Having made the most of Open House weekend every year for the past five years, I think I’ve now visited pretty much every major participating building and development of interest from a modernist/mid century perspective. As such, this year’s itinerary involved revisiting the subject of my first ever blog entry, two architect-designed modern houses and a social housing estate that I hadn’t yet visited due to it being almost completely hidden from view.
Highpoint was the subject of my first ever blog entry on this site, which, looking at it now, was pretty ropey in terms of the writing, formatting and photos so I thought I’d go back there and produce something better.
Designed in 1935 by Berthold Lubetkin and Grade I-listed in 1970, Highpoint I was built to accommodate 96 one to three bedroom flats (all generously proportioned) and incorporated many features that were technically advanced for the time – I’m not sure how this is logistically possible but there are no partition walls between neighbours’ flats except in the central spine of the building.
Highpoint II was completed on the site next door in 1938. This block was aimed at wealthier tenants (not that Highpoint I was particularly low grade) and was constructed using richer materials including glazed tiles, glass blocks on the staircase towers and marble in the hall. The building was built to accommodate twelve large maisonettes, all of them containing four-bedrooms and two bathrooms split over two floors, with the best ones situated in the central part of the block: these ones were built with double-height living rooms and elegant oval-shaped staircases.
I remember being completely awed by both Highpoint I and II and fantasised about living there when I visited five years ago. I was equally awed this time: that split-level maisonette in Highpoint II that I featured in my first ever blog post was just as gorgeous as I remembered it: as well as having the double-height living room and oval staircase, it had stunning views over Highgate from both floors, four large bedrooms and two original 1930s bathrooms. Most importantly, the lift up from the ground floor lobby opened directly into the hallway of the maisonette – I’m not sure why but I always associate this feature with extreme luxury.
The maisonette had the perfect mix of original features (the current owner reportedly bought it from the estate of an elderly lady who left behind a lot of moth-eaten Chanel and hadn’t updated anything since she bought it in the 1930s) and modern styling. Our guide informed us with some regret that the original features in some of the other maisonettes in Highpoint II had been “destroyed by too much money”.
Page High, a red brick social housing estate consisting of 92 homes, was built in the 1970s above a car park that was in turn above a retail store (Sainsbury’s at the time, now a Matalan outlet).
The estate, accessed from street level by a lift, opened out into wide pathway which ran between two rows of low-rise buildings with stepped balconies, mostly consisting of one and two room apartments, and maisonettes. The overall design was somewhat reminiscent of the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate though on a slighter smaller scale and without quite the same sense of drama.
Page High, however, appeared to be a very well designed estate. Flats were built with their own front and back balconies, and every ‘ground’ floor flat had a front garden.
In addition, the fact that Page High was seven storeys up from street level meant that it had great views over Alexandra Palace and was remarkably peaceful in spite of its location just off Wood Green High Road. I also liked how well hidden it was: you would never know a development of that scale was there unless you were specifically looking for it.
Springbank was one of a pair of semi-detached houses completed in 2014 by SE5 Architects on a large site in Peckham. The house was split over three floors (one of which was a basement level) and despite the very modern finish (lots of glass, steel and blonde wood), reminded me a lot of the original 1960s Lilian Baylis school that was converted into flats a couple of years ago.
The ground floor contained the living spaces, including a reception room and a large kitchen/diner, both of which had folding doors opening onto the garden, which wrapped around the house on three sides. The kitchen housed a rather envy-inducing walk-in pantry.
In the centre of the house was a winding oak staircase with a glass balustrade and treads of varying lengths connecting the different floors of the house. This led down to the basement level (which contained a utility room and workshop) and up to a glass atrium on the first floor, which flooded the whole house with natural light, even though it was a fairly gloomy day.
The first floor contained the bedrooms, including a master bedroom with dressing room (like the pantry, this was also envy inducing) and en-suite bathroom, a second bedroom with en-suite shower room, two further bedrooms and another bathroom.
I did a bit of research online and the other house in the pair was listed and sold earlier this year for £2.25million.
