The decidedly pleasant housing between Goodramgate and Stonebow in Aldwark, constructed from the 1970s to the 1990s, was a vision realised of inner-city housing that had the space and privacy of the suburbs, whilst maintaining a strong connection to the city of York. This might seem like a tall order for a handful of courts, but was achieved through the singular determination of one Lionel Brett, 4th Viscount Esher, and the subsequent realisation of his ideas by developers in York. Lord Esher (1913-2004) was commissioned in 1966 by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to produce a conservation report for the city of York (see Pam Chapman’s vignette on this website).1 Four reports for other cities were commissioned at the same time, for Bath, Chester, Chichester and King’s Lynn, all with different authors to give varied insights into these cities. Lord Esher may have seemed an unusual choice for such a historic city as York: he was a “committed modernist” and a “reluctant conservationist,” yet his credentials as an urban planner and architectural consultant were beyond question and he would be a perfect counter to a stubborn York City Council.2 His experience would mean that this conservation report would not simply be a recommendation of how to best maintain the city’s ancient buildings, which was already well in hand, but rather a demonstration of how York could change whilst maintaining its heritage, bringing more residents into the core and regenerating the city so it could thrive for years to come.
Aldwark was singled out as an area for redevelopment in the 1968 paper, commonly referred to after its author as the Esher report. The Esher report included an in-depth study of how every square foot, in three dimensions, was used in the city, which thus allowed for the easy identification of unused space. The Aldwark area was a mix of industrial buildings, warehouses, dilapidated housing, and some ancient architectural gems such as the Merchant Taylor’s Hall, founded c.1400. As this zone was so ripe for development, Lord Esher’s architectural practice, Brett & Pollen, published a 1971 report showing how this area could be redesigned, developing proposals for each of the buildings that would be retained, and producing plans and elevations for three new courts of housing by the city walls (fig. 4-6). These comprehensive designs planned for various modules of houses and maisonettes, but had an overall emphasis on designing a community, one that would fit into the city by integrating with the ancient architecture of the area and retaining views of the Minster, and most importantly through pedestrianisation.
Esher’s thorough plan to pedestrianise the entirety of Aldwark – which went as far as questioning individual shop owners to determine if they needed road access for deliveries – emphasises how important the usability of this area was. The Aldwark plan was not just an exercise in producing pleasant vernacular architecture, but a desire to produce an intensely urban way of living on a small scale in York, much like how New Yorkers never need own a car if they are a stroll away from their nearest subway station.
Despite the comprehensive nature of this report, it was unfortunately never actioned, due to a lack of funding at the time. But the designs are nonetheless important as examples of how Esher wanted to bring modernity to the city. It can be compared to another significant example of housing from this period, Lillington Gardens in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke. This was a similar scheme in many ways: a series of flats based around courts, with a sort of “crumbly” massing, giving units individuality (fig. 7).3 The similarity between these two sets of housing goes down even to the illustrative style. The most notable difference here is that Lillington’s modernist massing feels thoroughly contemporary, whilst Aldwark’s distinctly neo-vernacular design means that its varied heights and pavement depths refers to the piecemeal development of York’s ancient streets, and gives it an intrinsic link to the city.
Lord Esher’s ideas remained relevant and would come to fruition only a few years later as the Shepherd Building Group began developing Aldwark in the early 1970s (fig. 8-9).4 There was widespread demolition of the buildings deemed to have little value, and by 1980 the architectural press was giving glowing reviews of the first new courts constructed in Aldwark.5 Brick Bulletin applauded the execution of Esher’s vision in a 1981 article, which approved of how well the design worked in its immediate and larger environment of York.6 The “intensely urban scheme” was perfect for its location, sandwiched between Aldwark and the city walls, with a view of (and only a few minutes’ walk to) the Minster itself (fig. 1).7
The Aldwark housing provided reasonably dense accommodation within the city walls, yet maintained the sense of a small community through the homogeneity of design and the pedestrianisation of the entire area. The eventual construction closely echoed the 1971 Brett & Pollen scheme in many regards, pulling key architectural elements such as the massing of each court of houses and the pitched roofs, with the steep 45-degree angle becoming a motif across the estate. But the ethos of the report, and the earlier conservation report, is really where Aldwark comes into its own. One of the key elements of the 1971 Brett & Pollen report was assessing the feasibility of banning all cars from Aldwark and the impact this would have on local businesses.8 The result is a handful of streets which are quiet and peaceful, seemingly used only as an infrequent thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists, yet inside the city walls and never more than a two-minute walk from the hustle and bustle of the centre and all of the amenities it presents.
This intense quiet might feel initially like a disconnect to the rest of the city, used as it is as a thoroughfare rather than a destination. Yet the almost ever-present views of either the walls or the Minster mean that Aldwark is essentially York in character. Esher’s vision of conservation is perfectly achieved here, as its design is integrated into the character of the city through local materials and subtle echoes of its past, and the city itself is ‘conserved’ by being brought back to life with the injection of new residents.
The introduction to the 1971 Aldwark report suggests that this particular vision for regenerating York should be seen as a model for the “renewal of reoccupation of backland living quarters in many of the old towns of Europe”.9 Lord Esher understood the importance of York as a city with a specific set of problems that could also be seen across the UK and Europe, and that the best ways to improve cities is not through new suburbs causing longer commutes and isolated residents, but by repopulating the city itself. The Merchant Taylor’s Hall and mediaeval churches in the area are not merely artefacts of York’s past, but are part of its present and the everyday life that goes on around and inside them. The regeneration of Aldwark did not merely change the physical buildings from derelict warehouses and industry to housing, but breathed new life into a sector of the city and crafted a new community. The area could easily have been developed into vast commercial office spaces or luxury apartment blocks where residents and workers are trapped in cars from door to door and otherwise isolated from the city, but Lord Esher’s idea to reflect and respect York in a smaller-scale, neo-vernacular set of pretty courts and mews ensured that York would be conserved in the most delightful way possible.