Category: Open House

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

Pullman Court, London SW2

Pullman Court, London SW2
Grade II* listed Modern Movement building
Architect: Frederick Gibberd
Year built: 1937

Of all of the Open House properties that I visited this year, I think that Pullman Court was possibly my favourite.

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A striking wall of 1930s white modernism, Pullman Court is made up of a total of 218 homes ranging from one-room studios to larger four-room flats. The development comprises two five-storey blocks which run along a central driveway leading up to two seven-storey cruciform blocks at the rear of the site.  There are also five three-storey blocks which face out onto Streatham Hill – the location is perhaps Pullman Court’s only downside.

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Whilst the majority of the original amenities (which included roof gardens, an open air swimming pool, a restaurant and social club) are no more, Pullman Court still exudes a sense of 1930s glamour, not dissimilar to the the Isokon building in North London. The once-portered lobbies are luxurious with highly polished parquet floors, columns and round feature windows and the grounds are beautifully landscaped and maintained. 

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There were two properties open to view as part of the Open House scheme: both were two bedroom flats but differed in terms of layout and aesthetic.

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The first had been restored by the owner to reflect the stark modernist aesthetic of the era in which Pullman Court was built. The owner had managed to salvage the original streamlined kitchen units, bathroom suite and fitted furnishings, including a wall of cupboards in the master bedroom and a modern electric fireplace for the living room. I was quite taken with the black flooring in particular. 

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The flat wasn’t large but the layout of the flat gave the impression of spaciousness, perhaps owing to the wide rectangular hallway which linked the relatively small bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and living room, accessed at the end of the hallway by glass double doors. This flat also had a south-facing box of a balcony accessed from the living room which looked out onto another block in the estate. I would usually view this as a negative but the external facades of the buildings were so striking, I don’t think I would mind looking out onto them every day. 

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The second flat was decorated in a more homely style with carpeted floors, softer furnishings and a modern kitchen and bathroom. 

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The overall effect still managed to be striking thanks to the original windows, those views onto the bright facades of other buildings in the development and various small period details.

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I have only ever seen one or two of these flats come onto the market and I remember them to be surprisingly affordable (around the £300,000 mark), most likely due to the location. The Modern House has a ground floor example listed here in its “Past Sales” section. If one on a higher floor became available, I think I would seriously consider making the move to Streatham to bask in all of Pullman Court’s modernist glory. 

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Stoneleigh Terrace, London N19

Stoneleigh Terrace, London N19
Modernist housing estate built during golden era of Camden public housing
Architect: Peter Tabori
Year built: 1972-79

Stoneleigh Terrace (also known as the Whittington Estate and Lulot Gardens) is a striking North London seventies housing estate consisting of 240 homes varying from one-bedroom two-person flats to six-bedroom eight-person houses. Bearing a passing resemblance to the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate that I visited last year, it is almost entirely structurally composed of concrete and features a similar stepped, angular design.

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The estate is in a good state of repair and the bright colour palette (the concrete was painted a bright shade of cream in the nineties) means that it doesn’t have that intimidating concrete jungle feel, unlike some other estates from the same era.

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8 Stoneleigh Terrace, a two-bedroom split-level maisonette, was open to view as part of the Open House scheme. The flat was accessed from the ground floor, which contained a hall, main living area and kitchen, each divided by sliding partition doors. A fully-glazed wall, with heating concealed beneath a low wooden bench, separated the living area from the terrace and an internal window between the hall and the living area further dissolved the space, as well as providing borrowed light.

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Downstairs were two bedrooms, which both opened onto a small courtyard, the original bathroom and a large box room.

Whilst the estate is primarily populated by local authority tenants, a number of the properties are privately owned, which occasionally come up for sale. I have never seen a flat as big as 8 Stoneleigh Terrace on the market but I have seen a couple of one bedrooms priced at around the £400,000 mark.

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Trellick Tower, London W10

Trellick Tower, London W10
Grade II listed modernist apartment block
Architect: Ernö Goldfinger
Year built: 1968-1975

Bounded by the Grand Union Canal and the Paddington mainline, Trellick Tower is the dominant feature rising out of a housing estate of 317 homes built between 1968 and 1975.

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The tower, which is described as iconic by those who like it and an eyesore by those who don’t, consists of two blocks (one of 31 storeys and one of 7) and is entirely built of bush-hammered in-situ reinforced concrete. Whilst it was originally conceived as social housing, the tower has somehow become one of London’s most fashionable and desirable addresses in recent years with a significant proportion of the flats owned by private individuals.

