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New exhibition for Letchworth architect Barry Parker

PUBLISHED: 14:38 11 May 2018

Parker as a young man, by an unknown artist, in artistic dress influenced by Edward Carpenter's 'simple life' movement (Garden City Collection)

Parker as a young man, by an unknown artist, in artistic dress influenced by Edward Carpenter's 'simple life' movement (Garden City Collection)

Garden City Collection

A new exhibition explores the influential work of Letchworth Garden City designer Barry Parker. His principles are good ones to live by

Barry Parker (1867-1947) was an architect, designer, artist and Arts and Crafts advocate, who, together with Raymond Unwin, created the masterplan for Letchworth Garden City and the subsequent template for the Garden Cities model. A new exhibition celebrating his work opens at Letchworth’s Broadway Gallery on Friday May 4.

‘Kevin McCloud and Barry Parker definitely would have been friends,’ says Vicky Axell, curator of the exhibition, as we wander around the archive of the Garden City Collection in Letchworth, looking at original drawings and photographs of Barry Parker-designed houses. Vicky is describing a recent episode of McCloud’s Grand Designs where a property is fitted with full height windows and sliding partitions. ‘Just like Parker!’ She says, all a-shimmer.

Stained glass by Parker for an unknown house (Garden City Collection)Stained glass by Parker for an unknown house (Garden City Collection)

Parker designed homes in Letchworth using techniques that maximised light and created a feeling of spaciousness, however humble the size of the plot. I suspect Vicky has developed a bit of a crush on Barry Parker. Or perhaps it’s Kevin McCloud? It’s hard to resist a man who speaks in architectural inspirational quotes.

Parker was an architect who had the intelligence and generosity of spirit to ‘build with vision and clarity’, to borrow an expression from McCloud. Today, the term ‘architect-designed’ may conjure up images of lofty and grandiose buildings that are, for most of us, financially unattainable. What made Parker remarkable is that he had an egalitarian approach to designing homes that was refreshingly different both then and now. He believed in ‘architecture for all’.

The Coppice, Letchworth, built in 1906. The large hall had wide doors that could open to make one living space. Parker called this the 'houseplace'. From designs for working people to large private commissions, where possible, the hallway became the functioning heart of the home, not a walkway (Garden City Collection)The Coppice, Letchworth, built in 1906. The large hall had wide doors that could open to make one living space. Parker called this the 'houseplace'. From designs for working people to large private commissions, where possible, the hallway became the functioning heart of the home, not a walkway (Garden City Collection)

His design ethos was built on harmony, sunlight and equality and he was guided by this throughout his life, whether he was drawing a door latch, designing a chair, or working on the master plan for Oporto or Wythenshawe.

Parker was born in Chesterfield in 1867 and trained as an architect in Derby and Altrincham. His business partnership with Raymond Unwin, an engineer by trade, led them to their first commission – the design of a model industrial village, New Earswick near York, for Joseph Rowntree. Their subsequent masterplan for Letchworth Garden City in 1904 inspired a worldwide garden city movement and later informed social housing throughout the UK.

Parker designed Hilltop in Caterham, Surrey in 1909 for a bachelor interested in Japanese culture and who was a Jiu Jitsu instructor. It encompasses Parker's ability to suit a client's needs in a harmonious scheme. There were ample rooms, facilitating parties, but with quiet inglenooks for contemplation and reading (Garden City Collection)Parker designed Hilltop in Caterham, Surrey in 1909 for a bachelor interested in Japanese culture and who was a Jiu Jitsu instructor. It encompasses Parker's ability to suit a client's needs in a harmonious scheme. There were ample rooms, facilitating parties, but with quiet inglenooks for contemplation and reading (Garden City Collection)

As with so many creative partnerships, one partner can be more suited to the limelight, and some say that in legacy terms, Parker has been overshadowed by Unwin. When he eventually started working solo, Parker’s projects included town planning in Porto, Portugal, in 1915 followed by the Jardim América garden suburb of São Paolo from 1917-1919.

He lived in Letchworth for 40 years. He never stopped working, and designed homes for people all over the country, including houses for mining communities. His name is perhaps less well known today because he didn’t really go after the big showcase projects, preferring to keep to his socialist and egalitarian principles.