Unremarkable from the outside, this 1960s mid-terrace house underwent a dramatic interior renovation and extension in 2017 which turned the poky ground floor level into a spacious open-plan living, kitchen and dining room with broad folding doors that led straight out into the garden.
The owners had done a lovely job with the renovation with a range of interesting textures, fixtures and fittings – I particularly liked the the continuous cork flooring throughout the whole of the ground floor and the central glazed partition.
I also took note of everything in the bathroom upstairs from the size of the tiles to the bath side panel (a coloured mdf-like material called Valchromat) to the way they’d hung the mirrors so that I can try to replicate what they’d done when we come to do our bathroom renovations.
We recently decided to spend a long weekend in Rotterdam because: a) you can get there in about three hours from London on the Eurostar; and b) I really wanted to visit Sonnenveld Huis, which explains why the majority of this blog entry is dedicated to it.
Sonnenveld Huis, a stunning 1930s residential property, has been open to the public since 2001. Designed by architects Brinkman and Van der Vlugt for Albertus Sonneveld and his family, Sonnenvleld Huis was built between 1929 and 1933 and is reportedly one of the best-preserved private houses in the Dutch Functionalist style in the Netherlands.
Functionalist architects prioritised light, air and space, designing efficient and hygienic buildings using modern techniques and materials such as steel and concrete. Floor plans were designed to make internal spaces open and light, enhanced by balconies and terraces. Sonneveld Huis, which felt staggeringly contemporary for a building from the 1930s, was clearly built with these principles in mind. This feeling of modernity was enhanced by Albertus Sonnenveld’s installation of state of the art mod cons throughout the house including telephones in the bedrooms, wall-mounted climate control units, a massage shower with multiple shower heads and a system of music speakers throughout the house which could be controlled from certain rooms (a 1930s version of Sonos, if you will).
The house was split over three floors. The ground floor contained the servants’ quarters, garage and a charming bright studio room for the Sonneveld daughters to receive guests.
The curved main staircase led up to the first floor, which contained the living areas, starting with the kitchen (which was mainly used by the servants) and serving area from which food was passed into the dining room through a beautiful built-in shelf cum serving hatch.
The dining room flowed though into a very spacious living room which could be divided into two using a sliding partition wall. One end of the room opened out onto a large terrace at one end and the other end housed a library and an additional seating area (the high-backed orange chairs were for the men and the lower-backed orange chairs were for the women and their voluminous hairstyles).
The second floor contained the bedrooms: a guest bedroom (in which the colour scheme reminded me a little too much of a sanatorium), a separate walk-in linen room with extensive built-in storage and the daughters’ bedrooms which had a shared jack-and-jill bathroom in between them.
At the end of the hall was an impossibly glamorous master bedroom with a wraparound terrace, a large en-suite bathroom and a separate dressing room. The staircase on the second floor continued up to the roof, which was also used as a terrace.
This really was a very luxurious and expensive house. Clearly, no expense was spared at time on the design, furnishings and fittings (the carpets alone were ridiculously sumptuous). The unconventional use of colour was also stunning – I’ve never seen anything quite so glamorous as that bronze paint used on that curved wall in the library area and in the master bedroom.
Sonneveld Huis is absolutely worth making the trip to Rotterdam to see in person. The audio tour (informative but also quite irreverent) was excellent and the freedom to peruse almost every inch of the house at will was refreshing – you were even allowed to sit on most of the furniture!
Chabot Huis, a stunning modernist villa designed in 1938 by architects Gerrit Willem Bass and Leonoard Stokla, was a few doors down from Sonnenveld Huis. The villa was initially built as a private house for the Kraaijeveld family but has been used since 1993 as a museum dedicated to the painter and sculptor Hendrik Chabot.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the interior of Chabot Huis because the galleries were closed for a re-hanging and when I tried to access the parts of the building that did appear to be open, I was unceremoniously thrown out after failing to produce a pre-booked ticket. I did, however, find some photos of the interior online.
The much photographed yellow Cube houses were an intriguing oddity; more interesting than actually impressive.
