental to the general public.’ That speech on land taxation is 112 years old, has rarely been bettered but has never led to his desired reforms, as the disparity of wealth between those who own a house and those who do not continues to escalate.

  1. Are there particular elements of his system that could be applied to large-scale contemporary developments?

No. His system is a way of thinking, thinking about the design of the most convivial and habitable spaces whatever the constraints (given the requirement for multi-storey units, his ‘hanging gardens’ schemes are wonderfully humane and could have been really enjoyable); thinking about the fabrication of the most convivial and co-operative assembly processes; thinking about how design decision-making can be shared.

(Beyond the bizarre billionaires, there are no large-scale contemporary dwellings. Household and local community size remain, more or less, as ever.)

  1. What do you think is most important for those who are new to the work of Walter Segal to know about his work?

At a glance he was a not-very successful architect of ordinary-looking housing. Now look closely. Then look more closely still, and you find an extraordinary figure, happily treading a self-reliant, solitary path offering a unique model of architectural practice in the 20th century.

  1. Are there revelations from your research that you think would surprise even a Segal-enthusiast? What were these discoveries?

‘Anarchy is simply any social space in which the techniques of mutuality predominate. It is a social space which people enter (and leave) freely; relate as equals; and do something creative, to solve a problem, meet a need, or just enjoy creativity for its own sake.’

This was the social realm towards which Segal’s good friend Colin Ward aimed, and for which Segal’s later professional life clearly aimed. (I state it in the words of Stuart White)

When a headline screams that a Segal self-built estate is “Anarchist housing” or, from the opposite corner, when a partisan defender equally vehemently denies that Segal was an “anarchist”, both Tweedledum and Tweedledee simply miss the point.

Shadow of Segal in 1974 sitting in the first self-built ‘Segal Method’ house

John McKean 24 June 2021 (all images which do not include me are taken by me)

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Segal Part 102: a new book approaches: cut price offer!

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Segal part 89

My text – Walter Segal, English Architect –  for the nice series of 20th Century English Architects (from which sponsors RIBA and Historic England have now faded but to which Liverpool University Press has joined the stalwart Twentieth Century Society) was sent off many months ago. And now the rather different book, written by Alice Grahame and me – Walter Segal : Self-built Architect – moves to the production phase at Lund Humphries, with our draft texts off to the publisher by the end of April. Perhaps the Plague’s enforced imprisonment has also encouraged a bit of focus!

(from left) Walter Segal, elderly self-builder, Jon Broome

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Giancarlo De Carlo’s centenary

De Carlo, his centenary having passed a few weeks ago, is shaken back into my consciousness thrice so far this year.

First, the new book edited by Monica Mazzolani and Antonio Troisi comes through the mail in mid January 2020.

Then the GDC issue of HPA should surely be appearing soon – it being months since I passed the page proofs – although I noticed the date on the pages of the proofs said ‘2018’.

And now, third, we work towards Antonello Alici’s Cambridge seminar in April on GDC and the Anglo-Saxon connection.

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Segal, part 71

This drawer (the fourth down, on the left) , is now (July 2019) unlocked, opened and labelled Walter Segal. Now there are books contracted and underway – Walter Segal: Self-built Architect by John McKean & Alice Grahame (Lund Humphries) and  Walter Segal by John McKean in the ’20th century English Architects’ series which The 20th Century Society with RIBA and Historic England set on a fine trail and of which University of Liverpool Press have very recently taken the reins.

Here are a jumbled few posts (the Segal, part thingie series) and yellowing cuttings over recent years regarding an ongoing interest in Mr. Segal.  However, elsewhere in this filing cabinet is a large envelope labelled Walter Segal (goodness, it turns red when you hover over it!), and in there are found various substantial, pre-digital texts I have written about Mr. Segal, mostly centuries ago, which anyone interested is welcome to steal as downloadable pdf files.

Walter Segal talking through the space left alongside his cigar, sitting in the first self-built house in his system, Mr and Mrs Holland’s house, seen in poster on right. Both photographs: John McKean

I may add links to other views on Segal as time allows, but a good starting point is a brief introduction to Segal by Colin Ward which you can read here. Meanwhile my colleagues Alice Grahame (author) and Taran Wilkhu (photographer) in 2017 published attractive tales of life in two idyllic Segal streets, self-built 40 years ago in London by people on the local authority’s list of those in housing need; it can be bought here and elsewhere.  Alice has also started this useful Segal-news website here, while a range of Taran’s great pictures of the interiors in 2017 are also seen here.

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Master your own education!


Look – No Students

  •  It is fascinating to see Dezeen recently talking about Stacie Woolsey’s Make Your Own Masters which is now very much alive here – a real future in design education! 

It certainly takes me back nearly half a century, when in a very different educational world I was arguing about the possibilities at Alvin Boyarsky’s Architectural Association. And then, a few years later Monica Pidgeon published my very sketchy manifesto ‘Look no students!’  in RIBA Journal 1970.  Strange to read it again after so long; and yet, with the cobwebs dusted off …



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Et in arcadia ego

The praise heaped on David Watkin and his Morality and Architecture, following his recent death, and then that of Robert Venturi just weeks later, took me back exactly 40 years, to when I saw them both in that summer of 1978.   Giancarlo De Carlo asked me to review Watkin, Jencks’ Second Edition Post-Modern and that summer’s fun in London for his then new journal Spazio e Società.   Here is a snippet:

David Watkin’s book (perhaps to Jencks’ embarrassment) is in ways similar, but this is a mischievous if not downright malicious piece of reactionary propaganda posing as academic righteousness. Full of tendentious sneers and gratuitous insult, while purporting to argue against the moral purpose in architecture from Pugin to Pevsner and the Modern Movement, it reveals itself as a violently anti-socialist tirade.

‘It’s principal claim to originality’, philosophy professor Richard Wollheim wrote recently, ‘is the total absence of sympathy with the topic on which its polemic is conducted’. It is a corpse not worth picking at; having been adequately dismembered, its nastiness and stupidities brilliantly flayed by Reyner Banham (Times Literary Supplement 12.2.78 p. 191), and its likely consequences more subtly dissected by Robin Evans, (Architectural Design May/June 1978 p 276).

But in a sense Watkin’s hollow diatribe was as necessary as Jencks’ shallow case; for, although ‘the old Puritan idea that simplicity is moral and elaboration immoral’, (of which on pages 38-39 Watkin accuses Le Corbusier), makes me assume he’s never seen a Corbusier building, we have enough evidence of the sterility of modern architecture for Watkin’s boorishness to claim an excited following. Watkin, setting up the arid polarity of formalism (good architecture) versus socialism (bad architecture), can only retreat into the suggestion that the architect renounce all interest in the social milieu created by his work, to become the mere stylist of museum exhibits.

The Modern Movement claimed to be the only true architecture for the people; but it was unintellegible to them. ‘Anything which reminds one of the past is a vice’ (as Watkin wildly caricatures Pevsner).

I’m slightly taken aback to find this again after so long.  How far have we now really wandered into a foreign country, I wonder? 

The whole long piece for SeS – also built around Peter Cook’s Art-Net and Robin Middleton’s Beaux-Arts ‘conferences’  of summer 1978- is found here.

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