Category: Travel

Palm Springs houses

We saw a wealth of amazing mid century modern houses during our stay in Palm Springs – every other street seemed to be lined with sleek, modern, typically one-storey homes in the desert modernist style.

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Residential street in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood lined with desert modernist houses

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Desert modernist houses in the Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood

Characterised by a low-rise profile, an abundance of glazing, clean lines, streamlined floorplans, sliding glass doors and decorative screening walls (or “brise soleil”) connecting indoor and outdoor spaces and the use of natural and manufactured resources, the desert modernist aesthetic was dictated by the realities of desert living and the intense climate.

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Desert modernist houses in the Vistas las Palmas neighbourhood

A key player in the desert modernism movement was George and Robert Alexander’s building company, which was responsible for building more than 2,000 homes in Palm Springs throughout the 50s and early 60s. The Alexander building company worked with a range of architects including Donald Wexler, William Krisel and Dan Palmer to build modern-style tract homes that were affordable and could be produced efficiently – one of the tricks that they used was to build whole neighbourhoods of homes with near-identical floor plans but then switching up the houses’ rooflines and front finishes and flipping and/or rotating the houses on their respective lots to make neighbourhoods look like a collection of custom built homes.

Racquet Club Road Estates

The house that we stayed in (an Airbnb find) was a nice example of a sympathetically restored 1959 Alexander-built home in the Racquet Club Estates Road neighbourhood.

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, exterior

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, internal courtyard walled by brise soleil

The single-storey house was around 115 sq m in size and contained an internal courtyard walled by brise soleil past the front gate, an open-plan kitchen and living area opening onto the pool and garden, three bedrooms and two bathrooms (with one of these bedrooms and bathrooms also opening out directly into the garden).

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, open plan living area

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, master bedroom detail and entrance hall

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, open plan living area and entrance hall

Designed as a weekend/vacation getaway (single pane glass, no insulation), the house was relatively modest in size but the open floor plan, lofty wood beam ceilings, interaction between indoor and outdoor spaces and ratio of house size to lot size made the house feel quite spacious.

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, open plan living area

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, second bedroom

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, fireplace in open plan living area

The decor was a slightly utilitarian take on mid century modern with white walls, polished concrete floors and a number of understated design classic pieces of furniture. Slightly dodgy early 00s kitchen and bathrooms aside, I loved the house and was sorry when the time came for us to leave.

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, garden and pool

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House in Racquet Club Road Estates neighbourhood, garden and pool

I’m not certain of the value of the property but if I were to take a guess based on the other houses we saw (and how much we were told they were worth), I would guess that this house was worth between $700-800k.

Green Fairways

In order to have a nose around some other mid century modern houses, we joined an excellent interiors-focussed tour. The first of the houses that we were shown around was another Alexander-built home designed by Donald Wrexler in the mid 1960s and located in the Green Fairways development on the east side of town.

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, exterior

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, front door detail

At 165 sq metres, this house was larger and a bit flashier architecturally than the one we were staying in. Its facade was visually striking: wider at the base, sloping up to the roofline and featuring a lot of Hawaiian/tiki-inspired desert rock stonework, mimicking the mountain range backdrop behind the house.

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, glass corridor entrance hall

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, entrance hall leading into sunken living room

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The house was divided down its centre into a “public wing” containing a sunken living room and kitchen and “private wing” containing the bedrooms and bathrooms. The two wings were separated by a glass corridor which also served as an entrance hall and opened to the rear onto the garden with views of the golf course and very large swimming pool.

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, master bedroom

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, fireplace and shower detail

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, second bedroom

Renovated between 2008-2012, the owners had decorated in a style referred to by our guide as “martini modernism”, which I interpreted to mean a slightly more “bling” take on mid century modern (heavily polished bright white floors, colourful furniture and shiny countertops).

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, garden and swimming pool

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House in Green Fairways neighbourhood, garden and swimming pool

One thing that we noticed on this tour was the slightly exhibitionist tendency for the walk-in showers in these houses to have a completely transparent glass wall (sometimes that actually opened as a door) to the garden or an internal courtyard.

I think I recall that the house was valued at around $850k.

Twin Palms

The second house on the interiors-focussed tour was a newer house in built in 2009 but based on a 1957 Bill Krisel design, which the house builders licensed in 2006. This house was located in the Twin Palms neighbourhood which got its name from the two palm trees that the developers planted in each lot.

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, exterior

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, entrance to house

Noticeably more spacious and “chunkier” in build than either of the two preceding houses (modern standards required the builders to incorporate an additional layer of insulation into the walls and ceilings), the house did still bear all of the hallmarks of classic desert modernism.

