From high-speed housebuilding Victorian-style to beautiful blockwork, via a graveyard of astronomical wonders
Five St John’s Row in Long Wittenham, Oxfordshire, was the first house I bought, and must be one of the first concrete houses in the UK. It dates from the late 1800s and has cast concrete walls 1.5ft thick with no foundations at all. The land was owned by St John’s College in Oxford, which set up a competition between two local builders to see who could build a row of terraces fastest. They just chucked everything they could find into the mix and whacked them up. As we were exposing the concrete, we found bits of rubbish and old newspaper.
The first row, which won the competition, was rendered with a rough pebbledash. The second, where we lived, was rendered smooth with lines to make it look like stone. It was a great house to live in. Structurally, we were able to do what we wanted with the internal walls, and it had incredible thermal mass, so it was warm in winter and cool in summer. Even though it was a terrace, you couldn’t hear the neighbours at all.
I’ve lived in Oxfordshire ever since I went to Oxford Poly when I was 18. But I was brought up in Cheshire, just a few miles away from Jodrell Bank, where I was later involved in masterplanning, and where Hassell has just completed the First Light Pavilion (CQ 279, summer 2022). It’s a gold-mine of experimentation, where science, art and culture come together.
The site is littered with the detritus of old experiments, where scientists have built something and dismantled it or it’s just been left to rot. You have these high-tech telescopes, anchored to the ground by extraordinary cast concrete bases. I love that relationship between the earth, the sky, and the brutalness of the concrete and how it has aged.
The building that has probably influenced my career most is very different. Peter Aldington is one of the great romantic modernists of the 1960s and 70s, a landscape architect who then trained as an architect. I worked for him part-time while I was studying and then for a few years in the practice, which were incredibly formative. At Turn End (1968), he built three houses and an amazing garden with his wife Margaret, just white painted concrete blocks with beautiful Douglas Fir timber structures.
The concrete block was the core of everything he did, and everything we drew was coordinated to a block dimension. He taught me the craft of how to put buildings together. Peter is 85 and still lives in one of the houses. We’ve created the Turn End Trust to educate and inspire the wider public. Our vision is that it will become a studio where students can live and work, a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin.
Julian Gitsham is a principal at Hassell and chair of trustees at the Turn End Trust
Photos Julian Gitsham; St John’s Row photo courtesy of Long Wittenham History Group