Flats, Castlegate
Robert Atkinson (1951)

Atkinson’s Swansong

Doorway in stone arch
Fig. 1: view of the portal to Castlegate Flats. Photo © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Many cities, towns and villages across the UK staged events or established initiatives connected with the 1951 Festival of Britain. In York, this catalysed the commissioning of two new public housing schemes, the Festival Flats in Paragon Street (Toplis and Meadows, 1951, considered in another vignette: ‘A Paragon of Modern Housing’), and this three-storey block by the Nottingham-born, London-based architect Robert Atkinson OBE (1883-1952).1

Atkinson was a celebrated architect, draughtsman, writer, and an influential educator at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (and the subject of an exhibition there in October 1989). While known for his cinema designs in English cities, including the 3,000-seat Regent Cinema, Brighton (built 1919–1923; demolished 1974), he is probably best known for designing the interior of the Daily Express building in London’s Fleet Street (1932). He was twice a recipient of the RIBA Bronze Medal for architectural design: for the modernStockleigh Court housing in London (1937) and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham (1946).

Atkinson experimented with various styles, including the American Beaux-Arts, the arts-and-crafts vernacular, and the neo-Grecian. This eclecticism, lack of stylistic dogmatism, a sympathy for modern and traditional languages, makes Atkinson a good fit for this site in the centre of the City of York. As the architectural historian Gavin Stamp reflected of Atkinson, “he could only go so far down the road towards Modernism. He was a product of his time … he was not prepared to forget all the lessons of the past.”2 He continued:

What interested Atkinson was the sensible use of materials and what he called “Logic” – “the blending of knowledge of the history of architecture, of knowledge of historical ornament and of draughtsmanship with the requirements of a building, the needs of the people who will inhabit it.3

This building, in the heart of the city, to some extent, follows a language of its own, sympathetic and neighbourly in terms of materials, scale and syntax. In spite of its loud Baroque doorcase, it is an unassuming building with a quiet dignity. While it might at first deceive, or confuse, its distinctive corner balconies (themselves in tune with the emergent ‘Festival’ style) reveal itself to the discriminating as a twentieth century building. Indeed, it was built in 1951, a year before Atkinson’s death. Like the Festival Flats, these flats had considered family living accommodation with modern facilities including heating systems and laundry facilities. Although originally built as social housing, many of these properties are now privately owned and rarely come onto the market due to the prime location of the building and spacious living space.4

Block of flats with bunting
Fig. 2: view of Castlegate Flats. Photo © Richard Burrows, 2022.