New London Housing
London is increasingly a place where old and new architecture are welded into livable spaces, where history and modernity coexist and feed on each other. As such it has lessons to teach the world. Three such lessons are recent examples of multifamily housing.
Peabody Housing, Murray Grove
Under the leadership of its development director Dickon Robinson, the Peabody Trust (established in 1862 and owner of 20,000 rented homes in London) has emerged as a highly innovative patron of new architecture.
Peabody seeks to address the continuing shortage of affordable housing and the constantly changing lifestyles of Londoners that have created a demand for something more than the typical "family home." Robinson is a strong advocate of increased density, and Peabody is currently promoting the construction of a number of residential towers in London.
The housing at Murray Grove, designed by Cartwright Pickard Architects, holds a special interest in that the L-shaped, five-story, 30-apartment building on the corner of Murray Grove and Shepherdess Walk, was constructed in only 27 weeks (February-August 1999) using prefabricated modules. The development is arranged in two wings overlooking a landscaped courtyard.
The construction system is as straightforward as a set of toy bricks: the modules, with plumbing, electrical, doors, and windows already attached, are put together to form one-bedroom (two-module) and two-bedroom (three-module) units.
Access is via exterior galleries along the street frontages, with bathrooms and kitchens placed here to baffle the street noise. On the garden side, overlooked by living and sleeping spaces, each flat has a balcony, large enough to accommodate a dining table. The "industrious artisans" whom Peabody originally set out to house have become sophisticated, though relatively impecunious nurses, teachers, and the like.
Murray Grove continues to attract interest as an example of quality housing procured to a fast-track schedule (though the cost was eventually some 15 percent more than had been targeted). It is also a very decent piece of urban architecture, well related to the street, with terracotta facing used to reflect the red-brick aesthetic of nearby warehouses, and a strongly expressed lift/staircase tower marking the corner in typically London fashion. As starter homes for young "key workers," the apartments here set a new standard.
Priory Heights, Priory Green Estate
At first glance, Priory Heights (formerly Wynford House) looks much like hundreds of other local authority housing blocks in London. Closer study of form and details reveals however, the touch of a master.
In this case the master is Berthold Lubetkin, a modern-movement pioneer whose impact on London was enormous. In the postwar years Lubetkin built on the social promise of the Finsbury Health Centre and moved boldly into the field of housing.
The Priory Green Estate was begun in 1948, though Wynford House was not started until 1954, as part of a second phase of development, and completed only in 1957, long after the dissolution of Tecton. It was always intended as a one-off block, though some of the design refinements proposed (internal access by lifts, for example, and private balconies) were omitted on grounds of cost.
As usual, it was a matter of false economy, contributing to the downgrading of the estate in more recent years, when extensive demolition was seriously contemplated.
The refurbishment by Avanti Architects of Priory Heights has emerged as the marker for an ongoing improvement program for the entire estate. The block was sold by Islington Council to Community Housing Association in 1997, with Avanti — led by Lubetkin's biographer, John Allan — in charge of the reconstruction project.
The block has been reconfigured on the basis of mixed tenure to provide 62 private rented units and 26 social (public) housing units. This formula generated sufficient revenue to finance a high-quality scheme.
Ailing concrete has been restored where necessary, without recourse to crude overcladding, and original finishes and colors have been reinstated. The services, including the lift system, have been comprehensively upgraded. Modern standards of energy efficiency demanded the replacement of the original metal windows, though their substitutes look identical.
On top of the building, plant and water-tank installations have been converted into stunning penthouses, with views across London. The project was completed in spring 2000, and all the units were soon occupied. Hugely stylish, the project demonstrates one way ahead for London's sometimes problematic stock of post-1945 social housing.
10-22 Shepherdess Walk
A landmark development on the modish border of Shoreditch and Hackney, epicenter of the London art and design world at the beginning of the 21st century, Buschow Henley's 1997-99 conversion of a former warehouse in Shepherdess Walk gives definition to the somewhat nebulous concept of the "loft."
The raw material was good: a solidly constructed 110,000 square-foot (10,200-square-meter) building in two main blocks of five and six stories around a long central yard. It was opportune, perhaps, that the budget was quite tight. According to the architects, the aims of the project were "pragmatic, reconfiguring the plan, restructuring the building, a series of interconnecting decisions were to subvert the usual order... there was not to be an idealized conception."
A particular feature of the building was its division by load-bearing walls into a series of vertical "tenements," each with its own entrance from the street.
The aim was a mixed-use development. The ground floor is allocated for commercial use, with 50 dual-aspect apartments upstairs. The decision to retain the structural form of the building produced apartments of an L shape — not inconvenient, because it generated an alternative to the conventional (and intrusive) free-standing service core.
The verve with which this project was driven forward by developer and architect is reflected in the treatment of the courtyard as a generous communal space (the new lift tower is the most prominent addition) and even more in the extraordinary roofscape.
With the original proposal of an additional, glazed top floor rejected by planners, a new rooftop scene of detached pavilions, clad in zinc (like the typical Hoxton bar-top) was created. Some of the pavilions have gardens attached — this is "suburbia on the roof."
The ad hoc, cumulative approach is in a London, not to say Cockney, tradition: one thinks of the typical East End allotment. Buschow Henley captured the essence of loft living at Shepherdess Walk, with a building that carries the potential for further change and adaptation. This is practical conservation at its best.
Kenneth Powell is an architecture critic and journalist based in London. He is a former architecture correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and author of books on Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Will Alsop. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
This article is excerpted from New London Architecture, copyright © 2002, published by Merrell, distributed by St. Martin's Press price $50, hardback, and available from Amazon.com.
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