MODERNIST MONDAY: Walter Segal

Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with ten quick facts. Our December pick is Walter Segal, a German architect whose inventive “self-building” houses were a major development in Modernism and a beacon of hope during the postwar housing crisis.

(left to right) Homes and a social gathering at “Monte Verità”

Architect Walter Segal was born in 1907 Berlin, a city at the forefront of Modern architecture at the time, helmed by design leaders such as Van Der Rohe, Gropius, and Le Corbusier. During World War I, Segal and his parents sheltered in an arts commune in the Swiss Alps. The group, “Monte Verità,” promoted utopian philosophies, hosting notable members such as Carl Jung, Max Weber, and others.

Upon returning to Berlin after the war, Segal studied architecture in Germany and the Netherlands before his first official commissions from the same patron of his father’s who had helped fund his education. The summer house, built in 1932, was a wooden structure in Ascona, Switzerland.

In 1934, Segal worked as a tomb surveyor while studying at the German School of Archeology in Cairo, Egypt, and subsequently moved to London in 1935 to work for the archaeology department of the British Museum.

Ancient Egyptian stools were the focus of Segal’s archaeology research

In 1936, Segal began teaching at the Architectural Association in London, where he met his future wife, architecture student Eva Bradt.

Throughout the postwar housing crisis of the 1940s and 1950s, Segal worked quietly as a professor, writer, and architect, taking on a few small projects, and publishing a few essays, including “Home and Environment” in 1948.

The Architectural Association in London

After his first wife passed away in 1950, Segal married Moran Scott in 1963. The couple decided to tear down their Victorian house in Highgate, London and build a new one. As a temporary structure in their garden, Segal designed a house using only cladding materials and minimal foundation. Only two concrete slabs served as the structure’s base. The home took two weeks and eight hundred GBP to build (the equivalent of about $18,000 US dollars at today’s rates)

Because of its unique story and development, the home, known as “Little House in the Garden”, gained widespread attention and numerous commissions followed. The detailing of the house required no “wet trades” such as bricklaying or plastering; the structures relied on simple joinery, consistent modular spacing, and flat roofs. The initial “Little House in the Garden” in Highgate lasted for fifty years. When the builder of one of Segal’s unique commissioned homes had to quit mid-stream, the structure was simple enough for the homeowners and people with little experience to build it themselves, thus earning the style the name “Self-build”.

An early “self build” house similar to the Highgate structure

A modern “self build” house in London

Because of the low cost and relatively unskilled labor required, “self-build” homes became popular in the UK, whose government was struggling to keep up with the demand for low-income housing. The local council made three sites available for people to develop Segal houses, and to this day two Segal communities still exist in London; “Walters Way” and “Segal Close”.

(left) “Walters Way” in 2015, (right) “Walters Way” in 1977

Scenes from “Walters Way” in 2015

A 2015 article in The Guardian chronicled life inside “Walters Way” which is a unique and still-thriving street of Segal houses in London. In it, a couple describes building their own home, which took two years of construction work in between their regular jobs. Another resident praises the community spirit of the street, with families helping one another assemble their houses. An early adopter of the style recalls Segal himself telling him that “all you need to do is to be able to cut a straight line with a saw and drill a straight hole”.

Segal helping to build one of his “self build” homes

Segal used his unique upbringing and love of architecture to empower communities during a time of need. After his passing in 1985, the two London communities he developed continued to thrive, and his “self-build” methods continue to spread, supported by the Walter Segal Self-Build Trust.

SOURCES:

“Segal Method,” Designing Buildings; “Who Was Walter Segal?,” Celebrating Segal; “Chronicles of Modernism,” The Modern House; “Walter Segal,” Segal Self Build Trust; “We Can Build You: Assemble And The Legacy Of Walter Segal,” The Quietus; “‘This Isn’t At All Like London,’” The Guardian