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, living area

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, living area and kitchen

The living space was spread out over a very large open-plan living area which faced out onto the pool and garden (which also contained an entirely separate guest house/pool house/granny annex) and private living spaces consisting of three bedrooms and two bathrooms (of which the ensuite featured the obligatory glass-walled shower facing out into the garden).

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, master bedroom

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, guest house/pool house/granny annex

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, swimming pool and garden

The decor was a rather glamorous/old Hollywood spin on mid century modernism, kind of what I imagine Joan Crawford might have lived in near the end of her life in the 60s.

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, front door and detail in study

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House in Twin Palms neighbourhood, living area and kitchen

The house was valued at around $1-1.2million.

Desert Star

The third and final home we were shown around on the interiors-focussed tour was in the Desert Star complex.

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Desert Star complex, exterior 

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Desert Star complex, exterior and signage

Situated in the south end of town amid other hotel and motel complexes, the Desert Star complex was built in 1954 by Howard Lapham as an extended stay motel consisting of seven units surrounding a shared pool. The building is now a Class One site with a protected exterior (though the extent to which the architecture in Palm Springs is not protected by this Class/grading system shocked me), featuring a “colliding” roofline (note how the two roof panels do not meet at the apex in the photo below), which was built at a height which would make it look like the mountains behind were resting on the roof of building.

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Desert Star unit, interior

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Desert Star unit, living area

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Desert Star unit, kitchen

The property that formed part of the tour was the largest unit in the complex, the site of the original motel entrance. This property, like the others, had an open plan kitchen and living area which opened onto the communal yard and pool but the owners of this house had also opened up the back wall (along which the bedrooms and bathrooms ran along) so that these rooms would also have access to outdoor space (on this side, a private patio).

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Desert Star unit, corridor, master bedroom and bathroom

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Desert Star unit, living area

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Desert Star unit, communal yard and pool

We were also shown one of the studio units, which I remember almost booking as a cheaper alternative to the house in the Racquet Club Road Estates that we ended up staying in. I understand that one of these units is currently for sale.

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Desert Star unit, communal pool

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Desert Star studio unit

Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway

Situated in the very glamorous Vistas Las Palmas neighbourhood, home to Hollywood stars past and present (Leonardo DiCaprio has a house around the corner which he uses once a year for the Coachella festival), this house was hailed by Look magazine as the “House of Tomorrow” when it was designed by William Krisel for Robert Alexander (of the Alexander building company) and his wife in 1962.

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, exterior

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, entrance 

The Alexanders lived in the house until their tragic death in a plane crash in 1965 and Elvis briefly leased the house in 1966 and lived there with his wife, Priscilla after their wedding in 1967, carrying her over the threshold and up the rather gaudy staircase. In 1987, the house came into the possession of the current owner, Leonard Lewis, who furnished the house with Elvis memorabilia and opened the house to public tours (one of which we attended) and Elvis-themed events.

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, circular living room with circular hearth in centre

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, circular kitchen

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, swimming pool (same shape as the roof of the house)

The dominating feature of this house from street was the multi-angled glass window floating beneath a bat-winged roofline. Spanning three floors and 465 square metres, the interior was divided into four large circles that gave way to unusually proportioned spaces including a circular living room with a circular hearth and an octagonal-shaped bedroom featuring the aforementioned multi-angled window.

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, hallway and staircase

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, octagonal bedroom

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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, master bathroom

I can’t say that I liked this house much though this may have had more to do with the way in which it had been decorated (as a kitschy shrine to Elvis) and its state of slight disrepair than the design itself. We were, however, lucky to attend the Elvis-themed tour given that the house is currently on the market for an asking price of $2.7million having been reduced from the original more ambitious asking price of $9.5million three years ago.

Other houses

Other houses that we passed but didn’t go into included the Kaufman House designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 (recently listed for sale for $15million and the backdrop of that famous photo of those 1960s socialites sitting in front of a pool hanging in the house that we stayed in) and the neat Indian Canyons neighbourhood.

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Kaufman House

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Indian Canyons neighbourhood

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House in Indian Canyons neighbourhood

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House in Old Las Palmas neighbourhood

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House on the hill, Little Tuscany

 

Modernist Pilgrimage to Palm Springs

Having dreamed about visiting Palm Springs since I started this blog over five years ago, I finally made the (modernist) pilgrimage over there at the end of November.

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It was exactly as I’d pictured it: a beautiful enclave of mid century modern style and architecture set against a stunning desert backdrop of palm trees and rocky mountains where 40,000 out of the 48,000 homes have a swimming pool, sprinklers constantly mist perfectly manicured green lawns and even the local banks and petrol stations were designed by major mid century architects and look like something out of a David Hockney painting.

