Banham Studio, Prickwillow

When we went to stay in that Ellis Miller house in Prickwillow, we noticed a second, slightly fancier one next door. Interestingly, this has come up for sale via The Modern House.

Although identical in construction to the one get we stayed in, this one appears to have undergone a more extensive renovation/extension, resulting in additional living space in the form of a studio (which could easily be used as a second bedroom) and utility area. The finish appears to be a lot better than the one we stayed in, which was looking a bit tired after years being used as a holiday rental.

At £450,000, the price is slightly lower than I expected though this is probably due to the location: Prickwillow is, after all, quite remote with no amenities nearby. I do have fond memories of staying in its neighbour, however, so I’m sure this will make someone a lovely full-time or holiday home.

Great Brownings bathrooms

Three years after we finished renovation works on the rest of the house, we finally decided to sort out the master and ensuite bathrooms upstairs.

These were in a pretty dire state (see my previous posts on them here), having progressively deteriorated over the course of this period: there were tiles were held together with tape, regular leaks, a suspicious squelchy feeling underfoot (most likely water under the linoleum) and water kept mysteriously gushing out of the ensuite window – I still have no idea why this kept happening.

Main bathroom rough renovation drawings
Main bathroom before renovations
Main bathroom during renovations

Tackling each of the bathrooms in turn, we decided to do both in roughly the same style and went for a look that I’ve seen in a lot of bathrooms in modernised mid century homes: square basin, 10×10 square tiles with contrast grouting, terrazzo-style flooring and a wall-hung toilet.

Main bathroom after renovations completed
Main bathroom after renovations completed
Main bathroom after renovations completed

We did avoid one design cliche, however: black tapware and accessories. It’s not that I don’t like it (I do) or think it’s a passing fad – it was more the hassle of finding the more obscure items (waste and bottle taps etc) in the same finish as the taps and shower unit. As such, we ordered all of the fittings in standard chrome.

The other key differences between the two bathrooms are the bathtubs (my partner insisted on a larger L-shaped tub in the main bathroom even though this doesn’t leave a huge amount of room to actually climb in, given the fixed panel) and the basin/storage combination (under sink storage in the main bathroom and a large medicine cabinet with under-lighting over a wall-hung basin in the ensuite).

Ensuite bathroom rough renovation drawings
Ensuite bathroom before renovations
Ensuite bathroom during renovations

One thing that I really wanted was a Japanese-style washlet in each of the bathrooms. Having grown up with a continental-style bidet, I’d long dreamed of having the next generation version installed in our home. They used to be obscenely expensive (and still can be – a top of the range model from Toto, the Japanese brand most associated with washlets is about £10,000) but we managed to find a more basic model (with all of the functionality built into the seat rather than the pan) from a Victorian Plumbing for just under £500.

Ensuite bathroom after renovations completed
Ensuite bathroom after renovations completed
Ensuite bathroom after renovations completed

We asked the same builders who did the rest of our house renovation to do these two bathrooms and they did a good job for a reasonable price. It did take slightly longer than expected, however: around 3-4 weeks per bathroom due in part to the relatively small size of the wall tiles and general fussiness on my part.

Main bathroom items
  1. Orchard L-shaped shower bath with 6mm shower screen from Victoria Plum
  2. Orchard bath filler set from Victoria Plum
  3. ENHET / TVÄLLEN wash-basin cabinet from IKEA
  4. Grohe Essentials toilet roll holder from Victoria Plum
  5. Bianco Wall Hung Smart Toilet with bidet wash function and dryer from Victorian Plumbing
  6. Terrazzo floor tiles in Cori Grey from Victorian Plumbing
  7. Spellbound Matt White 10x10cm wall tiles from Walls and Floors
  8. Mode Spa round thermostatic shower set from VictoriaPlum.com
  9. SVENSKÄR wash-basin mixer tap from IKEA
Ensuite bathroom items
  1. Orchard Square edge straight shower bath from Victoria Plum
  2. Aqualisa Midas mixer shower with bath spout from Victoria Plum
  3. Roca Senso Square wall-hung basin from Victorian Plumbing
  4. Bianco Wall Hung Smart Toilet with bidet wash function and dryer from Victorian Plumbing (as before)
  5. String pocket shelving in black and white from SCP
  6. Spellbound Matt White 10x10cm wall tiles from Walls and Floors (as before)
  7. Terrazzo floor tiles in Cori Grey from Victorian Plumbing (as before)
  8. Hudson Reed three-door mirror cabinet from Victorian Plumbing with under and over-strip lighting from Amazon
  9. Delabie toilet roll holder from QS Supplies

