I’ve been attending Open House weekend for a couple of years now so I’ve seen the most of the modernist estates that usually form part of the programme. I was therefore pleased to be able to visit Vanbrugh Park Estate this year, which for some reason has never come up on my itinerary.
Vanbrugh Park Estate was built in 1962 and designed by the renowned architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon responsible for the better known and more celebrated Barbican and Golden Lane estates. Set on seven acres of land bordering Greenwich Park, Vanbrugh Park Estate comprises a mixture of dwelling types: an eight-storey tower block containing 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes arranged over garages.
Like many parts of London which now contain modernist architecture built in the 1960s, the area, mostly renowned for large period villas, was bombed during the Second World War and was in need of new housing. As such, careful consideration was taken by the architects when building the new housing to respect the surrounding areas, including the blind-wall terraces that were intended to reflect Greenwich Park’s own wall using similar brickwork. In addition, simple but functional materials (such as the breeze block facades) were used to save on costs so that more could be spent on landscaping communal areas, giving the estate a more utilitarian than luxurious feel – more Golden Lane than Barbican, if you will.
Two properties were open when I visited. The first was one of the maisonettes over the garage blocks. The apartment was reached via a communal walkway and comprised a conservatory-like entrance area, kitchen, living/dining area, bathroom and two bedrooms. The owners were clearly architecture and design enthusiasts and had restored a number of original features in the apartment including the wood panelling, black vinyl floor tiles and fireplace in the centre of the living area.
The second property was one of the low-rise terraced houses. Set over three floors, the entrance of the house opened onto a semi-open plan living, dining and kitchen area with stairs down to a bedroom and the garden and stairs up to two further bedrooms and a bathroom. There wasn’t much left in the way of original features in this house (the central fireplace had been removed and that bannister is definitely not original) but it was deceptively spacious and still architecturally interesting.
Next on the 2021 Open House itinerary was Ethelburga Tower, a 1960s 17-storey concrete framed block of flats near Battersea Park designed by the LCC Architects Dept with Ove Arup & Partners as consulting engineers.
The block was built to accommodate 98 homes: 32 split-level maisonettes on the east and west sides of the building and 17 one bedroom single level flats and 17 two bedroom flats single level flats on the south side.
The decision to have landings on odd floors, opening onto double height access galleries (with flats on the “mezzanine” floors reached by the staircase) added a bit of interest to the architecture.
The first residents moved into the block in 1967 with council tenants buying up flats under the government’s “right to buy” legislation from the 1980s onwards.
In 2009, Mark Cowper, a photographer who was living in Ethelburga Tower at the time, staged an exhibition of photographs at the Geffrye Museum (now the Museum of the Home) of individual living rooms in Ethelburga Tower, which highlighted how differently each resident had decorated their flat.
Despite not being part of the official Open House programme (only the corridors and communal areas were open to the public), an owner of one of the split-level maisonettes kindly let me have a nose around as I was passing by.
The flat was in the same configuration as those featured in Mark Cowper’s project with an entrance hall opening onto the living room with glass-panelled door leading onto a small balcony and adjoining kitchen on the lower floor and a staircase leading up to two bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floor. There was also a cupboard on the upstairs landing containing a fire escape staircase leading to the roof (though I may have misheard this).
This year’s Open House weekend included access to Walters Way, a close of 13 self-built houses on a sloping, tree filled site (not unlike Great Brownings) in South East London.
Each house on the close was built in the 1980s using a method developed by Walter Segal, the celebrated Swiss architect. This method involved the use of a modular, timber-frame system reminiscent of 19th-century American houses or traditional Japanese architecture.
Although the houses were all built using the same method of construction, the houses were designed with flexibility and individuality in mind. Unlike Great Brownings, where homeowners are required to ensure that their house looks the same as all of the others on the estate, I was struck by the way in which all of the houses on Walter’s Way were unique in both style and configuration (most of having been adapted and extended since they were built).
We were invited to have a nose around two of the houses on the estate, which timber walls and flooring aside, were quite different owing to changes made by the owners to the layout and sun deck/garden patio areas outside.
The owners of one of the houses (self-build house 1 in the photos) had extended with lean to lobby which was self-built and a more substantial two-storey extension which wasn’t – whilst more straightforward than a regular build, self building using the Segal method is apparently not without its challenges.
One of the key considerations was the retention of supporting posts from the original build – here, they made for a design feature across the middle of the living area. The owners of self-build house 1 had further plans to modify and extend their house – according to them, self-build houses are never quite finished.