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Despite the fact that Palm Springs has a reputation for being a laid back, leisurely sort of place, it’s fair to say that I didn’t really relax the entire time we were there, choosing instead to run about, feverishly taking pictures of everything in sight. Blog entries on the houses, public buildings, hotels, shops and the legendary Sunnylands estate featuring a selection of the resulting photos will follow in the coming weeks.

Modernist pilgrimage to Rotterdam

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

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.

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Sonnenveld Huis, exterior

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).

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Sonnenveld Huis, exterior – terraces

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Sonnenveld Huis, exterior – balconies and external door detail

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Sonnenveld Huis, exterior – garden

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Sonneveld Huis, interior door and wall-mounted climate control unit

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.

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Sonnenveld Huis, servants’ quarters

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Sonnenveld Huis, the daughters’ studio room

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Sonnenveld Huis, the daughters’ studio room – built-in seating with speaker embedded into the side

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.

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Sonnenveld Huis, main central staircase

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Sonnenveld Huis, kitchen

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Sonnenveld Huis, serving hatch in dining room

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).

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Sonnenveld Huis, dining room

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Sonnenveld Huis, looking back into dining room from living room and sliding partition wall

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Sonnenveld Huis, living room

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Sonnenveld Huis, living room – library area

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.

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Sonnenveld Huis, main staircase on first floor and view from second floor landing into guest bedroom and linen room

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Sonnenveld Huis, guest bedroom

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Sonnenveld Huis, first daughter’s bedroom and shared bathroom looking through into second daughter’s bedroom

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Sonnenveld Huis, second daughter’s bedroom

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.

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Sonnenveld Huis, master bedroom – wraparound terrace

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Sonnenveld Huis, master bedroom furniture and separate dressing room

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Sonnenveld Huis, master bedroom – vanity unit

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Sonnenveld Huis, master bedroom ensuite

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.

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Sonnenveld Huis, roof

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Sonnenveld Huis, curved bronze wall in living room

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!

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Sonnenveld Huis, exterior from the street

Chabot Huis

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.

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Chabot Huis, exterior

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.

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Chabot Huis, exterior

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Chabot Huis, interior shots found online

Cube Houses

The much photographed yellow Cube houses were an intriguing oddity; more interesting than actually impressive.

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Cube houses, exterior 

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.

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Cube houses, exterior – staircase up to one of the residential properties

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Cube houses, exterior 

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.

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Cube houses, show cube interior – living room

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Cube houses, show cube interior – first floor landing

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.

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Cube houses, show cube interior – study

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Cube houses, show cube interior – built-in storage

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Cube houses, show cube interior – bedroom

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.

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Cube houses, show cube interior – apex room

Shopping

I didn’t have much luck on the shopping front in Rotterdam despite the abundance of appealing independent stores.

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Shopping – Pannekoekstraat

Pannekoekstraat was a lovely street of boutiques and cafes just a short walk away from the super commercial Blaak area.

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Shopping – shops on Pannekoekstraat

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.

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Shopping – outside Hutspot

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Shopping – inside Hutspot

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Shopping – inside Hutspot 

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Shopping – inside Hutspot 

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.

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Shopping – flea market stalls at Blaak Markt

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!

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1970s/1980s-looking apartment complex, exterior

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1970s/1980s-looking apartment complex, exterior

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1970s/1980s-looking apartment complex, exterior

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives

We recently visited St Ives in Cornwall, home to Tate St Ives (which contained a pleasingly large collection of mid century art by well known figures connected to the area, including Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo and Paule Vézelay) and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

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Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, exterior

The museum, a fairly unremarkable stone-built house, preserved the iconic 20th-century sculptor’s studio as it was when she lived and worked there from 1949 until her rather grisly death in 1975 when one of her cigarettes started a fire on the premises. The house was turned into a museum by her family in 1976 and has been managed by the Tate since 1980.

The ground floor housed an information centre while the whole of the upper floor comprised her light-filled living room, which was furnished as she left it (sparsely, with lots of her favourite sculptures on display).

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Barbara Hepworth’s living room

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Sculptures in Barbara Hepworth’s living room

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Barbara Hepworth’s living room

The living room opened out onto the raised yet secluded garden, which was beautifully landscaped, thanks to the efforts of South African-born composer Priaulx Rainier.

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Barbara Hepworth’s garden

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Barbara Hepworth’s garden

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Barbara Hepworth’s garden

The garden contained some of the larger of her favourite sculptures, a greenhouse and her workshop, full of her tools and equipment, materials, and part-worked pieces.

