Category: Open House

64 Heath Drive, Romford RM2

64 Heath Drive, Romford RM2
Grade II listed modernist villa
Architect: Lubetkin & Tecton
Year built: 1934

My third and final Open House visit this year was to a stunning modernist villa all the way out in Romford, Essex. Amongst the first works of architects Lubetkin & Tecton (who went on to design iconic modernist estates such as Highpoint and Priory Green as well as the penguin enclosure in London Zoo), it won first prize in the Gidea Park Modern Homes Exhibition held in July-August 1934, costing only £900 to build.

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64 Heath Drive, which was made out of painted reinforced concrete and had a flat roof, looked a bit incongruous on a street full of mock Tudor, pink cottages and stone water features. It was apparently designed to be one of a row of similar, low cost modernist houses that would give the impression of one long white wall but these houses were never built.

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The house had an interesting L-shaped plan with all of its principal rooms (living room, dining room, bedrooms) and huge steel framed windows cleverly positioned to face into a stunning landscaped garden with a koi carp pond while the kitchen, original maid’s room and garage were positioned to look out onto the street. Upstairs, the master bedroom opened out onto a substantial terrace which was also accessible via a steel bridge and staircase from the garden.

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Decor-wise, the current owner had clearly made a huge effort to restore the house to its former glory over the years (the living room was particularly stunning) and had made alterations that were sympathetic to the original design but admitted that the house was no museum to modernism – it was first and foremost a home that catered to the needs of his family and contained a hotpotch of styles and eras.

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

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Isokon Lawn Road Flats, NW3

Isokon Lawn Road Flats
London NW3
Architect: Wells Coates
Grade I listed modernist apartment block designed as a progressive experiment in new ways of urban living
Year Built: 1934

I previously visited the Isokon building and mini museum when I started doing this blog. I didn’t have access to the interior of the building so all I came away with were some rather lame iPhone 4s-quality photos of the exterior and the recreation of the kitchen and bathroom in the museum. My more recent trip as part of London’s Open House weekend, which involved a tour of the communal areas and a selection of the different types of flat in the building, was far more fruitful.

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As I described in my previous blog entry, the building was designed by architect Wells Coates for Molly and Jack Pritchard as an experiment in minimalist urban living and consisted of 24 tiny standard-sizes studio flats, 8 one bedroom flats, a (now closed) kitchen and staff quarters and a large garage. The Pritchards lived in a one bedroom penthouse flat at the top with their two sons next door in a studio flat.

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As part of the Open House tour, we were showed inside two examples of the standard studio flat and excitingly, the slightly larger-than-standard studio and penthouse on the top floor.

Upon entry into the building, I was struck by the elegantly modernist communal areas decorated with a cool grey, white and wooden colour scheme. The two standard-sized studios that we were shown were accessed via open walkways, which my partner said reminded him of the vast, bog standard council estates typical in his home town (I disagreed).

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The standard-sized studio flats were very small indeed (we were told that current regulations would prohibit flats of that size being built nowadays) but were well designed, with their original built-in and cordoned off kitchen and bathroom areas intact. We were told that these flats were sold on a shared ownership basis for £95k in 2003.

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The studio flat on the top floor (originally inhabited by the Pritchards’ sons but now owned by someone capable of living a very minimalist lifestyle with almost no possessions) was more generously proportioned.

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However, it was the penthouse which had (for want of a better expression) the wow factor. Clad almost entirely in plywood (both the walls and the floor), it had a separate bedroom and large living room which opened out onto an enormous terrace.

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The penthouse, which I’d previously seen featured in the Evening Standard, is currently owned by the founder of aspirational Scandi furniture store Skandium and so was beautifully furnished with a mixture of furnishings and design objects appropriate to the era of the building.

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I have no idea how much something as special as the penthouse would cost but one bedroom flats and studios have come onto the market before and sold for between £500-600k, which I think is a fair price for living in such a stunning Grade I-listed piece of architectural history in a very nice area of North London.

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Lambert Jones Mews, The Barbican EC2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Homewood, Esher, KT10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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