Celebrating the centenary of the architects who shaped our wonderful Welwyn Garden City
- Credit: Archant
The story of WGC is intrinsically tied up in that of one of the town’s principal creators.
As well as the centenary of the world’s second garden city, 2020 also marks 100 years since the founding of the architects whose vision shaped its look.
Louis de Soissons, who gave his name to the firm, was already recognised as one of the brightest architectural talents of his generation when he was offered the opportunity to create what was to become a masterpiece of planning and design out of a stretch of green fields in Hertfordshire, now known as Welwyn Garden City.
Sir Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the concept of the garden city, invited Louis to share his vision for the new town.
Company folklore has it that Louis was operating out of an office in Blue Ball Yard in St James’s in London at that time, but hired a location nearer to the WGC site for the day to match the other local applicants.
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It is also said that he took with him a design proposal on a piece of paper measuring an impressive 12 feet by 12 feet - which duly won him the commission.
Louis de Soissons was hired on April 26 1920, three days before the establishment of Welwyn Garden City Limited, and presented his plans just six weeks later, on June 11.
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Detailed plans were submitted for housing by November 1920. These did not just include houses of varying shapes and sizes, but also cottages, industrial buildings, community facilities, churches, schools, shops and pubs.
The first home was constructed at 9 Handside Lane, closely followed by a pair of connected cottages at 16-17 Meadow Green. The process of building this new type of town was under way.
Louis subsequently moved into WGC, living first in Handside Lane, and after his marriage in Guessens Road.
He became instrumental in the development of the town, including attracting Shredded Wheat to open its first UK factory in WGC, and alongside fellow architect Arthur Kenyon, designed the plant which is still a prominent local landmark today, forming the heart of the Wheat Quarter redevelopment the practice has been working on in recent years.
In fact, Louis de Soissons Architects designed all the buildings that the inhabitants of a town might need, ensuring that any construction that took place in the area met their founder’s exacting standards.
His influence over the development of the town was enormous and would continue to be so for several decades.
Even now, 100 years after the town was founded, there is considerable civic pride over its design and an enduring acknowledgement of the role Louis and his practice played in its special appeal and appearance.
Apart from its work locally, the firm was also responsible for various architectural and design projects further afield, including sections of Lords cricket ground, 46 cemeteries on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission, much of post-war Plymouth, the headquarters of Rowntree Mackintosh in York and Brighton Marina.
Louis died in 1962 at the age of 72, but his legacy lives on in the town he designed, and a memorial garden in his memory can be found in the centre of WGC, its view down Parkway providing a fitting tribute to the man who had done so much to bring this unique living space to fruition.
The current owner of the practice, Mark Wilkinson, said: “Along with Welwyn Garden City, 2020 is also our centenary year and pre-COVID we had numerous plans in place to celebrate this fantastic milestone.
“We want to celebrate and share our history with the people of WGC who are rightfully proud of the beautiful green environment created by Louis de Soissons following his appointment as architect for Welwyn Garden City Ltd in 1919.
“He was incredibly energetic, talented and a true visionary and word has it he was very strict in the workplace and I am sure sub-consciously keeps us all focused on achieving great things!”
More photos from the archives of Louis De Soissons will be published in the WHT later this year.