Built in 1984 by the architect Piet Blom and located on Overblaak Street above the Blaak metro station, the complex of homes, shops and a pedestrian bridge consisted of a hive of 51 cubes, all attached to one another. Blom’s innovative design involved tilting the cube of a conventional house 45 degrees, and fixing it on top of a hexagonal post. Each house had its entrance at the base of this post, which contained a staircase leading up into the cube itself.
An owner of one of the cube houses had opened his home to the public as a “show cube”, which allowed us to see inside an example of one of the houses with most of its original features intact.
Inside, the first floor of the house consisted of a living room and open kitchen, the second floor contained the sleeping area and a bathroom and the apex of the cube contained a further living area.
The house did not seem like a very practical space to live in. The apex room at the top of the cube was stiflingly hot and all of the walls and windows were angled at 55 degrees which meant that about a quarter of the 1000 sq ft floorspace was unusable, giving the house a slightly claustrophobic feel. I must say that the colour scheme and sharp-angled built in furniture (futuristic through an early 80s lens) probably did not help.
I didn’t have much luck on the shopping front in Rotterdam despite the abundance of appealing independent stores.
Pannekoekstraat was a lovely street of boutiques and cafes just a short walk away from the super commercial Blaak area.
Hutspot, which I suppose would be described in pretentious retailspeak as a “lifestyle concept store” offered a combination of tasteful clothes, design objects and local art from a mix of established brands and young designers and artists. The stuff wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t ridiculously expensive either and the store reminded me of a more grown up, more premium version of Urban Outfitters.
The flea market at Blaak Maarkt in the centre of Rotterdam was a complete let-down. Though I’d read online that it hosts all sorts of vendors selling food, textiles, plants and antiques, it ended up being 80% food and 20% everything else. There were only a handful of antique stands selling the sort of tat that I tend to seek out when visiting flea markets abroad and I struggled to find anything interesting on any of these stands to photograph for this blog entry, let alone to buy and take home.
1970s/1980s-looking apartment complex
Given that the majority of Rotterdam was destroyed in the 1940s, a lot of the residential architecture was the sort of interesting, debatably ugly post-war stuff that I like. I know nothing about this 1970s/1980s-looking apartment and retail complex built around a waterway but the design was interesting enough for us to stop and take notice – look at those pull-down canopies for the slanting balconies!
We spent the recent August bank holiday Monday visiting Turn End house and garden, the architect Peter Adlington’s family home in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire.
Peter Adlington designed and built a small development of three houses (The Turn, Middle Turn, Turn End) in the 1960s. They received a Royal Institute of British Architects Award for Architecture in 1970 followed by a Grade II* listing in 2006 and have been described as some of the most beautiful houses built in England since the war.
While Turn End is still occupied by the Adlington family (and open to nosy members of the public to visit twice a year), The Turn is currently let out and The Middle Turn is privately owned and occupied.
Turn End, as far as I could tell, was a mostly single storey dwelling arranged around a central courtyard. The main entrance opened almost straight into the kitchen and dining area from which the living area branched off at one end of the house and a large home office at the other. Each of these three areas opened out onto the aforementioned courtyard.
A very mid century wood panelled bathroom and three bedrooms were located behind the kitchen, accessed by a short flight of stairs. There also appeared to be a mezzanine level of sorts above both the living and home office areas, accessible via a wooden ladder.
Turn End, like all of my favourite modernist houses, had a distinctly European flavour. Certain elements, such as the wooden beams and mezzanine levels reminded me of Villa Aalto in Helsinki whilst the use of exposed stone, breeze blocks and terracotta floor and roof tiles were more Mediterranean in style. With temperatures reaching 33 degrees on the day that we visited, it felt like we were in Southern Spain at times.
This was particularly the case when walking around the garden, which at just under an acre, was rather large relative to the house. Designed by Peter Adlington as a natural extension to the house, the space contained courtyards with pools, a small woodland around old apple trees and a curved glade leading to a series of garden rooms. I would love for our rather sad-looking garden to look more like this.
Turn End is usually open for visitors twice a year but we were told that all three houses might be open next year as a special anniversary treat. If that’s the case, I’ll definitely be coming back.
I recently attended another 20th Century Society architectural tour, this time an almost ludicrously comprehensive perambulation of Span developments in Blackheath. The four-and-a-half hour tour took in the full range of Span housing types, of which there was a unexpectedly wide variety.
