Ouse Lea, Shipton Road
Michael Butterworth and Partners (1972)

Privacy and Community

Ouse Lea is a one-of-a-kind modernist housing estate in the historic city of York. Architecturally, its design remains one of the most well-handled in York, implanting a spark into the green surroundings. What was the architect’s vision? What is Ouse Lea’s current legacy in York and beyond?

Block of flats with balconies, partially obscured by tree branches
Fig. 1: Ouse Lea, York, balconies of the flat units. Photo: © Ania Kaczynska, 2022.

Ideas for the development of Ouse Lea arose as early as 1961 when Clifton Estate Limited (owned by the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust) acquired the site and the adjoining land and began the demolition of the original manor house. Originally, the land was to be developed as a mixed housing estate of fourteen to fifteen detached houses and some groups of flats; the intention in 1961 was to keep the design “traditional.”1 The project gained popularity and by 1962 there was a considerable expression of interest in purchasing a home there.2 The development did not progress for a couple of years after initial provisional plans carried out by the consultant architect Louis de Soissons (1890-1962), a trusted adviser of the Rowntree Foundation who was supervising the Trust’s new developments in the 1950s.3.

Block of flats with vehicle entrance
Fig. 2: front of the flat units, view from Shipton Road. Photo: © Ania Kaczynska, 2022.

In 1969, after an intermission in development, Clifton Estate Ltd. chose the Minster Housing Group and their architect Michael Butterworth and Partners for a design of the site and house plans for the further development of the estate. Michael Butterworth (1924-1986) was a York-based architect with later projects developed across Yorkshire, Ouse Lea being one of his first. He went on to design a scheme of 10 patio houses on a site of the former St. John’s CofE school in Hull in 1976, described favourably by the Yorkshire Architect as comprising  “small, interlocking, continuously experienced spaces which have the practical advantages of considerable sound insulation from the road, a sense of place and a promise of privacy for the small community.”4 Another scheme in Swaledale, Yorkshire, interweaved a tightly-knit group of six old persons’ flats into an existing village. It received an award for public sector old people’s dwellings in the Department of Environment’s 1977 Good Design in Housing Awards.

Ouse Lea was completed in October 1972.5 The scheme is classified as a private sector development, with private developments accounting for a third of post-war housing by 1961 in England and Wales.6 It was the Minster Housing Group’s policy “to provide good housing on pleasantly landscaped estates in those areas of the North where a need exists.”7 Ouse Lea is located next to the Homestead Park, surrounded by exceptional planting areas, ponds and green wildflower meadows. Fine groups of mature trees and old brick garden walls remaining from the original Victorian estate are the very backbone of its landscaping.8 Carried out by de Soissons, the landscaping has been carefully laid out and was later successfully integrated into the housing by Butterworth, who took advantage of the site’s natural features.

The housing is of brick and of traditional load-bearing construction.9 The scheme overall has 80 dwellings in a variety of sizes ranging from one-bedroom flats to six-person houses. With a total of fifteen plan typologies, Ouse Lea has two- and three-storey terrace housing, single-storey patio houses and four-storey blocks of small flats topped by maisonettes. The density of the scheme is 16.6 units per acre; it might be significant that it was built a year after the Ronan Point disaster of May 1968 (the collapse of a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London) that catapulted a drive towards a low-rise housing model. A highly sculptural effect is achieved through the incorporation of integral balconies with high level windows.

Architectural drawing of house and patio
Fig. 3: architectural drawing of proposed single-storey patio house in Ouse Lea, by Michael Butterworth, 1969, reproduced from an original held by Borthwick Institute for Archives: JRF/4/1/4/8/8/2.

The architect’s aim was to balance community cohesion with privacy, which he did, perhaps mindful of principles introduced by Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander’s influential Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism (1963). The proposed scheme of courtyard housing prioritises privacy and maintains the true advantages of living in a community. Butterworth created a series of predominantly pedestrian residential areas of various sizes transforming the complex into a “continuously experienced changing space.”10 Ouse Lea promotes a strong feeling of community and integrity, a quality that Butterworth found “lacking in a great deal of modern housing”, as he expressed in the project brief.11 The communal gardens with amenities, the close-knit quality of the design, and walkable spaces allowed the residents to experience unity, yet not at the price of their privacy: each unit has a private patio, garden or a balcony.  