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Standing at the foot of the 31-storey tower, the building is impressive in an intimidating, monolithic sort of way but the facade and the estate in general have a gritty, down-at-heel feel reminiscent of the council estate featured in those Channel 4 links. From the outside, it seems hard to believe that there are flats in the building worth close to £1 million.

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Once inside, however, it becomes apparent that the building is well kept and the original architecture, exposed concrete walls and colourful tiling have been extremely well preserved or sympathetically updated. The panoramic views from the landings and corridors on the higher floors are pretty spectacular.

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Two types of flat were open to view as part of Open House: a one-bed and an enormous split-level three-bed. The one-bed was bright and reasonably spacious with floor-to-ceiling glazing in the living room opening out onto a balcony with an impressive view of the city below. The three-bed was naturally more impressive (even if a bit idiosyncratically decorated) with generously proportioned rooms and a long balcony which spanned the length of the living room and the substantial kitchen-diner. The views of the Grand Union Canal snaking through the city from the bedrooms really were something else.

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I haven’t seen a flat come up for sale in the tower recently but I reckon the one-bed is worth around £500,000 and the three-bed close to a £1million.

St Bernard’s Houses, East Croydon, CRO

St Bernard’s Houses, 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 Bernard’s 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 cheerfully 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.

Priory Green Estate, Kings Cross NW3

Priory Green Estate, Kings Cross NW3
Lubetkin-designed concrete social housing with ‘Conservation Area’ status
Architect: Tecton & Lubetkin
Year built: 1957

At first glance, this centrally located council estate doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. However, upon closer inspection, the fact it was designed by Lubetkin (the architect responsible for the spectacularly luxurious High Point in Highgate) becomes apparent.

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Small details, such as the putty-coloured square tiling covering sections of the facade, the tapered, almost sculptural stairways, white columns dotted here and there, the elegant grey and dark red colour scheme and even the typeface used for the door numbers all typify Lubetkin’s modernist style. The layout of the blocks make perfect sense: communal walkways on one side of the building, private balconies on the other, meaning that all flats are dual aspect.

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The flats weren’t open to view but I understand that they’re all split level and have reasonable proportions as these photos from Modernist Estates suggest. The estate seems to be well maintained and quiet (it was, apparently, a hotbed of criminal activity for a time) but Lubetkin design features or not, the fact remains that it is a council estate in Kings Cross.

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This is why I found it difficult to sympathise with the story of a private owner (obviously an architect), who reportedly complained about the erection of the graffiti-style mural in the central quad, painted by the children of the estate, on the grounds that it wasn’t consistent with the architecture or what Lubetkin would have wanted. Most importantly of all (to her), however, it was preventing her from hosting dinner parties at her flat, because it was sure to offend her guests. Although I concede that the mural is a distinctly un-modernist eyesore, to complain about something like this is missing the point of the estate and social housing in general: the design was and is supposed to meet the needs of the principal community that it houses, not prissy modernist purists (like myself) and their dinner party guests, and on this count it succeeds.

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Dawson’s Heights, East Dulwich SE22

Dawson’s Heights, East Dulwich SE22
Example of 1960s modernist-style social housing with uninterrupted views of the London skyline
Architect: Kate Macintosh for Southwark Council Architects Department
Year Built: 1966-1972

Split between two blocks consisting of nearly 300 flats, Dawson’s Heights was built on an extraordinary 13.8 acre hilltop site in East Dulwich in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Its striking stepped design, which features blocks of varying heights rising to 12 storeys at its central peak, takes advantage of its hilltop location by following the contours of the landscape.

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The architect Kate Macintosh, who was unbelievably only in her mid-twenties at the time, insisted on a number of design features to benefit the council tenants of the day: each flat was to have at least one balcony and views in both directions and to the north, towards central London. Outside walkways were to resemble “streets in the sky”, allowing for efficient circulation and recreating traditional street patterns. The external facade was to have a warm brick texture to reduce the building’s monolithic appearance (you can only imagine what it would look like if it was all made out of sludge-coloured concrete).

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Visiting it today, it is clear that these thoughtful planning and design decisions have paid off in part: the estate, with its chunky bands of balconies and access galleries and multiple layers, is a striking piece of architecture, the external walkways are generously wide and have unexpectedly spectacular panoramic views and there’s also a feeling of brightness and openness, rather than oppressiveness which is unfortunately common for an estate of this scale.

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Unfortunately, the interiors of the development are not quite as striking as the exterior. The communal lobbies are a bit depressing and the flats, although generous in size, aren’t remarkable in any way. The most noteworthy feature is the sheer number of mini staircases in each flat leading from one room to the next: whilst the building is twelve storeys high at its peak, there are only four accessible floors from the lift lobby because each flat (including the one-beds) is split over at least three floors.