The Priory (1956), The Hall (1957), Spangate (1964) and Hallgate (1958) were examples of classic Eric Lyons-designed low-rise 1950s and 1960s apartment blocks, containing apartments filled with light (thanks to extensive glazing to the front and rear of each apartment) and looking/opening out onto perfectly maintained landscaped gardens.
I’ve previously been to view an apartment in Hallgate and while I admired the setting and the development (particularly the glazed open porches and that unusual sculpture), I wasn’t overly taken with the flat itself due to the slightly tired decor inside.
The two sympathetically modernised apartments that we given access to as part of this tour (one in The Priory and the other in The Hall) were far better examples, showcasing the features of these bright spaces to their full potential.
We were also shown around some classic 1950s and 1960s Eric Lyons developments made up of two-storey terraced houses, including The Lane (1964), The Keep (1957), Hall II (1958), Corner Green (1959) and The Plantation (1962). Like the apartments in his apartment blocks, Lyons’ houses were designed to maximise the qualities of light and space and to enhance the relationship between the buildings and the surrounding landscape. Care was taken to design and build houses around existing mature trees, supplemented with new planting and the creation of communal areas that encouraged residents to mix.
Some of the developments stood out as being particularly successful (for me, The Plantation and Corner Green, the latter of which was reportedly Eric Lyons’ favourite), due to their design and colour schemes coupled with the positioning of the houses around a large central open grassy space set back from the road.
Other developments, whilst equally well designed, felt slightly compromised by the size, shape and/or condition of the sites upon which they were built (the houses on The Lane, for instance, were built around a snaking tarmac drive whilst the grass and vegetation in The Keep looked like it could do with being watered in places).
There were some interesting outliers along the way. The Foxes Dale Houses (1957) were a trio of larger townhouses, unusually set over three storeys with a striking spiral staircase at their centre.
These houses had both paved gardens to the front and rear and a balcony screened by glass and roofed by a pergola on the first floor. House & Garden were enlisted at the time to decorate these houses in seemingly flamboyant mid century style, judging by these images from the publication at the time.
Designed with a more affluent customer in mind (House & Garden referred to an imaginary retired Royal Navy commander working at Greenwich, aged about 40, married, with a son of ten), the developers apparently had a tough time shifting these houses as they were too expensive for the area at the time, which seemed to put the developers off from building any further premium housing of this type in the area.
Southrow (1963) also had a slightly different look and feel.
This development, comprised of 10 two-storey maisonettes and 23 apartments set around a large rectangular quad with one side of the development and the communal roof terrace looking out onto the heath, was also seemingly built with a more affluent customer in mind.
The houses, one of which we were given access into, originally contained a pointlessly large upstairs landing area, which the owner of this house had sensibly converted into a third bedroom and the flats, one of which we also saw inside, were extremely generously sized and quadruple aspect, with striking views from every window.
The 13 sand coloured terraced houses on Hall IV (1967) were another outlier. These houses had a decidedly brutalist aesthetic not seen in any other of Eric Lyons’ estates in Blackheath.
The tour also took us to some post-Eric Lyons Span oddities from the late 1970s and 1980s, including Streetfield Mews (1984), Corner Keep (1979) and Birchmere (1982).
While the use of materials and certain design choices (a weird faux Medieval typeface on the signs, red-brown Brookside-style brick, circular windows) on these estates were typical of the era, other features (seclusion from the road, immaculate landscaping and extensive glazing) were classic Span.
Note: I am certainly no Span expert so may have mis-identified any number of estates pictured above – let me know if you spot any and I will amend accordingly!
I joined this RIBA walking tour last year which took me around the areas surrounding (but unfortunately not into) Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens.
The two social housing projects had been selected for the tour due to their contrasting fates: whilst Balfron Tower was undergoing a glamorous refurbishment at the time, Robin Hood Gardens was facing imminent demolition.
