Buildings That Shaped London: Pullman Court in Streatham

Buildings That Shaped London: Pullman Court in Streatham
Pullman Court, Streatham. Image: © Christopher Hack.

What's Pullman Court all about?

A grade II* listed estate, hugging one of south London's arterial roads.

Who built it?

Sir Frederick Gibberd — the same architect responsible for London Central Mosque, next to Regent's Park.

He's known best for his later projects now, which include three unusual, groundbreaking designs for religious buildings — the mosque, Douai Abbey, a Benedictine Order abbey in Thatcham, and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

The highest concentration of his work's scattered around Essex, in Harlow, where he acted as an urban planner — but Pullman Court (completed in 1936) launched his career, and first established him a residential housing architect. He followed it up with Park Court in Sydenham (1936), and Ellington Court in Southgate (1937), a nonchalant three estates in as many years.

03-Jun-77 JLP01/09/771229. Another design by Gibberd: London Central Mosque next to Regent's Park.
© Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection.

What's so special about it?

Britain's move towards a new understanding of social housing — as a necessity, and as a governmental responsibility — was still in its infancy when Pullman Court was commissioned. The 1919 Addison Act guaranteed government subsidies for building social housing, and housing provisions (for returning WWI soldiers, for young professionals, London's working class, and for everybody who'd be rendered homeless by government-mandated slum clearances) became the responsibility of local authorities.

(It's worth remembering that despite being a big step towards a more robust welfare state, this refocus on social housing wasn't necessarily carried out with compassion or for the good of the tenants: you can read more about London's murky social housing history in our article about east London's first organised rent strike.)

Image: Lydia Manch.

Pullman Court was born out of the enthusiasm, innovation, and relatively abundant funding of the early years of Britain's drive to build dense housing on a large scale for urban workers. Arguably a decade later it would've been impossible for a young, just-qualified architect to snag such a huge project, or to have been given so much freedom to impose his own vision on it.

But in the mid-30s, Gibberd had the latitude to design what became one of the earliest and most influential examples of Modern Movement housing in London: an attempt to make modernist principles serve family and community dynamics.

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The 218 apartments were designed to capitalise on natural light, built around a central courtyard and structured gardens, with roof gardens on top of every block, and as distanced as possible from the road.

The interiors were designed with bespoke furniture for the different space sizes, built-in wardrobes, a wireless radio, and an electric fire and fridge. Sliding wooden walls were used to partition the bedrooms off at night, but to allow more natural light through the flats during the day and lower energy use. These were big innovations at the time, carried out in the newest materials, and intended to fundamentally change the way people lived and related to their homes.

Image: Lydia Manch.

Factoids

Sir Frederick Gibberd was the grandfather of Matt Gibberd, founder of The Modern House. If you've ever lost hours browsing photos of beautiful, inventive living spaces, chances are it was on their Instagram — and you'll occasionally spot a Pullman Court flat for sale on there if you want to eye up the design-led interiors.

The commission for Pullman Court landed in Gibberd's lap, as he told Desert Island Discs in 1983, when he picked up a girl at a dance hall who was the secretary for the property company managing the project.

The original render for the estate was in a mix of pastel pink, cream, brown, and blue. Now it's painted entirely white, which we, being basic, think sounds infinitely better — though Gibberd the Younger, of The Modern House, points out there's probably a weird anachronism at work there, '...we like our Modernism in monochrome, a prejudice that stems, one suspects, from seeing these buildings in black-and-white photographs.'

How can I see it?

Nearest tubes are Clapham Common, Clapham South and Brixton (about 30 minutes' walk from each), nearest train station is Streatham Hill (about ten minutes walk).

What's nearby?

If you're making a day of it, wander to Brockwell Park, stopping off at the lido (book your tickets in advance) — built a year after Pullman Court, there's a 50 metre pool and a grade II listed art deco pavilion with a good cafe.

From there it's a short walk to Brixton, and some of south London's best vegan Caribbean food, noodles, and okonomiyaki.  

Last Updated 12 May 2021