Category: Open House

Span Blackheath 20th Century Society Tour

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.

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The Priory (1956)

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The Priory (1956)

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Spangate (1964)

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.

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The Hall (1957)

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The Hall (1957)

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The Hall (1957), detail

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Hallgate (1958)

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Hallgate (1958), detail

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. 

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The Priory (1956), interior of first floor apartment

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The Priory (1956), interior of first floor apartment

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The Priory (1956), interior of first floor apartment

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The Priory (1956), interior of first floor apartment

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.

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The Hall (1957), interior of ground floor apartment

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The Hall (1957), interior of ground floor apartment

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The Hall (1957), interior of ground floor apartment

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The Hall (1957), interior of ground floor apartment

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.

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Hall II (1958)

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Hall II (1958)

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Hall II (1958)

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.

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The Plantation (1962)

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The Plantation (1962)

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Corner Green (1959)

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Corner Green (1959)

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).

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The Lane (1964)

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The Keep (1957)

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The Keep (1957)

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.

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Foxes Dale House (1957), exterior and back (photo from House & Garden)

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Foxes Dale House (1957), interior views (photos from House & Garden)

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.  

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Foxes Dale House (1957), interior views (photos from House & Garden)

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Foxes Dale House (1957), interior views (photos from House & Garden)

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.

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Foxes Dale House (1957), exterior and interior views (photos from House & Garden)

Southrow (1963) also had a slightly different look and feel.

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Southrow (1963)

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Southrow (1963)

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Southrow (1963), view from roof terrace

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.

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Southrow (1963), communal areas

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Southrow (1963), roof terrace

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Southrow (1963), communal areas

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.

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Southrow (1963), interior of Type Q maisonette

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Southrow (1963), interior of Type Q maisonette

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Southrow (1963), interior of second floor apartment

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Southrow (1963), interior of second floor apartment

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Southrow (1963), interior of second floor apartment

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.

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Hall IV ((1967)

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Hall IV ((1967)

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).

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Corner Keep (1979)

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Streetfield Mews (1984)

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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! 

Concrete Futures architecture walking tour

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.

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Robin Hood Gardens, photo courtesy of Neil Clasper Photography

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.

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Balfron Tower, photo courtesy of Dezeen

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Carradale House, photo courtesy of Architects Journal

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Interior of a flat in Robin Hood Gardens (Sandra Lousada, 1972 © The Smithson Family Collection) courtesy of Municipal Dreams

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.

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Streets in the sky, Robin Hood Gardens

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.

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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.

Section of Robin Hood Gardens on display in Venice

Dulwich Artists Open House

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.

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(from L-R, starting with top row) works by: Charlene Mullen, Sarah Hamilton, Emily Jo Gibbs, Jo Lewis, Fabio Almeida, Victoria Kitchingman, The Fine Groove, Jim Grundy and Birgitta Pohl

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.

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Peckarmans Wood – exterior and grounds

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.

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Peckarmans Wood, interior (Sarah Hamilton)

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.

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Woodsyre, interior (Victoria Kitchingman)

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.

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Woodsyre, interior (Jo Lewis)

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.

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Woodsyre, garden (Jo Lewis)

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.

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Breakspeare (The Fine Groove and Birgitta Pohl)

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.

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Ling’s Coppice, interior (Joy Godden and Charlie Loxley)

Jim Grundy was exhibiting his rather stunning geometric abstract paintings at his classic sixties three-storey townhouse on Half Moon Lane.

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Half Moon Lane (Jim Grundy)

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.

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The Hamlet, exterior (Charlene Mullen)

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The Hamlet, exterior (Charlene Mullen)

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.

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The Hamlet, interior (Charlene Mullen)

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.

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Tarleton Gardens, interior (Emily Jo Gibbs)

Fabio Almeida’s abstract paintings and collages persuaded us to trek up that hill to the Grassmount development.

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Grassmount, interior (Fabio Almeida)

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.

