Louis de Soissons Plan

Welwyn Garden City’s Famous Town Plan

Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation
Welwyn Garden City is arguably one of the most beautiful and certainly the best planned towns in England. The man responsible for the much of what we see in the City was Louis de Soissons, its Chief Architect and Town Planner for 42 years - from its inception in 1920 till his death in 1962.

Louis was born in 1890, probably in Canada, (originally from Poland) into a talented multi-lingual and artistic family that came to live in London when he was about nine.

Louis decided early on that he wanted to be an architect so when he left school he was articled to a leading firm of Architects. For 5 years he attended evening classes at the Royal Academy, where he was a brilliant student, winning prizes that included grants to travel to Italy and France. He actually studied at the top École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, winning more medals, but his stay was cut short by the Great War. He enrolled immediately in the army where he played an important part in liaising with Italian army using his linguistic skills and was awarded the OBE.

Shortly after returning to civilian life he had a lucky break when Ebenezer Howard bought at auction nearly 1500 acres of farmland near Welwyn for his second Garden City. A Company was set up and a hunt started for a Chief Architect. Following a recommendation from the President of the RIBA, Louis was appointed in April 1920 and within 6 weeks produced the famous plan which has been reproduced in countless manuals on Town Planning. {pictured}. He presented his plan to the Board of Welwyn Garden City Ltd on 11 June 1920.

Photo of Welwyn Garden City Chief Architect and Town Planner for 32 years Louis de Soissons

Louis moved to the newly christened Welwyn Garden City and set to work. He decided quickly that the style for the houses and public buildings should be Neo-Georgian in red brick, rather than Arts and Crafts which had been favoured by Unwin and Parker at the first Garden City, Letchworth.

The layout of the town is in grand Beaux Arts tradition with a great greensward avenue, Parkway, 200feet (61m) wide running through the central area. The vista seen from the north when crossing the White Bridge is magnificent, especially when the Coronation Fountain is in full flow.

Louis was a master of street planning. The residential streets surrounding the central core followed the contours of the land not just for artistic effect but to minimise the cost of installing water and sewage services. They were carefully landscaped, with a density that nowhere exceeded 12 houses per acre. He imaginatively exploited varieties of cul de sac to create small communities. And he made sure that there were plenty of trees to delight the eye. We can enjoy the results of his labours every time we drive into or out of the City.

 

It is estimated that Louis and his close associate Arthur Kenyon designed over half the houses in Welwyn Garden. The majority were red brick Neo-Georgian but many were in concrete and some even had flat roofs.

The City was planned so that citizens could walk or cycle from where they lived to where they worked. In 1924 Louis designed the first and most important factory, for Shredded Wheat, an American company who chose Welwyn as the base to manufacture in England. This plant with adjoining silos are a landmark that was listed Grade II in 1981. It still impresses although half the silos have been demolished to make way for planned redevelopment. Louis’ concrete and glass processing plant was among the first of its kind in England.

Other landmark factories followed which like all the construction in Welwyn had to be approved by Louis. The newly restored Grade II Listed Roche Factory by Otto Salvisberg in 1937 is the most famous but others were equally impressive.

Louis was the only official of the Company to survive the take-over by the State in 1948, when Welwyn Garden was designated to be expanded into a New Town in harness with neighbouring Hatfield. He become Chief Architect for the Welwyn Garden part and designed a significant expansion, mainly on the east side of the City.

Many books were published describing in glowing terms the progress at Welwyn Garden. As a result Louis’ fame spread. In the 1930s he became friendly with Edward, Prince of Wales, (later Edward VIII) and built flats in red brick for him in Kennington, an area of south London belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. They can be seen regularly on TV during Test Matches at The Oval, forming a harmonious backdrop to the pundits in their glass commentary box. (The stylish gates to the Oval known internationally as the Jack Hobbs Gates were also designed by Louis).

Louis unfortunately lost his eldest son Philip in 1941; he was killed when only 17 during the Battle for Crete when his ship was sunk by a fighter attack. His name is among the many on the War Memorial in Howardsgate. It must have therefore meant a great deal to Louis when in 1944 he was appointed by The War Graves Commission to be Chief Architect with responsibility for cemeteries in Greece and Italy, eventually designing over 50. Notable are Cassino in Italy, and Suda Bay near Athens. Louis built up a leading Architectural Practice which employed several notable men and women architects. They did much work in London and around the UK, particularly Plymouth which was completely reconstructed after extensive bombing. The design included central boulevards as in Welwyn Garden which were exactly the same width as Parkway. 

Louis worked on until his death of heart failure in 1962. He is buried in a Welwyn Garden cemetery, Hatfield Hyde, beneath a plain limestone slab sheltered appropriately by a large horse chestnut tree. A bust of him was commissioned and today it looks out over Parkway, from above the doorway of a building just south of Howardsgate. Further north at the top of Parkway is a garden which was opened in his honour by the Queen Mother in 1970.

Today’s residents owe him a great deal. He transformed a few thousand acres of farm land with a handful of farm buildings into a thriving City with houses and factories that were state of the art when constructed. Over the last one hundred years his plans have matured into a thing of beauty and a joy for all.

 

Geoffrey Hollis – Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust

Queen Mother Unveils Louis de Soissons Bust

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The Foundation can accept no responsibility for the organisation or regulation of any satellite events arranged to mark the centenary of Welwyn Garden City. This includes but is not limited to public liability insurance, health and safety issues (including risk assessments, Performance Licenses and safeguarding of children or vulnerable adults), transport, hiring of facilities, and any costs associated. The use of the Foundation name and logo does not infer any specific oversight or involvement of the Foundation unless stated.”