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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Where can we see Segal’s influence in current housing design?
Probably not in Senegal? (despite the review of my 1989 book about him)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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)