Walter Segal: Self-Built Architect - In Conversation with Alice Grahame and John McKean

Walter Segal: Self-Built Architect by Alice Grahame and John McKean is PUBLISHED TODAY!


Kevin McCloud, designer, writer and presenter says: ‘This book is a huge pleasure because it reveals the man and revels in his energy and wit. It is also a delight because it is so authoritative, written by the two people who know Walter Segal’s life, personality and work better than anyone.’


To celebrate the book's publication and to give you an enticing insight into the story of Walter Segal's Self-Build architectural style, Meris Ryan-Goff talked to authors Alice Grahame and John McKean about Walter Segal's inspirations, motivations and legacy... Read on for the full conversation: 

Q: How did you each first become aware of Segal's work? And what first struck you as most interesting about it?


John McKean: The Architects’ Journal news editors in the 1960s and ‘70s (I was one from 1972-5) would invite friends for a weekly drink in The Bride of Denmark, our basement pub; this, ‘the Astragal meeting’, purported to gather material for our weekly gossip column, Astragal. There I first met Mr Segal, of whom I previously only knew the very cheap temporary house in his garden. What was most interesting about him was the remarkable breadth of his culture and historical reading, and his cheeky inquisitiveness always ready to deflate pomp.
I was attracted to him; we became neighbours and friends and, when the German publisher Kramer proposed a book about him, Segal suggested I write it. That project died but, after Segal’s death, the Swiss publisher Birkhäuser revived the idea.

Alice Grahame: I became aware of Segal while visiting south east London, when I noticed some very unusual houses, that looked so out of place amongst the nearby Edwardian villas and Victorian terraces in the area. I had not heard of Segal but my partner Paul had, because he studied at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Macynlleth, Wales, where there is a big Segal influence and some Segal buildings. The thing that first struck me was the absence of elements that I considered normal in a house such as bricks, cement or roof tiles. Instead they appeared half-timbered with shiny panels, mostly beige. The other thing that struck me was that the houses appeared to be dotted amongst the trees, as if part of a forest. I later learnt that the appearance is due to the design principle. The houses were made without the use of wet trades, to make building them easier, and the closeness to trees is because instead of conventional foundations the houses are placed on concrete piles and raised on stilts, which are part of the frame.


Walter Segal and Jon Broome talk with Ken Atkins in front of his newly erected frame, and they climb onto it.
Photos courtesy of John McKean.


Q: How did the book project come about?


JM: Various people had been talking about republishing my old Segal book; the 20th Century Society (via Alan Powers) was promising to commission a new book by me in their ‘20th Century English architects’ series. On a few more years, that book was in the pipeline with a contract from Historic England, and then my text was submitted. While that seemed to be getting nowhere, I was approached by Alice, for whom I’d previously given talks at Walters Way and contributed to her book with Taran, that I join her in an idea she had with Lund Humphries, for whom she had previously worked. 

AG: I was fascinated by the story of Segal and the Lewisham self-builders but couldn’t find much written information. I got a second-hand copy of John’s book Learning from Segal, which was out of print. In 2016 I curated a Segal exhibition at the Architectural Association Gallery in London and that was followed by a book called Walters Way and Segal Close, produced with photographer Taran Wilkhu. I was aware that one thing lacking was a comprehensive biography of Segal encompassing his background, childhood, his work, and impact. I had met and spoken to John McKean at Segal events and we discussed working together on a book, which resulted in this new work published by Lund Humphries.



Q: The subtitle of the book, ‘Self-Built Architect’ is meaningful on two levels - can you give us a little insight into how Segal’s reputation and career was ‘self-built’?


AG: John McKean coined the phrase when we were brainstorming titles and I really like that it works on different levels. Firstly, Segal is known for his work with self-builders, and his designs made self-building accessible and economical. Secondly, Segal believed that in the process of self-building people were not just building houses but also themselves. The self-builders I spoke to said after they finished they had a new confidence, a willingness to face new challenges, that if you can build a house you can do anything. Thirdly Segal built his own career as an architect, working in his own way, mostly alone, not following an expected path.

JM: Segal was throughout his life an instinctive Marxist. Marx had famously written that he would never join a club which allowed people like himself (Groucho) to become a member. Segal, having scoffed at the pretentious antics of artists around his childhood, and architects around his youthful years, always trod his own path. From turning down Gropius’ offer of a student place at the Bauhaus, to never joining the RIBA and almost always working on his own, Segal built his own, very unusual, career by himself.