A vehicular access road is sited at the northeast on the inside of an L-shaped site, keeping the vehicular areas to the minimum. Vehicles are not part of pedestrian circulation and do not intrude into the scheme past their utilitarian usefulness. The roads on the dwelling are private, which made it possible for them to omit the rigid Local Authority specifications. This results in pedestrian spaces being safe, quiet, and tidy, while the garages are concealed, but still provided close to the housing units they are intended for; some of them directly under the ground or under the mews flats. Another unique feature of the scheme is the design of street furniture: it was possible for the architect to design lamp posts and control the lighting across the estate; lamp standards have been kept to a minimum with supplementary lighting on walls and in trees. Most of the architectural features are specifically designed for this estate to create a sense of cohesion and belonging for its residents.

View of flats with balconies from below
Fig. 4: balconies of the flat units. Photo: © Ania Kaczynska, 2022.

Considering all of the features incorporated in the design by Butterworth, it might be said that he was greatly influenced by Span and Eric Lyons’ concepts on estate design and management. Span Developments Limited was an architectural practice founded in the late 1950s by Eric Lyons, its consultant architect, and Geoffrey Townsend; they were active mainly in the South of England, but widely published in national architectural periodicals and greatly influential.12 The main features of Lyons’ vision on housing was the integrity of communal landscape, the visual unity of the houses and the interaction between the residents. Emphasis was put on the house in its surrounding landscape and its community.13 The philosophy behind some housing in the post-war period, like Ouse Lea, was based on the principles of an integrated design approach, the incorporation of existing landscape features and the development of community within its residents.

The spirit of Span housing seen in Ouse Lea might be compared with Span estates such as Highsett in Cambridge (1964) or Templemere in Weybridge (1965). Butterworth’s primary design approach includes Lyons’ own principles: in his preliminary housing study, Butterworth emphasises the importance of a “strong feeling of community” and the segregation of vehicles; the latter was inspired by the Radburn concept of layouts separating vehicles developed in Radburn in the United States during the 1930s.14 Similarly to Span estates (such as Highsett), Ouse Lea’s modernist design is softened, along with weather-boarding, by the use of a more traditional honey-coloured, flush-pointed brick work, resulting in a warm and attractive effect. Ouse Lea is furthermore, reminiscent of other, better-known housing schemes, such as the similarly integrated low-density courtyard housing, now Grade II-listed, at The Ryde in Hatfield, Hertfordshire (Phippen, Randall and Parkes, 1963-66).15

Yet Ouse Lea was itself quickly recognized at a national level. In 1973, it won the Department of the Environment Good Design in Housing Award.16 It was praised for its successful integration of a sense of privacy in the garden areas next to the dwelling, as well as for its “standard of sensitivity, variety of domestic character, standard of building work and detailing and consideration for the reduction of maintenance.”17

Block of flats with row of enclosed parking spots
Fig. 5: house units with parking spots, view from service road, unknown photographer, reproduced from Architects’ Journal 159, no. 4 (1974): 209.

However, Ouse Lea’s good fortune did not last long: in 1974 residents started noticing major construction flaws: “inadequate ties were at fault with the walls, but problems of dampness may also be linked with shoddy foundations,” according to the residents.18 The problem was in the brick mortar in outer walls, which had deteriorated.19Since then the repair programme has been in operation; the roofs and brick skins of all properties had to be replaced, the flats required structural strengthening works too.In 1983, the residents had already won a settlement against the architect of the scheme and from builders. The consultant architect for the co-owners in 1983, Keith Groom, said that the estate had to be literally “pulled apart and rebuilt”.20 After completion of the Swaledale scheme in 1977, Butterworth seemingly became estranged from the profession.

In spite of the court battle, Ouse Lea retains its legacy for its architect’s ingenuity and utopian approach to housing and it deserves statutory protection. The architect’s vision is one of the finest modernist designs in York, with Ouse Lea remaining a domestic, gorgeous enclave serving families big and small, young and old, all of which create a space of balanced privacy and community. 

Architectural plan of flat complex
Fig. 6: plan of Ouse Lea, by Michael Butterworth, 1969, reproduced from an original held by Borthwick Institute for Archives: JRF/4/1/4/8/8/2.