Balfron Tower was designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963 for the London County Council. Stylistically similar to the later Trellick Tower, Balfron Tower was Grade II* listed in 1996. The refurbishment works, undertaken as a joint partnership with luxury residential developer Londonewcastle, have been going on since 2011. All properties in the tower will be sold off once the refurbishment is done with none of them going back to the social housing tenants who lived there before.
Due to the refurbishment works, the tower had been wrapped in a rather Javacheff Christo-style chrysalis on the day of the tour so it wasn’t much to look at. We had to make do with Carradale House instead, an adjacent, lower rise 11-storey building designed by Goldfinger to complement the 26-storey tower. Carradale House building had a similar look and feel to Balfron Tower with the same sky bridges and access at every third floor.
While the tour didn’t extend to going inside either building, I understand that all flats in Carradale House have dual window aspect and large south facing balconies, letting in plenty of natural light, with natural wood panels on each side.
The above pictures of Goldfinger’s former flat in Balfron Tower, which designer Wayne Hemingway restored in 2014 as part of a National Trust exhibition on brutalism (I recall trying and failing to get tickets for this) give you an idea of what the flats in Balfron Tower and Carrdale House were/are like.
The next stop on the tour was Robin Hood Gardens, or rather the remaining sections of the estate that hadn’t yet been demolished.
Robin Hood Gardens was designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. It was built as a council housing estate consisting of two long curved blocks made of precast concrete slab blocks facing each other across a central green space.
The blocks contained 213 homes connected by broad aerial walkways on every third floor (so-called “streets in the sky”) which the architects hoped would encourage interaction between residents. In addition, alcoves called “pause spaces” were provided next to the entrance doorways on the “streets” which the architects hoped the residents would personalise and where children would play. The flats themselves were a mixture of single-storey apartments and two-storey maisonettes, with two to six bedrooms.
Unfortunately, it transpired over the years that the design of the estate was inherently flawed. The exposed concrete slab blocks weathered poorly and the location meant that the estate was cut off from its surroundings by roads, exacerbated by its inward-facing design. The “streets in the sky” and the pause places outside the doorways were not used by the residents for their intended purpose and only served to create numerous blind spots for muggers.
Visiting the remaining parts of the estate in person, it was still a very striking piece of architecture and I could see why so many renowned architects and heritage bodies campaigned against its demolition. However, it was also undeniably bleak. I was unsurprised to hear that the majority of the former residents – the people who actually had to live on the estate – supported its demolition.
In a slightly bizarre twist, the V&A Museum salvaged a large three-storey section of the estate, including the gutted interiors of a maisonette flat, sections of concrete stairway and part of an elevated walkway, on the grounds that the estate was a nationally important and internationally recognised work of Brutalist architecture. This was recently reconstructed for display in Venice.
The Dulwich artists’ Open House weekend allowed me to enjoy two of my favourite pastimes at once: shopping and nosing around other people’s mid century homes.
With the goal of finding a suitable artwork to hang on one of the bare walls in the hallway of our house, we set off around the map provided by the organisers. I’ll admit that I chose the places that we ended up visiting 40% based on the art (which I won’t even attempt to write about due to a lack of knowledge and appropriate vocabulary on my part – I’ll provide links to the artists’ websites instead) and 60% based on the house in which the art was being exhibited.
First on the agenda was Sarah Hamilton who was displaying her prints, painting and homewares in her Austin Vernon & Partners-designed house in Peckarmans Wood.
Built in 1963 and widely considered to be the finest of all the 1960s Dulwich houses, her house was one of the larger, two storey types with an upside-down layout (entry and living spaces on the ground floor, bedrooms on the lower lground floor with access to the garden), floor-to-ceiling windows, wooden panelling, pitched ceilings and elevated views over the communal grounds and towards the City.
Just further up the road were Victoria Kitchingman who was displaying her portrait-focussed oil and mixed media paintings and paintings, and Jo Lewis who was displaying her water-based paintings, in Woodsyre, another Austin Vernon & Partners-designed terrace of houses.
These houses were deceptively substantial, containing multiple, generously proportioned living areas (both artists had knocked through the original kitchen on the ground floor) and five bedrooms spread across four floors.
Both houses had panoramic views from the top of Sydenham Hill and access to an idyllic communal green at the bottom of the their beautifully manicured gardens.
