Festival Flats, Paragon Street
Gordon Toplis and Robert Meadows, 1951

A Paragon of Modern Living

Street corner with two blocks of flats
Fig. 1: View of the Festival Flats from the city walls. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.
Attendees of a festival in a courtyard
Fig. 2: view of the Festival of Britain Exhibition in London, 1951. Photo: © Ben Brooksbank via Geograph, reproduced under CC licence BY-SA-2.0.

After the devastation of WW2, the nation’s political leaders wanted to transform cities to reflect a new future for Britain, as a counterpoint to the austerity and hardship of the previous years. York proved to be a key city which embraced this change. The Festival of Britain in 1951 was devised to show the world that the country had not lost its ability to enjoy itself and to celebrate the outstanding achievements it had made as a nation. While the exhibition was on London’s Southbank, many cities, towns and villages across the UK staged events or established initiatives connected with the Festival, from Glasgow to Llangollen.1 In York, embracing a new industrial future alongside its wealth of history, the Festival catalysed two new housing projects, looking to create a new identity for the city.

Sketch of two blocks of flats
Fig. 3: perspective sketch of the Festival Flats, by Toplis and Meadows, c. 1951, reproduced from: Anon, “Festival Flats at York,” RIBAJ (August 1954): 417.

York City Council seized upon the idea of promoting a revitalized post-war city through its architecture. Based on the council’s strategy for the Festival, historic restoration was carried out on key buildings such as Lord Burlington’s Assembly Rooms (1730) and the City Art Gallery (Edward Taylor, 1878-79). The council commissioned modern exhibitions as well as new architecture to reflect the city’s new vision. This included erecting modern blocks of public housing, signalling that York was looking to espouse a brighter future by becoming a model for other cities which grew from the enthusiasm of the time for a modern way of living, with both economic and social mobility at the forefront of a new approach to public architecture. The sites selected for redevelopment were areas of dereliction and designated for redevelopment within the following 50 year plan for the city.

Two housing blocks were built, one inside the city walls at Castlegate designed in a mix of neo-Georgian, neo-Renaissance and modernist styles by Robert Atkinson (considered in another vignette). The other is in Paragon Street, just outside the city walls and designed by the London practice, Gordon Toplis and Robert Meadows, the winners of an open competition. Designed to be sympathetic to the aesthetics of the surrounding buildings in their respective localities, they are built in brick; in the case of the Festival Flats, the hand-moulded yellow-grey bricks enjoy a contextual relationship with the medieval walls opposite. Both blocks were built as public housing and provided modern amenities to the growing population. As a multifaceted approach to the Festival of Britain, the buildings were seen as part of the modernisation of the ancient city, reflecting a new industrial age.  

The Festival Flats project was to consist of two blocks built parallel respectively to Fishergate and Paragon Street and linked to the space behind via a screen wall to the area.2 At the junction of Fishergate and Paragon Street, a medley of buildings which were likely to remain for some time were screened from the new development by the rebuilding of a boundary wall. The north block was curved to improve the line in Paragon Street and fit with planned future development. The irregular area behind the blocks gave the opportunity to provide a turning space for vehicles from the two main roads adjacent and access was provided by a new minor road. The space also provided ample room for a drying-yard and a play area for children. The public house to the east of the development was screened by the repair of a gable wall and the introduction of a curtain wall.

Construction on the site proved to be more complicated than originally thought. Trial bore holes discovered that the subsoil was largely made up of sandy clay (the area lies between the Foss basin and River Ouse and therefore was part of an ancient flood plain). Foundations of reinforced concrete rafts for each block allowed the structure to ‘float’ on the subsoil. Below ground the walls were constructed of cavity walls with a brick outer leaf. Breeze block was used for the construction of upper levels with precast concrete floors and a brick skin enveloping the exterior. Roof construction was of timber with a 30-degree pitch, felted and finished with red clay pantiles. The windows were purposely made in metal set in a fine concrete sub-frame.

Block of flats behind wall
Fig. 4: view of the flats with city wall in the foreground. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Accommodation was designed to reflect the growing need of families. Although there were four units to accommodate single occupancy, the majority of the accommodation consisted of larger units including 10 flats to house six or more people, each with double bedrooms, a kitchen, living room with dining recess, bathroom and separate WCs. Sizes range from 623 sq. ft. to 1300 sq. ft. Each first and second floor flat had a balcony facing south or west. The seven flats on the ground floor were designed to accommodate the elderly and complied with the Ministry of Health’s standards for old person’s dwellings. In the north block, living rooms face south with windows overlook Paragon Street and the city walls. Each unit had an open fireplace with background heating provided by wall-mounted radiators. Constant hot water was provided through calorifiers located in designated linen cupboards. Kitchens were semi fitted and included gas fittings for a cooker and electrical points for refrigerators. Flooring throughout was softwood boarding on spines of Cabot to form a floating floor to help with sound insulation. The internal floors were laid in Accotile flooring, with entrance halls and staircases laid with blue quarry tiles, with Granolithic skirting and margins. Utility rooms were provided to be shared between every two flats, containing fuel stores and refuse bins. A designated laundry facility was provided to be utilised by each block. Lockup stores for bikes and prams were located in the ground floor stairwell areas for all flats in the blocks.

Four balconies with laundry
Fig. 5: view of the balconies. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.