Just as war broke out in September 1939 Segal designed this L-shaped house; of two very similar variants, one had a pool for a penguin in the garden. It is difficult to imagine the designer’s mind at this extraordinary moment. Reproduced from the Walter Segal Archive with permission © John A. Segal 



Q: Who were Segal’s influences, and how do we see these influences manifest themselves?


JM: He loved his father, the painter Arthur Segal, while considering Arthur’s theoretical pretentions around art to be very thin. Walter was not beguiled by the ‘form-making’ pretentions of artists and architects around his youth, seeking out both Bruno Taut (an ‘outsider’ as Gropius called him) as mentor and colleague, and the considerably older Hans Poelzig as tutor.

AG: I think that as well as his Modernist teachers in Berlin, Segal was influenced by vernacular builders in the various places he lived. I believe the designs for Segal method houses were influenced by buildings he experienced in Switzerland and Mallorca. There is a huge similarity between Segal’s first commissioned building, the lake-side summerhouse at Ascona, and the Segal method houses, including: timber frame, wooden stilts, wood wool panels, overhanging roof, decked veranda.  



Q: Where can we see Segal’s influence in current housing design?


AG: We can see a Segal influence in some current innovative responses to the housing crisis, such as WikiHouse, U-Build, the RUSS, Giroscope, and various co-housing, housing co-ops and community-led-housing schemes. I would say the influence is in the ethos rather than the design, so the current designs don’t look Segal but the aim of providing practical, economical, liveable housing is there. 

JM: Probably not in the extreme western point of Africa (despite this amusing mistake in a review of my 1989 book about him)... I can just see Segal’s puckish smile and his eyes twinkle as he read this otherwise accurate review.


Q: Why do you think his legacy is so enduring?


JM: He was interesting; and what is interesting about him is not revealed all at once – as every Segal student and every self-builder slowly learned.

AG: I have noticed that people warm to Segal buildings, even if they don’t know anything about the architect. The homes have a clever practical design but are not showy. This is the case for the earlier ones like St Anne’s Close, Ovington Place, Tasker Road and the Segal method ones. In the process of researching Segal I visited a variety Segal buildings and spoke to residents, and all were interested in their unusually well-designed house.


Walter Segal, Tasker Road, north London, photographed 2020.
Photograph by Taran Wilkhu



Q: What makes a building quintessentially 'Segalian’?


AG: Segal method houses (as opposed to his brick buildings) tend to include the following features: post and beam timber frame, stilts, overhanging flat roof, wood wool slab insulation, eggshell weather boards, decked veranda. The result is a boxy utilitarian appearance. The method was adapted over time. 

JM: It is as unobtrusive as George Smiley’s costume, but also, when seen close-to, as perfectly tailored and keeping its surprises hidden.



Q: Which comes first… building material or design? How does the process of self-building begin?


JM: As Harry Potter says, “attempting to identify the first case of a circular cause and consequence is an exercise in utter futility.”

What comes first is the desire to design homes which are pleasant to make, and to make homes which are pleasant to inhabit.

Walter Segal was always fascinated by how we can best make “homes pleasant to inhabit”. His love of detailed design was more about providing desirable (and often unexpected) convenience – from the height of light switches by a living-room door handle to that room’s daylight provided from two sides; to its link to a garden and then to shared social space beyond. While it was not primarily about material economy, his uniquely unprejudiced common-sense showed in myriad, witty and unexpected details: doubled internal doors to reduce sound transmission between two living rooms or a window directly over a fireplace, doubling the life of a stair carpet or using water as external roof insulation.
The process of self-building then began with Segal realising that (in 1970s England) material economy alone was not enough to produce affordable homes; and finally that “homes pleasant to make” is so much more than saving building costs. And so, latterly with Jon Broome, his enabling of the convenient assembly of homes then also opened to his clients the convenient design and ordering of their own spaces within ‘Segal’ construction rules.

AG: In the self-build homes the principle was to use readily available materials in their bought sizes. This made the homes economical, to fit the council budget, and easier for the self-builders. The design was based around the available materials: timber, wood wool slabs, plaster board, exterior board. So I would say in this case the materials came first. In terms of how the process began, I believe Segal sat down with the families to plan each house. He used a modular board, a wooden board with a grid cut into it and plastic panels that could be fitted together to try different designs.



Q: The book stresses that Segal’s architecture was based in a belief in democratic and social equality. How might Segal’s ethos be useful for practising architects today?