La Cité Radieuse, Marseille

In 1920, the renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier started to develop the concept behind what was to become his Unités d’Habitation buildings. These vast concrete apartment buildings went on to be enormously influential and are often cited as the initial inspiration for the Brutalist architectural style and philosophy.

The first and most famous of Le Corbuiser’s Unités d’Habitation buildings was La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, which was built from 1947 to 1952. Constructed in rough-cast concrete with its instantly recognisable primary-coloured panels, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 and a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture.

Set over 12 storeys, La Cité Radieuse was built to house 337 apartments, two indoor streets of commercial units on the third and fourth floors (currently occupied by a hotel, restaurant and a number of high-end stores), a nursery school and an art gallery, all topped by a expansive communal terrace featuring sculptural ventilation stacks, a running track, a shallow paddling pool for children, an open-air stage, a children’s art school in the atelier and unobstructed views of the Mediterranean and Marseille.

The building’s design incorporated 23 different apartment types, the most common being a two bedroom split-level duplex. It was a (very) faithfully preserved version of one of these duplex apartments that we stayed in during a recent visit to Marseille.

The apartment was arranged over two levels, opening from the seventh floor corridor onto a mezzanine level containing the original Cuisine Atelier Le Corbusier type 1 kitchen and a dining area overlooking the living area below. A Jean Prouvé-designed open tread steel staircase led down to the lower floor of the apartment which stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other with a balcony on each side (the building was designed with a interlocking scissor layout – the apartment across the corridor had a staircase leading to an equivalent upper floor spanning the entire width of the building).

The lower floor living space contained a living area, a bathroom with separate toilet and shower cubicle built into a cupboard-like pod and two long, narrow bedrooms at the opposite end, each with their own sink and dressing area and divided by a sliding door. All of the rooms were furnished with original free-standing and built-in furniture, including “storage walls” with various cupboards with sliding doors designed by Charlotte Perriand in collaboration with Atelier Le Corbusier.

So, what was the experience of living in a perfectly preserved (i.e. almost completely unmodernised) Le Corbusier apartment like? It was definitely an experience. Certain aspects of the original design still worked well – the double height ceiling and window over the living area was dramatic and allowed plenty of light to flood into both the upper and lower floors of the apartment, enhanced by the dual aspect on the lower floor. The extensive built-in storage was functional and attractive.

Other things worked less well: the way that the lower floor stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other combined with the relatively narrow width of the apartment made it feel a little corridor-like, especially the bedrooms which were particularly long and thin.

The original kitchen, while beautifully preserved, was lacking from a practical perspective by modern standards (the oven was particularly difficult to use without scorching yourself) and the less said about the claustrophobic shower in the windowless cupboard (painted black, no less), the better. Lastly, those gorgeous-looking Charlotte Perriand sofas in the living room made for the least comfortable seating I have ever sat on.

The communal areas of the building and roof terrace (even though the shallow pool had been drained for the winter when we visited in March) were, however, spectacular.

I understand that you can join a tour of the building which includes access to at least one of the apartments. If were to redo our visit to Marseille, I would probably join that tour rather than rent an apartment for the full authentic experience of staying in a Le Corbusier building.

La Cité Radieuse, original publicity

Vanbrugh Park Estate

I’ve been attending Open House weekend for a couple of years now so I’ve seen the most of the modernist estates that usually form part of the programme. I was therefore pleased to be able to visit Vanbrugh Park Estate this year, which for some reason has never come up on my itinerary.

Vanbrugh Park Estate was built in 1962 and designed by the renowned architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon responsible for the better known and more celebrated Barbican and Golden Lane estates. Set on seven acres of land bordering Greenwich Park, Vanbrugh Park Estate comprises a mixture of dwelling types: an eight-storey tower block containing 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes arranged over garages.

