When one enters the City of York through the C14 Walmgate Bar for the very first time, one might expect a spread of medieval architecture to unfold, although, to their disillusion, the Walmgate housing redevelopment of 1964, proudly positions itself before them. Built by the City of York Architect’s Department, their aim was to alleviate Walmgate of its slum housing. The slum clearance had already begun before WWII; however, the redevelopment was pushed forward imminently after the war due to masses of destruction and population increases.1 Beyond re-housing, an effort was made to build a type of post-war architecture that sympathised with the historical context and ‘townscape’ value of the urban environment. Examining this development in terms of ‘townscape’, that stresses the phenomenological impact of the aesthetics of the urban environment, helps one appreciate its contribution to York’s architectural stratigraphy.
The Concise Townscape (1961)by the architect Gordon Cullen (1914-1994) valued the “art of relationships” within townscapes, to move away from the standardised orientation of such spaces and “weave them together in such a way that drama is released”.2 Townscape thinking was widely promoted through the ever-influential Architectural Review (from as early as 1949). More locally, however, it was also discussed in the York Evening Press in the 1950s and 1960s. The Walmgate Redevelopment encapsulates its ethos.
While not itself critiqued in the Architectural Review, the Redevelopment was the subject of local interest, through inclusion in Perspective East Yorkshire, the Journal of the York and East Yorkshire Architectural Society. In the May/June 1964 issue, the design projects its final form to be “bolder” in character and orientation.3 Each block is angled towards Walmgate Bar, creating a “vista” that provided a panoramic view of both structures.4 This chimes with Cullen’s Townscape – particularly what he described as “Serial Vision” which was to be brought to the forefront of human experiences when making townscapes.5 “Serial Vision” focuses on how the mind reacts to episodic exposures within someone’s physical journey through an urban environment.6 To see this within the Walmgate redevelopment, the emotional response when each block juts forward tightens as the people get closer, and the relationship between the “existing view” and the “emerging view” is heightened – together manipulating a type of theatrical play between mind and architecture.7
The language is varied, but akin to Regency politeness in its restraint: vernacular green tile hanging above the first three floors, shallow concrete segmental arches, shallow-pitched roofs, and concrete piloti, square on plan. The personality of each block – addressing how these homes, shops, spaces are appropriated by their owners – instils a feeling of harmony between the people and the buildings. The main block, combining residential and commercial areas, currently includes an antiques shop and a Chinese restaurant on the bottom level. Above them, a flush of pale brick is punctuated by small white-paned windows that are decorated with curtains. It shows that these spaces are shared with the wider community – early morning laundry hauls and late-night Chinese grub that feeds Walmgate with life and purpose. But, peeping around the left corner, a simple balcony, laced with flowers, softens the bluntness, bringing a small bit of “this is also my home” back into life. These pockets of detail suggest that the Walmgate redevelopment provided a blank slate for people to add their mark, developing character naturally within its environment and among its people. Indeed Owen Hatherley in his Modern Buildings in Britain: a Gazetteer (2022) refers to its ‘style’ as “People’s Detailing”, adding:
It is deliberately unspectacular and unfussy, but with its relaxed scale, strong materials and modest proportions, it’s a pleasant and humane exemplar of building modern housing in a well-preserved medieval city.8
The Walmgate redevelopment is filled with contrasts: the wider and outer community, concrete and grass, medieval and modern architecture.9 Yet this confusion of identities is somehow complimentary to York’s character. The City Architect’s Department was preserving the city’s medieval heritage whilst simultaneously promoting original pieces of architecture, an idea reflected in the Esher report (1968) several years later. The Walmgate housing offers citizens and visitors the opportunity to visualise a periodic timeline of architecture, from medieval to twentieth-century modernism: only if people take more notice, that is.