Last night I received an email from a neighbour saying that the temporary house that Walter Segal built in the garden of his Highgate home was due to be demolished that day. This seemed like sad news. It was the first self-build style house he built in the UK, in 1962, and is the prototype for the subsequent self-build housing schemes in Lewisham and other parts of the UK. John Segal, Walter's son, remembers studying for his A levels in the building which his father put up as a temporary home while the main house was being rebuilt. I was aware that the Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage had both tried to get the building listed. But when the main house was sold recently with planning permission to demolish the summerhouse I knew that its days were numbered. A few months ago, knowing that the "little house in the garden" (as Walter called it) would soon be taken down, I emailed the owners asking for permission to visit and take photos and film. I got no reply and assumed my email had got buried - as often happens.
So hearing that demolition was imminent, or maybe had already happened, and never having visited, I decided to go on an early morning adventure up the Northern Line to investigate. I knew I'd arrived at the right place when I saw a huge skip, and a builder appeared holding a piece of wood wool. I asked If I could pop in to take a photo and was invited into the garden to speak to the site manager. On the grass were piles of boards and behind that the wooden frame of an identifiably Segal house. I was told firmly that photography was not allowed. They had had some bother from the Twentieth Century Society trying to stop the demolition and didn't want any more negative publicity. Perhaps the site manager, after I explained my interest in Segal and told him all about RUSS, thought that that I might D-Loc myself to one of the timber posts or throw myself under the floorboards in protest. Besides he said, a professional photographer had already been in to document the process.
I left feeling rather despondent but without making a fuss. When enthusiasts visit the Lewisham Segal sites they always get a warm welcome - but that's Lewisham, and a self-build community and this is Highgate, and one building in someone's private garden.
I'm glad I got to see the little house in the garden - even if it was in pieces. "Demolition" doesn't describe what was going on. There was no wrecking ball or explosives - just two people carefully disassembling the structure. It was exciting to see the skeleton. There was no St Andrew's Cross (the essential structural timber cross that kept future Segal buildings together). The timber uprights were much more slender than the Douglas fir used later.
And although there are some who might be sad to see it come down It was clear that the timber was rotten and the temporarily building had reached the end of its useful life. The good news is that it is going to be replaced with something the same size and in a similar style.
This blog is about the life and work of architect Walter Segal. I am a fan of Segal and the current administrator of this website. I life in one of the Segal Self-build houses in Lewisham and want more people to know about and be inspired by this unusual architect.