AG: Self-build could be described as egalitarian and democratic because it put house-building in the hands of ordinary people. In Lewisham the self-builders were on the council waiting list and chosen by public ballot. It was egalitarian in that each family was given the same resources by the council and had to put in the same amount of work. It was democratic in that there were lots of meetings to discuss details, and the builders had their say in certain elements of the design. The equivalent today could be a co-design process where a group chooses an architect and designs collectively.

JM: Democratic and social equality demands decent ordinary housing for all. It is an ethos for practicing humans today.
It is now a century since the British post-Great War report called for three-bedroom dwellings with modern fuel and sanitation as a basic requirement for family life, alongside health, education and employment. The government very soon watered that down while passing the responsibility to local authorities. After the Second World War Segal was one among many arguing that only the public ownership of land would make this possible and affordable. When Segal began building houses, 5% of the cost was the land (80% the actual building cost, 15% infrastructure and services). By 1960 land was already 40% of a Segal house’s cost and its proportion rising rapidly. In 1971, Segal said with this inflation in land cost ‘it sounds absurd that one should try to search for methods of building cheaply.’
After his death, the Guardian wrote in 1988, ‘the Segal system of house design and construction – but for the insane economics of the housing market today – could see every homeless family in Britain housed in a dwelling of their own design and construction by the turn of the century.’
Every public-minded citizen – architects included - today can fight that ‘insane economics of the housing market.’ As Home Secretary Winston Churchill argued so well, ‘land monopoly is by far the greatest of monopolies. Unearned increments in land are positively detrimental to the general public.’ That speech on land taxation is 112 years old, has rarely been bettered but has never led to his desired reforms, as the disparity of wealth between those who own a house and those who do not continues to escalate.



Q: Are there particular elements of his system that could be applied to large-scale contemporary developments?


JM: No. His system is a way of thinking, thinking about the design of the most convivial and habitable spaces whatever the constraints (given the requirement for multi-storey units, his ‘hanging gardens’ schemes are wonderfully humane and could have been really enjoyable); thinking about the fabrication of the most convivial and co-operative assembly processes; thinking about how design decision-making can be shared.
(Beyond the bizarre billionaires, there are no large-scale contemporary dwellings. Household and local community size remains, more or less, as ever.)

AG: Though the Segal method has not been rolled out at scale, certain elements could be, if local authorities and house builders were interested. Segal principles that could be incorporated into mainstream housing include: consultation and co-design with residents, practical and economical design, adaptable modular system. Unfortunately the way house building is organised and financed does not encourage innovative design. In terms of self-build, the biggest scheme in the UK is Graven Hill but it remains to be seen how many of the 900 plots will be taken up by self-builders. And self-build is much more likely to be custom build than Segal self-build. The barriers to scaling up the Segal system are discussed in the book. Self-build is much more common in other parts of Europe than in the UK. The Segal method (timber frame and self-build) has been used innovatively to make private houses and community buildings in Germany by Segal’s collaborator Peter Hübner.



Q: What do you think is most important for those who are new to the work of Walter Segal to know about his work?


AG: He had an extremely varied set of influences and that led to some elegant, interesting and unusual work. 

JM: At a glance he was a not-very successful architect of ordinary-looking housing. Now look closely. Then look more closely still, and you find an extraordinary figure, happily treading a self-reliant, solitary path offering a unique model of architectural practice in the 20th century. 


Diggers self-built housing, Brighton (Architype design, following Segal’s death).
Photos by John McKean. 



Q: Are there revelations from your research that you think would surprise even a Segal-enthusiast? What were these discoveries?


JM: ‘Anarchy is simply any social space in which the techniques of mutuality predominate. It is a social space which people enter (and leave) freely; relate as equals; and do something creative, to solve a problem, meet a need, or just enjoy creativity for its own sake.

This was the social realm towards which Segal’s good friend Colin Ward aimed, and for which Segal’s later professional life clearly aimed. (I state it in the words of Stuart White).
When a headline screams that a Segal self-built estate is “Anarchist housing” or, from the opposite corner, when a partisan defender equally vehemently denies that Segal was an “anarchist”, both simply miss the point.

AG: I heard about how women self-builders faced numerous challenges such as being ignored by suppliers and contractors, and being expected to make tea all the time. I also learned that Segal was not universally loved by the self-builders. As one told me, he was “of a certain time, a certain class, and a certain gender”. I came away from the research with a more rounded picture of someone who made a huge contribution to the lives of people he worked with, but the process was not always smooth. Going forward I would like to learn more about the experiences of women who built their own houses.



WALTER SEGAL: SELF-BUILT ARCHITECT by Alice Grahame and John McKean is available now.


Hardback • 224 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
160 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223899 • Publication: June 30, 2021