Next on the list were The Fine Groove and Birgitta Pohl exhibiting intricate wood engravings and functional, decorative stoneware at a split-level maisonette which had the feeling of a house in Breakspeare, a sixties-looking development next to Sydenham Hill station.
Joy Godden and Charlie Loxley were exhibiting jewellery and children’s prints in a house in Lings Coppice, which had been reconfigured on the ground floor to create an open plan space with bi-folding doors opening out onto the garden.
Jim Grundy was exhibiting his rather stunning geometric abstract paintings at his classic sixties three-storey townhouse on Half Moon Lane.
Slightly further afield near Denmark Hill was Charlene Mullen displaying her embroidered scenic cushions and ceramics of London at her house in The Hamlet, a rather lovely development of 32 terraced houses arranged in a rectangular formation around a large communal green.
Built in 1967, it was reportedly architect Peter Moiret’s final project before he died so he was intent on designing something special. Split over three floors, the house was generously proportioned with an open-plan, very deluxe-looking kitchen on the ground floor with access to an exotic-looking garden and a split-level reception room on the first floor with a balcony at both ends.
Last on the itinerary were Emily Jo Gibbs and Fabio Almeida in Forest Hill. Emily Jo Gibbs was displaying her beautifully delicate hand-stitched textile portraits and still lifes in the classic three-storey sixties townhouse opposite the Horniman Museum that she grew up in.
Fabio Almeida’s abstract paintings and collages persuaded us to trek up that hill to the Grassmount development.
Like the townhouse in Grassmount that we viewed during our property search, Fabio Almeida’s house was generously proportioned and provided the perfect mid-century flavoured backdrop for his fantastic (and surprisingly accessibly priced) pieces.
Updated 27 April 2019
Four years after I visited St Bernard’s Close on one of those Open House days and moaned about how infrequently houses on the estate become available, a lovely example of a house has finally come up for sale via the Modern House.
I was actually given advance warning of this listing by the seller, who having seen my original blog entry, kindly gave me first dibs before putting it on the market but given that we’ve just bought and renovated a house, the timing obviously wasn’t quite right.
I remember being quite taken with the houses and the estate when I visited: St Bernards had a very tranquil, European/Swiss vibe to it (not dissimilar to Great Brownings, where we ended up buying) and was beautifully maintained.
The house that has come up for sale is in the sort of condition that I looked for when I was was searching for a mid century property in that it appears to have had some renovations over the years to prevent it from becoming a rundown relic but still has most of its original features intact. The price seems fair as well for a four-bedroom house (though note one of the bedrooms is that slightly odd, windowless “rumpus”).
I’m sure the house will make a wonderful home to another mid century enthusiast – I would advise anyone who is interested to move quickly because it will probably be at least another four years before another one of them becomes available.
15 September 2015
St Bernards, East Croydon CR0
Twenty-one houses, in three hillside terraces, built by Swiss architects Atelier 5 for Wates
Architect: Atelier 5
Year Built: 1969-70
I’ve never been a huge fan of Croydon but I would be willing to move there if I meant that I could live in one of these beautiful little houses.
St Bernards is a group of 21 houses set on three hillside terraces. The development was built by Wates in 1969-70 to a design by the Swiss architects Atelier 5.
I must say that this development didn’t look like all that much from the street. It had a flat roof, was seemingly all on one storey and there were rows and rows of identical dark timber doors, giving it the appearance of a stable block.
It became apparent, however, that this was all part of the design, which was intended to maximise privacy given the high density nature of the housing. Behind each stable-like door was a small enclosed garden with a pergola. There was an inner door to the house which led to a hall with a dining area and kitchen (lit by a skylight) to the left. Ahead was the living area with a balcony and views over woods and hills. On the right, a passage led to a cloakroom and narrow bedroom.
Downstairs (the houses were not one-storey after all), there were two further bedrooms (one of a decent size, the other a bit narrow), which both opened on to another small enclosed garden. There was also a bathroom, a bizarre, windowless ‘rumpus’ (a bunker to comply with Swiss standards) and utility room.