Like many parts of London which now contain modernist architecture built in the 1960s, the area, mostly renowned for large period villas, was bombed during the Second World War and was in need of new housing. As such, careful consideration was taken by the architects when building the new housing to respect the surrounding areas, including the blind-wall terraces that were intended to reflect Greenwich Park’s own wall using similar brickwork. In addition, simple but functional materials (such as the breeze block facades) were used to save on costs so that more could be spent on landscaping communal areas, giving the estate a more utilitarian than luxurious feel – more Golden Lane than Barbican, if you will.

Two properties were open when I visited. The first was one of the maisonettes over the garage blocks. The apartment was reached via a communal walkway and comprised a conservatory-like entrance area, kitchen, living/dining area, bathroom and two bedrooms. The owners were clearly architecture and design enthusiasts and had restored a number of original features in the apartment including the wood panelling, black vinyl floor tiles and fireplace in the centre of the living area.

The second property was one of the low-rise terraced houses. Set over three floors, the entrance of the house opened onto a semi-open plan living, dining and kitchen area with stairs down to a bedroom and the garden and stairs up to two further bedrooms and a bathroom. There wasn’t much left in the way of original features in this house (the central fireplace had been removed and that bannister is definitely not original) but it was deceptively spacious and still architecturally interesting.

Ethelburga Tower

Next on the 2021 Open House itinerary was Ethelburga Tower, a 1960s 17-storey concrete framed block of flats near Battersea Park designed by the LCC Architects Dept with Ove Arup & Partners as consulting engineers.

The block was built to accommodate 98 homes: 32 split-level maisonettes on the east and west sides of the building and 17 one bedroom single level flats and 17 two bedroom flats single level flats on the south side.

The decision to have landings on odd floors, opening onto double height access galleries (with flats on the “mezzanine” floors reached by the staircase) added a bit of interest to the architecture.

The first residents moved into the block in 1967 with council tenants buying up flats under the government’s “right to buy” legislation from the 1980s onwards.

In 2009, Mark Cowper, a photographer who was living in Ethelburga Tower at the time, staged an exhibition of photographs at the Geffrye Museum (now the Museum of the Home) of individual living rooms in Ethelburga Tower, which highlighted how differently each resident had decorated their flat.

Despite not being part of the official Open House programme (only the corridors and communal areas were open to the public), an owner of one of the split-level maisonettes kindly let me have a nose around as I was passing by.

The flat was in the same configuration as those featured in Mark Cowper’s project with an entrance hall opening onto the living room with glass-panelled door leading onto a small balcony and adjoining kitchen on the lower floor and a staircase leading up to two bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floor. There was also a cupboard on the upstairs landing containing a fire escape staircase leading to the roof (though I may have misheard this).

Walters Way, London SE23

This year’s Open House weekend included access to Walters Way, a close of 13 self-built houses on a sloping, tree filled site (not unlike Great Brownings) in South East London.

Each house on the close was built in the 1980s using a method developed by Walter Segal, the celebrated Swiss architect. This method involved the use of a modular, timber-frame system reminiscent of 19th-century American houses or traditional Japanese architecture.

Although the houses were all built using the same method of construction, the houses were designed with flexibility and individuality in mind. Unlike Great Brownings, where homeowners are required to ensure that their house looks the same as all of the others on the estate, I was struck by the way in which all of the houses on Walter’s Way were unique in both style and configuration (most of having been adapted and extended since they were built).

We were invited to have a nose around two of the houses on the estate, which timber walls and flooring aside, were quite different owing to changes made by the owners to the layout and sun deck/garden patio areas outside.

The owners of one of the houses (self-build house 1 in the photos) had extended with lean to lobby which was self-built and a more substantial two-storey extension which wasn’t – whilst more straightforward than a regular build, self building using the Segal method is apparently not without its challenges.

One of the key considerations was the retention of supporting posts from the original build – here, they made for a design feature across the middle of the living area. The owners of self-build house 1 had further plans to modify and extend their house – according to them, self-build houses are never quite finished.