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Grassmount, interior (Fabio Almeida)

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Grassmount, interior (Fabio Almeida)

St Bernards Houses, East Croydon, CRO

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.

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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.

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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.

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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”).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Elephant and Castle 20th Century Society Tour

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.

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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.

Alexander Fleming House, as it was

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.

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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).

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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According to Zoopla, the house is worth between £700-850k, which seems entirely reasonable for a house of such architectural significance.

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Isokon Lawn Road Flats, NW3

Isokon Lawn Road Flats
London NW3
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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lambert Jones Mews, The Barbican EC2

Lambert Jones Mews, The Barbican EC2
Four bedroom family home on the Barbican Estate
Architect: Chamberlain Powell & Bon
Year built: 1974

I have come to terms with the fact that I am very unlikely to fulfil my dream of living on the Barbican estate in my lifetime: given my current situation, the studios and one bedroom flats are too small and anything larger than that is either bad value for money (the average price for a two bedroom flat appears to be around £850-900k) or just completely unaffordable.

The Lambert Jones mews houses are definitely an example of the latter so when I saw that one of the houses was open to the public as part of Open House this year, I seized the chance to have a nose around a house completely out of my reach.

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The house, one of only eight on the entire estate, was accessed via a residents’ stairwell and private cobbled street (apparently designed to resemble fashionable West End mews housing) usually sealed off to members of the public.

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The ground floor contained two bedrooms, one of which had direct access to the residents’ gardens, a bathroom, the integral garage which the owners had converted into a further bedroom and the main reception room which had a double height ceiling and window overlooking the gardens.

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An open tread iroko staircase led upstairs to a galleried dining area (from which you could look down over the main reception room), a second bathroom, the master bedroom with some nice views over the gardens, the kitchen and another bedroom, both of which had double height ceilings and led out onto a small balcony. From here, a further flight of external steps led up to a private roof terrace which was connected by a communal walkway to the roof terraces of the neighbouring houses and looked out over the residents’ gardens and the Barbican Centre.

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The house was full of the details associated with Barbican properties: sliding partition doors separating living and sleeping areas, strategically placed windows, exposed concrete and brickwork, that handy cupboard by the front door for storage, postal deliveries and rubbish collection and all of the original plug, light and switch fittings. While there was a lack of light (perhaps due to these houses being slightly walled in by the rest of the estate?) and the (possibly Mondrian-inspired?) colour scheme and refitted kitchen and bathrooms weren’t all to my taste, this was a very special, rare house and clearly one of the most prestigious residences on the estate. 

As one of the owners put it, Barbican residents often progress through a “Barbican food chain” from studio flat to one-bedroom flat to two-bedroom flat to three-bedroom flat in one of the towers and then if really fortunate, to one of these four bedroom mews houses at the very top of the chain (!).

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The Lambert Jones mews houses do occasionally come up for sale. This more neutrally decorated example was sold for £2.5 million earlier this year.

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The Homewood, Esher, KT10

The Homewood
National Trust modernist country house and garden
Architect: Patrick Gwynne
Year built: 1938

Built in the 1930s by architect Patrick Gwynne, the Homewood is a modernist masterpiece of a house surrounded by a picturesque woodland garden in affluent Esher, Surrey. The architect lived there on and off from its completion until his death in 2003 – his friends described the house as the great love of his life, presumably over and above his actual human partners. Sometime before he died, he bequeathed it to the National Trust on the condition that a family would live in it and that it would be open to the public for one day a week for six months of the year.

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I’d wanted to visit for ages so I felt particularly aggrieved when I was struck down with some kind of mystery illness on the day of my pre-booked National Trust tour. Determined not to let a bit of nausea get in the way of my visit, I somehow managed to haul myself there and get through the majority of the very informative if rather militantly run house tour (no photography, no shoes and unfortunately for me on the day, absolutely no sitting down anywhere). Despite seeing everything through a fug of sickness, I found the house and the gardens to be absolutely breathtaking.