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The flat that was open to view had a living room on the top level, kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom on the middle level and two further bedrooms on the bottom level. The rooms weren’t massive in size and the decor was a bit spartan but the flat did feel bright and airy thanks to its placement and multiple balconies.

Although Dawson’s Heights is not grade listed, it is not currently under serious threat of “regeneration” as it is seen as a well-maintained, successful social housing estate thanks in large part to the architecture.

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The Cedars, Teddington TW11

The Cedars (Span House), Teddington TW11
Example of a T2 house by Span Developments famous for forward-looking housing of the ’50s
Architect: Eric Lyons
Year Built: 1958 (Extension 2011)

The Cedars is a small Span estate consisting of around two dozen two-storey houses situated in the leafy Greater London suburb of Teddington. Walking onto the estate, it’s very similar in look and feel to the Parkleys development that I visited in Ham last year, with all of that distinctive tile hanging (grey this time, rather than terracotta) and lushly planted foliage.

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The house open to the public as part of Open House had been recently (and sympathetically) refurbished with a ‘Mondrian’-style primary colour scheme (basically everything – including the furniture – was either red, blue or yellow) together with a number of sustainable features including solar PV cells, solar heating of water and a wood burning stove.

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The owners had extended the house to the rear, which gave the property a more modern look and feel (reminiscent of something out of Grand Designs) than the original floor plan would have allowed. The open plan living room and kitchen, which spanned the whole of the ground floor, opened out onto a small but attractive decked garden.

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The bedrooms upstairs were small but brightly lit thanks to the enormous Span-style windows and the bathroom benefited from what appeared to be a double height ceiling – I couldn’t quite work out how this was possible from an architectural perspective.

Visiting this estate confirmed my love for Span estates and my annoyance that Eric Lyons chose non-central locations in the country in which to build them.

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

This spectacular pre-war apartment block was originally built in 1934 as “an experiment in minimalism and communal living”. With its curved forms and pale render, Agatha Christie (a former resident) likened its appearance to a giant ocean liner run aground and it was the first ever apartment block to be built chiefly using reinforced concrete.

The block houses 34 apartments, most of which are relatively compact but apparently cleverly designed to make use of the available space. The architect and the couple who commissioned the building envisaged a happy community of ultra-sociable, design-conscious residents who would spend so much of their time with their neighbours in shared spaces (an in-house restaurant, bar, laundry and communal kitchen connected to the residential floors via a dumb waiter) that they would only need the smallest of private quarters to actually live in.

Apparently none of the residents really bought into the idea of communal living (they were reportedly just too British and reserved) so the shared spaces were converted over time into further flats and today, a nice little museum setting out the history of the place. Sadly, the museum does not contain a full reconstruction of a whole flat (as I half-hoped it might) but there is salvaged kitchen and bathroom to see, which are as reported, very small.  Even without the full reconstruction, the museum is well worth a visit, if only to see the building’s spectacular exterior in person.

Flats do very occasionally come up for sale. Here’s one that themodernhouse.net sold recently for about £500,000: http://www.themodernhouse.net/past-sales/isokon-building/

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Cressingham Gardens, London SW2

Cressingham Gardens
Tulse Hill SW2
Low-rise leafy estate located next to beautiful Brockwell Park noted for its innovative design, incorporating pioneering architectural elements and echoing the natural topography.
Architect: Ted Hollamby
Year Built: 1967–78

This South London low-rise estate is a real grower. First impressions aren’t overwhelmingly positive (it has fallen into slight disrepair in parts) but on closer inspection there are numerous features which lift this far above the average South London estate.

For starters, the setting next to Brockwell Park and the arrangement of the buildings around a cluster of three green mounds, is quite beautiful. The estate was designed to echo the natural topography (i.e. the tops of the low-rise buildings are the same height or shorter than the trees so from a distance, the estate cannot be seen at all) and the buildings themselves, with their stepped structures and jutting balconies, are not dissimilar to those on the celebrated Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. The estate is unusually green and there does seem to be a genuine sense of community amongst the residents.

There are a number of different property types on the estate ranging from one bedroom flats to four bedroom maisonettes. Judging from the properties that I visited, room sizes are generous, layouts have been designed to benefit from the views of the park and many of the properties incorporate multiple levels and small gardens. The overall impression is that everything has just been really well designed with the residents of the properties in mind.

It is therefore a great shame that there are very real plans for the whole site to be ‘regenerated’ next year. I cannot imagine that the development replacing Cressingham Gardens will be so well designed.