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Originally the Cambridge home of curator, art collector and sometime artist Jim Ede and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard House serves as the University of Cambridge’s art gallery, housing the couple’s spectacular collection of early 20th-century art.

Having moved to Cambridge in 1956, the couple converted four slim cottages (reportedly slum dwellings scheduled for demolition) into one rather idiosyncratic house.

Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple were able to fill their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Joan Mirò (mostly acquired before these artists reached the pinnacle of their success), which they carefully and lovingly arranged around the house. Jim was meticulous about this, believing that the positioning of an artwork relative to its surroundings was almost as important as the artwork itself and that each room of the house should be regarded as a collective work of art in its own right.

It was also part of Jim’s philosophy that art should be shared in a relaxed, informal environment and so he would hold ‘open house’ tours, inviting students from the University of Cambridge over for afternoon tea to enjoy the art and even to borrow paintings from his collection to hang in their rooms during term-time.

Concerned that his beloved house would be broken up upon his death, Jim gave the house and collection to the University of Cambridge in 1966 on the condition that they would fund various improvements, including the construction of a large new wing in the late 1960s to host live music events and to preserve the space as the couple left it upon their departure in 1973.

Jim’s art arranging skills and all-round good taste were still very much in evidence when I joined a recent tour of the house, which began in the original older wing of the house.

This part of the house consisted of the three original cottages knocked into one and contained the couples’ bedrooms and a reception room on both the upper and lower levels. Whilst the couple had upgraded the original slum cottages, installing more luxurious fixtures and fittings to replace the original features (the mid century-style spiral staircase and large windows would not have been found in the original slum dwellings, for example), these rooms were low ceilinged and modest in size. This made for an unusually homely and intimate setting for displaying significant pieces of early 20th century paintings and sculpture.

The original wing of the house was connected to the newer wing by a bridge link/small conservatory on the upper floor. Crossing the bridge, you went from the slightly claustrophobic spaces of the original cottages to jaw dropping, full-on, double height 1960s modernism. This provided more of a gallery-like setting for the rest of the collection and the downstairs area was also large enough to be used for live music events as requested by Jim when he gave the house to the University of Cambridge.

Ellis Miller House, Prickwillow

Designed by the architect Jonathan Ellis-Miller for his own occupation, this single-storey modernist house was actually built in the late 1980s despite resembling the American work of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Ellwood from the 1940s and 50s.

The house was constructed using mostly steel and glass with a galvanised steel structural roof, the front elevation composed entirely of sliding doors opening out onto the Cambridgeshire Fens and offering views across agricultural land.

The house was bought by its current owner as a holiday home in 2010 (reportedly in a bit of a state) and restored to its former glory. Keen for others to enjoy this slice of Californian Modernism in the Cambridgeshire Fens (the owner’s words rather than mine), the owner currently rents out the house for holiday lets which is how we ended up there for a couple of days this October.

Arriving at the house, I was struck by the simplicity of the layout. Entered from the carport beside the house, the house had no hallway or corridor and consisted of a long, open-plan living space divided by a striking chimney breast and open fire place, which spanned the length of the house and a kitchen, wet room and bathroom and ensuite accessed off the living area. Relatively compact in size at 66 square metres, the combination of the layout and glass panels made it feel a lot larger.

Staying in the house was comfortable – the original electric underfloor heating was still in operation, allowing for a pleasantly natural heat to emanate through the wood block flooring and the kitchen and bathrooms had been renovated recently enough for them not to feel like relics of another time (which can be the case when staying in period houses like this one). The views across the expanse of the flat East Anglian fens out of the sliding glass wall, which stretched from one end of the house to the other, were also pretty spectacular.

On the downside, the flat corrugated steel roof meant that there was an unholy racket whenever it rained. The minimal decor, whilst mostly in keeping with the house, was a little pedestrian (a proper sideboard and some decent period artwork would have complemented the Days Forum leather sofas – surely still the best thing Habitat has ever produced – and elevated the living area, for instance). Overall, I found that the finish was a little tired in places (busted blinds, slightly grimy exterior, chipped tiles), probably due to the house being used repeatedly as a holiday rental.