I was fortunate enough to see three different versions of the same house. The first, pictured here, was a beautiful and preserved example of the architect’s original design. I was particularly taken by the ground floor layout which was divided by various pieces of built-in furniture: standing in the dining area at the front of the house, you could look through the built-in open shelving into the kitchen, which opened on the other side into the living room and gardens beyond. The two smaller bedrooms were admittedly a bit corridor-like and the bunker room a bit weird but the overall design and layout more than made up for these shortcomings.
The other two houses had been extensively remodelled by their respective owners, who described ripping out all of the original features in order to replace them with contemporary features such as glass block walls, chrome handrails, halogen spotlights and mirrored mosaic tiling. I nodded politely even though I felt inwardly distressed.
In addition to the small private gardens, the development was surrounded by mature landscaped communal gardens.
I have no idea how much these houses are worth. Reportedly they only tend to come up for sale when someone dies so there’s little chance of me getting my hands on one even if market value is within my price range.
I recently attended a 20th Century Society walking tour around Elephant and Castle, taking in the various housing estates, the much maligned shopping centre and the interiors of Draper House and Metro Central Heights (aka Alexander Fleming House) by Ernö Goldfinger.
Seemingly one of the last areas in zone 1 to undergo complete regeneration, Elephant and Castle has (regrettably in my opinion) seen major change in recent years to revamp its down-at-heel, brutalist image. The 42-storey Strata tower (the one with that hideous fan thing on top) was completed in 2010, One The Elephant (another rather bland 37-storey tower) was completed in 2016 and a number of further new high rises have planning permission. The shopping centre, which has been scheduled for redevelopment for about 30 years, is apparently (finally) going to be demolished later this year.
This was where the the walking tour started. Designed by Boissevain & Osmond and opened in 1965, the shopping centre was one of the first US-style indoor shopping malls in Europe with enough space for over 100 retail units spread across on three levels surrounded by public space and incorporating the railway and tube stations. Unfortunately, it never really took off as a retail destination and fell into disrepair over the years. Walking around it on the tour, there were glimmers of the architects’ vision for a shopping centre of the future: light and airy concourses with daylight reaching deep into the building (not something that could be said of either Westfield shopping centres), neat design touches such the rainbow panelled ceiling, terrazzo marble flooring and striking red staircases.
Next on the tour was Draper House, a 25-storey tower forming part of the Draper Estate. Designed on 1958 and completed in 1963 under the principal housing architect HJ Whitfield Lewis, it was constructed with a reinforced concrete frame with pre-cast floor and cladding. We were invited in to walk across a striking if rather austere and prison-like walkway on one of the upper floors but unfortunately not inside any of the flats, which I understand to be spacious and split level in a lot of cases.
Other sights on the tour included the Lubetkin-designed Dorking House (unremarkable but for a great “1965” sign), the slightly overwhelming Symington House (a fortress of ice white and blue) and an strange pale-coloured structure (I’m not entirely sure what purpose it served – a communal seating area? Parking?) attached to a towerblock that looked an awful lot like La Villa Savoye in Poissy.
The last stop on the tour was Metro Central Heights (previously Alexander Fleming House), a vast concrete complex built between 1959 and 1967 by Hungarian-born modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger (also responsible for Trellik Tower). The multi-winged, multi-storey building (55 metres at its tallest point) housed the Department of Health and Social Security until 1989 after which it sat empty until 1997 when it was converted into around 400 residential apartments and renamed Metro Central Heights.
I’ve always had the impression that the conversion wasn’t particularly well executed: flats in the building that I’d seen online looked oddly proportioned and fitted with ugly late 90s kitchens and bathrooms inconsistent with the era of the building. In addition, while I can understand why they decided to freshen the original and very brutal concrete facade by painting over it, I’ve never liked the rather hospital-like white and blue colour scheme.
My negative impression of the building was mostly dispelled after the tour. The internal courtyard, with its unexpected Japanese garden was striking, the communal areas were well kept (the lift lobbies featured the original stained glass windows) and we were told that management has plans to paint the blue exterior panels a more appealing colour in the near future (the options were various shades of putty).