Having made the most of Open House weekend every year for the past five years, I think I’ve now visited pretty much every major participating building and development of interest from a modernist/mid century perspective. As such, this year’s itinerary involved revisiting the subject of my first ever blog entry, two architect-designed modern houses and a social housing estate that I hadn’t yet visited due to it being almost completely hidden from view.
Highpoint was the subject of my first ever blog entry on this site, which, looking at it now, was pretty ropey in terms of the writing, formatting and photos so I thought I’d go back there and produce something better.
Designed in 1935 by Berthold Lubetkin and Grade I-listed in 1970, Highpoint I was built to accommodate 96 one to three bedroom flats (all generously proportioned) and incorporated many features that were technically advanced for the time – I’m not sure how this is logistically possible but there are no partition walls between neighbours’ flats except in the central spine of the building.
Highpoint II was completed on the site next door in 1938. This block was aimed at wealthier tenants (not that Highpoint I was particularly low grade) and was constructed using richer materials including glazed tiles, glass blocks on the staircase towers and marble in the hall. The building was built to accommodate twelve large maisonettes, all of them containing four-bedrooms and two bathrooms split over two floors, with the best ones situated in the central part of the block: these ones were built with double-height living rooms and elegant oval-shaped staircases.
I remember being completely awed by both Highpoint I and II and fantasised about living there when I visited five years ago. I was equally awed this time: that split-level maisonette in Highpoint II that I featured in my first ever blog post was just as gorgeous as I remembered it: as well as having the double-height living room and oval staircase, it had stunning views over Highgate from both floors, four large bedrooms and two original 1930s bathrooms. Most importantly, the lift up from the ground floor lobby opened directly into the hallway of the maisonette – I’m not sure why but I always associate this feature with extreme luxury.
The maisonette had the perfect mix of original features (the current owner reportedly bought it from the estate of an elderly lady who left behind a lot of moth-eaten Chanel and hadn’t updated anything since she bought it in the 1930s) and modern styling. Our guide informed us with some regret that the original features in some of the other maisonettes in Highpoint II had been “destroyed by too much money”.
Page High, a red brick social housing estate consisting of 92 homes, was built in the 1970s above a car park that was in turn above a retail store (Sainsbury’s at the time, now a Matalan outlet).
The estate, accessed from street level by a lift, opened out into wide pathway which ran between two rows of low-rise buildings with stepped balconies, mostly consisting of one and two room apartments, and maisonettes. The overall design was somewhat reminiscent of the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate though on a slighter smaller scale and without quite the same sense of drama.
Page High, however, appeared to be a very well designed estate. Flats were built with their own front and back balconies, and every ‘ground’ floor flat had a front garden.
In addition, the fact that Page High was seven storeys up from street level meant that it had great views over Alexandra Palace and was remarkably peaceful in spite of its location just off Wood Green High Road. I also liked how well hidden it was: you would never know a development of that scale was there unless you were specifically looking for it.
Springbank was one of a pair of semi-detached houses completed in 2014 by SE5 Architects on a large site in Peckham. The house was split over three floors (one of which was a basement level) and despite the very modern finish (lots of glass, steel and blonde wood), reminded me a lot of the original 1960s Lilian Baylis school that was converted into flats a couple of years ago.
The ground floor contained the living spaces, including a reception room and a large kitchen/diner, both of which had folding doors opening onto the garden, which wrapped around the house on three sides. The kitchen housed a rather envy-inducing walk-in pantry.
In the centre of the house was a winding oak staircase with a glass balustrade and treads of varying lengths connecting the different floors of the house. This led down to the basement level (which contained a utility room and workshop) and up to a glass atrium on the first floor, which flooded the whole house with natural light, even though it was a fairly gloomy day.
The first floor contained the bedrooms, including a master bedroom with dressing room (like the pantry, this was also envy inducing) and en-suite bathroom, a second bedroom with en-suite shower room, two further bedrooms and another bathroom.
I did a bit of research online and the other house in the pair was listed and sold earlier this year for £2.25million.
Unremarkable from the outside, this 1960s mid-terrace house underwent a dramatic interior renovation and extension in 2017 which turned the poky ground floor level into a spacious open-plan living, kitchen and dining room with broad folding doors that led straight out into the garden.
The owners had done a lovely job with the renovation with a range of interesting textures, fixtures and fittings – I particularly liked the the continuous cork flooring throughout the whole of the ground floor and the central glazed partition.
I also took note of everything in the bathroom upstairs from the size of the tiles to the bath side panel (a coloured mdf-like material called Valchromat) to the way they’d hung the mirrors so that I can try to replicate what they’d done when we come to do our bathroom renovations.