In terms of location, Prickwillow was pretty remote with zero amenities nearby (the rather sleepy Ely was a 10 minute taxi ride away) though for architecture enthusiasts, the house made for a worthy destination in of itself.

Modernist Pilgrimage returns

After not having posted anything in over a year (and not having been anywhere in over 18 months), the end of lockdown has meant that I’ve been able to get out and about to actually generate content for Modernist Pilgrimage.

In addition, the shabby bathrooms that we left out of our house renovation project for budgetary reasons have packed up after three years (the ensuite is currently being held together by tape) so I’ll be documenting the renovation of these as well over the coming months.

Thank you to anyone still reading Modernist Pilgrimage!

Frobisher Court, Forest Hill SE23

I’ve now been running this blog long enough to see properties that I viewed as a potential buyer a few years ago being put back onto the market by the people who ended up buying said properties.

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Frobisher Court flat, living room (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

This is the very nice but expensive flat in Frobisher Court that I went to see in 2016, looking very much the same as when I saw it albeit with different furniture (though it appears that sellers left behind all of the built-in units in 2016).

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Frobisher Court flat, communal areas and exterior (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

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Frobisher Court flat, communal entrance (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

It has the larger three-bedroom floorplan found in these Austin Vernon and Partners-designed blocks (the standard, more commonly found type has two bedrooms without the bay window in the lounge) though this particular flat only has two bedrooms – the previous owners knocked into the third bedroom to make the lounge bigger.

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Frobisher Court flat, living room and bedroom (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

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Frobisher Court flat, kitchen (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

It’s on the market at £575,000, which might be a bit less than the price it was marketed at four years ago.

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Frobisher Court flat, master bedroom (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

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Frobisher Court flat, bay window in lounge (photo by Stanfords: http://www.stanfordestates.london)

20 February 2016

Frobisher Court, Forest Hill SE23
Apartment block forming part of Dulwich Wood Park estate; winner of Civic Trust Award 1964
Architect: Austin Vernon & Partners
Year built: 1959

I’ve wanted to buy one of these Austin Vernon & Partners flats in the Dulwich Wood Estate ever since I went to see one in Raleigh Court last year. Even though that particular example was a bit decrepit with rubbish views into other people’s flats on the estate, the combination of the pleasant, almost wooded setting, the mid century communal areas and the spacious, open layout of the flat led me to keep an eye out for other flats on the estate coming onto the market.

20160206_11001820160206_105714frobisher ext

One year down the line, I’ve seen six other examples of the same flat, all of which have been pretty much identical in layout but have varied dramatically in condition from perfection to complete wreckage. Having had bids rejected on two of the better ones and a sale fall through on another (I’m still reeling from the sheer injustice of that experience), I decided to view a 7th floor flat in Frobisher Court that had just come on the market.

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Although Frobisher Court looked almost identical to all of the other blocks congregated around Gipsy Hill I’d been to see, it was actually situated a couple of miles north from the rest in the slightly more affluent Forest Hill. The facade and communal areas looked familiar with the slightly oppressive patterned sixties tiling and juddering lift present and correct but this particular building seemed particularly well kept with not a spot of peeling paint or limp indoor plant to be found.

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The flat itself, which was situated at the very top of the building, was pretty stunning. It had the same open plan layout of all of the others I’d seen but appeared to have an additional bay window with great, far-reaching views of the surrounding area.

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The current owners had made bold but period-appropriate design choices, including some great built-in furniture (I loved the bespoke hallway unit) and coloured feature walls. Unlike all of the other flats of this type I’d seen, the solid wood flooring continued beyond the main living areas into the bedrooms, which somehow made the flat seem more spacious.

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The only downside to this particular flat, which I loved and could completely picture myself living in, was the asking price: it was an absolutely ridiculous £195,000 more expensive than the last one of these flats I viewed. I appreciate that you sometimes need to pay a premium for a well-presented property but in my opinion, no amount of nice built-in furniture or pretty views is worth an additional £195,000. The last time I checked, this flat was still on the market. If the owner were willing to reduce the price to something more sensible, I may well make an offer.