Unlike the ugly examples I’d previously seen online, the flat that we were invited in to see was light-filled and well-proportioned though the owner did concede that it took a while to find a flat in the building as good as this one. The Modern House currently has a similarly nice example for sale on its website.
Historical photos courtesy of a Google search…
64 Heath Drive, Romford RM2
Grade II listed modernist villa
Architect: Lubetkin & Tecton
Year built: 1934
My third and final Open House visit this year was to a stunning modernist villa all the way out in Romford, Essex. Amongst the first works of architects Lubetkin & Tecton (who went on to design iconic modernist estates such as Highpoint and Priory Green as well as the penguin enclosure in London Zoo), it won first prize in the Gidea Park Modern Homes Exhibition held in July-August 1934, costing only £900 to build.
64 Heath Drive, which was made out of painted reinforced concrete and had a flat roof, looked a bit incongruous on a street full of mock Tudor, pink cottages and stone water features. It was apparently designed to be one of a row of similar, low cost modernist houses that would give the impression of one long white wall but these houses were never built.
The house had an interesting L-shaped plan with all of its principal rooms (living room, dining room, bedrooms) and huge steel framed windows cleverly positioned to face into a stunning landscaped garden with a koi carp pond while the kitchen, original maid’s room and garage were positioned to look out onto the street. Upstairs, the master bedroom opened out onto a substantial terrace which was also accessible via a steel bridge and staircase from the garden.
Decor-wise, the current owner had clearly made a huge effort to restore the house to its former glory over the years (the living room was particularly stunning) and had made alterations that were sympathetic to the original design but admitted that the house was no museum to modernism – it was first and foremost a home that catered to the needs of his family and contained a hotpotch of styles and eras.
According to Zoopla, the house is worth between £700-850k, which seems entirely reasonable for a house of such architectural significance.
Isokon Lawn Road Flats
Architect: Wells Coates
Grade I listed modernist apartment block designed as a progressive experiment in new ways of urban living
Year Built: 1934
I previously visited the Isokon building and mini museum when I started doing this blog. I didn’t have access to the interior of the building so all I came away with were some rather lame iPhone 4s-quality photos of the exterior and the recreation of the kitchen and bathroom in the museum. My more recent trip as part of London’s Open House weekend, which involved a tour of the communal areas and a selection of the different types of flat in the building, was far more fruitful.
As I described in my previous blog entry, the building was designed by architect Wells Coates for Molly and Jack Pritchard as an experiment in minimalist urban living and consisted of 24 tiny standard-sizes studio flats, 8 one bedroom flats, a (now closed) kitchen and staff quarters and a large garage. The Pritchards lived in a one bedroom penthouse flat at the top with their two sons next door in a studio flat.
As part of the Open House tour, we were showed inside two examples of the standard studio flat and excitingly, the slightly larger-than-standard studio and penthouse on the top floor.
Upon entry into the building, I was struck by the elegantly modernist communal areas decorated with a cool grey, white and wooden colour scheme. The two standard-sized studios that we were shown were accessed via open walkways, which my partner said reminded him of the vast, bog standard council estates typical in his home town (I disagreed).
The standard-sized studio flats were very small indeed (we were told that current regulations would prohibit flats of that size being built nowadays) but were well designed, with their original built-in and cordoned off kitchen and bathroom areas intact. We were told that these flats were sold on a shared ownership basis for £95k in 2003.
The studio flat on the top floor (originally inhabited by the Pritchards’ sons but now owned by someone capable of living a very minimalist lifestyle with almost no possessions) was more generously proportioned.
However, it was the penthouse which had (for want of a better expression) the wow factor. Clad almost entirely in plywood (both the walls and the floor), it had a separate bedroom and large living room which opened out onto an enormous terrace.
The penthouse, which I’d previously seen featured in the Evening Standard, is currently owned by the founder of aspirational Scandi furniture store Skandium and so was beautifully furnished with a mixture of furnishings and design objects appropriate to the era of the building.
I have no idea how much something as special as the penthouse would cost but one bedroom flats and studios have come onto the market before and sold for between £500-600k, which I think is a fair price for living in such a stunning Grade I-listed piece of architectural history in a very nice area of North London.