A good example of Parker’s harmonious approach. This is probably the handle to a built-in coal store to an inglenook fireplace (Garden City Collection)A good example of Parker’s harmonious approach. This is probably the handle to a built-in coal store to an inglenook fireplace (Garden City Collection)

Vicky Axell calls Parker an ‘unsung hero’. She’s written a book about him, Barry Parker 1867-1947, Architecture of Harmony, Sunlight and Quality which is being published this month.

The exhibition she is curating will be based partly at Broadway Gallery in The Arcade, where visitors will be able to see some of Parker’s furniture, fine art and drawings. The rest of the exhibition will be at the International Garden Cities Exhibition on Norton Way – Parker’s former drawing office. There will be guided walks between the two locations when you’ll be able to appreciate some of the Letchworth homes he designed.

Hilltop, Surrey (Garden City Collection)Hilltop, Surrey (Garden City Collection)

There’s definitely something noble about Parker. He put people first when he designed a home, which is why even the humblest of his cottages have details and interiors that are beautiful in their simplicity. Drawings for some of the plain, uncluttered rooms could grace the pages of interior magazines today. Parker’s whitewashed walls and tables and chairs, inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, are suddenly looking rather Instagramable.

With Parker’s approach, a small home didn’t need to be a box, and he was a great fan of creating half hexagons with furniture built in. Open plan interiors with rooms flowing into one another, sleeping balconies to enjoy the fresh night air, bay windows and inglenook fireplaces are all synonymous with a Barry Parker house.

Philippa and Stephen Parker - one of an evolving series of photos of current residents of Parker homes that will form part of the Barry Parker exhibition (Photo: Katherine Mager)Philippa and Stephen Parker - one of an evolving series of photos of current residents of Parker homes that will form part of the Barry Parker exhibition (Photo: Katherine Mager)

So what is it like to live in a Parker-designed house today?

‘Very draughty!’ says Philippa Parker (no relation), who lives in a house called St Brighid’s. ‘These are not warm houses. The windows are not close fitting because the hinges are designed to allow them to open wide. Some houses have sleeping porches for extra access to fresh air.’

And on the plus side? ‘It’s very liveable,’ she says. ‘It has a pleasant atmosphere and you feel that the people who lived here had worthwhile aims. It’s not meanly made and there’s great attention to detail.

‘Barry Parker designed the window fastenings and the door handles, which, idiosyncratically, lift up not down, and many decorative hinges. He always took care to position a building on its site in order to make the best of the aspect. Ours has an open garden room, facing south. Arts and Crafts architects liked to connect house and garden. It’s cleverly designed with window seats and cupboards under the eaves and the stairs. He’s definitely an architect who should be better known.’

Philippa adds that the world’s first garden city was created with investment from philanthropists and businessmen who believed in the founding principles that people deserved a pleasant environment to live in where they could commute to work on foot. The investors had no expectation for an immediate or fast return on their investment. She adds that some people are now sceptical about the new ‘garden towns’ springing up in the UK, and whether they will embody the same principles, or instead be more like commuter towns.

Harlow and Gilston Garden Town on the Herts/Essex border is one of these projects. Up to 15,000 new houses are planned in and around Harlow over the next 20 years. It’s a partnership between Harlow, East Herts, Uttlesford and Epping Forest councils, and the promise is to include local people in the creation of the plans, following the original garden city approach practised in Letchworth and Welwyn.

Tom Carne at Epping Forest District Council says the aspiration of the project is to provide new housing, and Harlow is the employment focus. ‘The aim is to create somewhere to work close to where you live.’

I think that it might be a good idea for those involved in the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town to come along to the Barry Parker exhibition, to appreciate that even if you are building relatively small homes with financial constraints, it’s possible to think about how to angle a house on a plot to maximise garden space and daylight, not to mention offering the possibility for sleeping partly under the stars. Harmony, sunlight and equality are good guiding principles to design, build and live by.

I also hope Letchworth GC Heritage Foundation, or perhaps Vicky Axell, will invite Kevin McCloud to the launch of the Parker exhibition. I predict he will declare it, ‘An exhibition with integrity’.

Barry Parker: Harmony, Sunlight and Quality opens at Broadway Gallery, Letchworth on May 4 until July 15.

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