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Like all great modernist architecture and design from the 1930s, the house and its furnishings seemed incredibly contemporary. The exterior was all modernist lines (the upper floor was partially supported by stilts – one of my favourite modernist design features), industrial materials and lots of glazing.

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Inside, the space felt largely open plan, with living areas marked out by sliding partitions and furniture arrangement. The obvious highlight of the house was the spectacular living area on the first floor, spanning the entire length of the house and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto that woodland garden.

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At one point during the visit, we encountered the tenant currently living in the house, as per the architect’s wishes. Though the tenant was clearly grateful for the opportunity to live somewhere so spectacular, some of his comments suggested that living in a National Trust period piece of a house had its disadvantages, namely having to keep everything exactly as is, no mod-cons, poor insulation during the winter and having complete strangers trample through your home every other weekend for a couple of months of the year.

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Unfortunately, that was the point that I had to bail, my nausea depriving me of the opportunity to poke around the upstairs bedrooms, bathrooms and gardens: I will certainly be returning to complete my visit before the summer is over.

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Interior photos courtesy of Dennis Gilbert/The National Trust and midcenturyhome.com

19 Limekiln Lane, Bridlington YO15

19 Limekiln Lane, Bridlington
1950s modernist house
Architect: Tim French
Year built: 1954

I stumbled across this Airbnb listing a couple of months ago and decided there and then that I’d quite like to celebrate turning 30 by staying at an amazing-looking modernist house by the seaside, choosing to ignore the fact that the house was about 7 hours away up north in Bridlington, East Yorkshire and my birthday is in freezing November.

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Whilst the journey from London did prove to be a bit harrowing and Bridlington did turn out to be a ghost town in winter (it is, after all, a sleepy coastal town whose prime trade is tourism during the summer months), the experience of staying at 19 Limekiln Lane felt like being given an Open House-style architectural tour of my dream 1950s home and then actually being allowed to live in it for a couple of days (i.e. amazing and well worth the effort).

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The original owner who commissioned the house apparently made no restrictions as to the design, stipulating only that it should be modern and that it should exploit the coastal views. The house, which was completed in 1954, certainly succeeded on these two fronts: its striking mid century modern design featured a double-height floor to ceiling glass panel on its front facade, which provided for dramatic views of the coastline and let a lot of natural light into the the house. Other classic mid-century modern design features included a butterfly roof, a lot of natural wood on the walls and ceilings, a striking open staircase and some great built-in furniture (the downstairs dining table speared by the steel column running from the top of the house to the bottom was a particularly appealing design feature).

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Upon entering the house, you were greeted by that staircase in the double-height hallway which flowed through into an open plan dining area (containing the aforementioned dining table) and appropriately refitted kitchen. A door off the hallway led to two of the bedrooms and the bathroom featuring a vivid green three piece suite, which whilst attractive, reminded me of that terrifying bathroom scene in The Shining.

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Upstairs, there was a large living area with a wood burning stove, a sunroom/studio space and a third bedroom along with a rooftop balcony, all with views across the bay to Flamborough Head and out onto the charming, mature garden which contained outbuildings and a little greenhouse.

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The furnishings were mainly original vintage pieces, complemented by modern touches (a throw, armchair or artwork here and there) which meant that the house stayed on the right side of retro pastiche. Considering the fact it was freezing outside and the house was mainly single-glazed, it was pleasingly toasty with the heating on – mercifully, the original hot air heating system (bafflingly popular at time that the house was built) had been replaced with modern gas central heating.

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I was surprised at how quickly I became accustomed to my beautifully designed and decorated surroundings and was sorry when the time came for me to hand back the keys. I learned from a bit of online research that the house was worth around £235k when the current owner bought the house ten years ago and the estimated current value is around £290k, which I found difficult to believe considering just how little that figure would buy you anywhere near London (I’ve just looked – it will buy you a one bedroom flat in Sutton, Zone 6). Whilst I’m not sure a move to Bridlington is on the cards for me anytime soon, I really enjoyed my stay and couldn’t think of a better or more fitting place to spend my 30th.

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