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Greenhouse in Barbara Hepworth’s garden

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Barbara Hepworth’s workshop

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Barbara Hepworth’s workshop

I would definitely recommend visiting the museum to anyone remotely interested in mid century sculpture given that it contains the largest collection of Barbara Hepworth’s works on permanent display in a setting that gives a bit of an insight into how she lived and worked.

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Sculptures in Barbara Hepworth’s garden

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Sculptures in Barbara Hepworth’s garden

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Sculpture in Barbara Hepworth’s garden

Turn End house and garden

We spent the recent August bank holiday Monday visiting Turn End house and garden, the architect Peter Adlington’s family home in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire.

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Turn End house, view from back garden

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.

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Middle Turn exterior

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Path leading into Turn End house; Fibreglass shell chairs in front courtyard

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.

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Turn End house exterior details

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Turn End house, view from back garden 

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.

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View from entrance of Turn End house, looking through into central kitchen and courtyard (professionally taken photo from Turn End website)

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Central courtyard, Turn End house

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Kitchen, Turn End house

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.

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Bedroom, Turn End house

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Bedroom, Turn End house

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Bedroom/Study, Turn End House

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Bathroom, Turn End house

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.

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Living area, Turn End house

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Living area, Turn End house

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Mezzanine area above home office area

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.

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Garden, Turn End house

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Garden, Turn End house

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Garden, Turn End house

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.

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

Modernist pilgrimage to Brussels

I had a day and a bit of free time in Brussels tacked on the end of a business trip so I decided to use it doing three of my usual pastimes: rummaging through tat at a flea market, taking photos around a brutalist building and looking at (but not buying any) mid century modern furniture.

Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

Established in 1854 and reportedly the only antique and flea market in the world open every day of year, the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market was fully of pretty good tat compared to flea markets I’ve visited in Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki, New York and San Francisco.

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The market was made up of stall after stall of miscellaneous objects, sometimes strewn out on blankets and sheets or crammed into cardboard boxes, ranging from antique to 20th century porcelain, pictures, pottery, fabric, clothes and furniture. Even though the market was limited to professional dealers, it had an informal yet organised junkyard feel to it, which I liked.

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Prices were about average for a European flea market but in retrospect, I was massively ripped off with my first purchase – a bust, which I liked the look of but was clearly complete junk and totally not worth what I paid for it (I found remnants of a “Made In” sticker when I got it home). I went on both Friday and Saturday – apparently dealers tend to replenish their stock on Thursdays and Fridays but Saturday had a livelier feel with more stalls.

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Westrand Cultural Centre

Although the exterior of the Westrand cultural centre was interesting enough (concrete punctuated with panels of bright colour), the interior really was something else.

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Sort of like the Hayward Gallery in London but on smaller scale and a lot weirder, it was filled with concrete indoor landscaping which appeared to serve no actual purpose other than to provoke and confuse. A section on the lower floor was particularly installation-like, resembling a drained water feature crossed with a child’s adventure playground.

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The sense of strangeness was heightened by unexpected inclines, circular openings in the concrete (which didn’t really lead anywhere) and the fact that the whole building was almost completely deserted – there wasn’t exactly a buzzing programme of cultural events on that day.

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I did eventually find signs of life in the building – the easterly end housed a pleasingly designed public library and the westerly part contained a pleasant enough informal bar and restaurant.

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Dandelion, Rue de la Victoire 184

There seemed to be a real appetite for high end mid century modern furniture in Brussels with antique stores on practically every shopping street selling the stuff, usually piled high and at prohibitive prices.

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Dandelion stood out from all of the other antique stores due to the quality and condition of its pieces (each piece had been expertly restored by the owner before being put up for sale), the uncluttered presentation of the pieces on the shop floor (small but unpretentious) and the reasonableness of the pricing (substantial items of furniture such as desks, sideboards and armchairs were priced between €250-350).

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The depth of the owner’s passion for mid century modern furniture and design really came across in the selection of pieces for sale and his knowledge about each piece – whilst there were some classic items that I recognised, others were more obscure, made by European designers that I hadn’t come across.

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I was particularly taken by a compact black and teak 1960s Pierre Guarriche desk, beautifully restored and priced at a rather unbelievable €250 (a similar one is priced at in Panamo at €900). I would definitely have bought it for my new study were it not for the fact that the shop didn’t do or arrange for deliveries overseas.

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…

Modernist pilgrimage to Taipei

Taipei had some great brutalist architecture and was clearly quite a design-centric city with some great independent stores selling beautiful objects at decent prices in the Datong district (the areas around Dihua Street and Zhongshan metro station in particular). I wish we’d had longer than a day and a half to explore.

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