Barbican style on a budget: where to find a Modernist home for less

Architectural historian Elain Harwood has described the Barbican arts and housing complex as “the greatest piece of combined town planning and architecture in Britain in the 21st century”. Designed by architects Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon in the 1950s and 1960s, it once drew criticism for its brutalist finishes and impregnability, but is now loved by critics and residents alike.

Filmmakers Laura Cade and Duncan Brown moved into their two-story, three-bedroom estate designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon three years ago and couldn’t be happier. “The sun shines through the skylights and hits different parts of the hall,” says Cade. “It is simply beautiful.”

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But the couple doesn’t live in the Barbican. Her house is on the Vanbrugh Park Estate, five miles along the River Thames next to Greenwich Park. They paid £493,000 and the houses are now fetching around £600,000. A duplex of the same size in the Barbican was listed for £1.195m in April.

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It’s possible to live in the products of some of the greatest thinkers in post-war architecture at modest prices by the capital’s standards.

Cade and Brown’s new home is one of a series of terraces overlooking cobbled courtyards. A facade of narrow ribbons of glass leads to an airy open interior that extends 25 feet to sliding glass doors and a courtyard garden, and two and a half stories to a rooftop lantern. The central feature of the living room is a quarry-tiled cube housing a fireplace; next to it, a suspended wooden staircase leads to the upper floor. “When we saw pictures of the interiors, we thought, yeah, they’re just beautiful,” says Cade.

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This three-bedroom house in Blackheath, London, designed by Barbican Architects cost £493,000 three years ago

This three-bedroom house in Blackheath, London, designed by Barbican Architects cost £493,000 three years ago © Lesley Lau for the FT

They appreciate not only the look of the space but also the way it works. “There’s a flow,” Brown says. “It’s half the size of the house we used to live in [a four-bedroom Victorian home] but it doesn’t feel like it.”

For six weeks, during one of the pandemic lockdowns, they shared the house with their daughter and husband and son, who slept on the sofa. “But it never felt crowded and it never felt like we were crashing. It worked perfectly.”

In the early 1990s I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Sivill House, a 1960s block overlooking the flower market on Columbia Road, above the northeast corner of the Square Mile. Its architect, Berthold Lubetkin, is best known for his penguin pool at London Zoo, with its spiral ramps, and for the Highpoint blocks at Highgate. Highpoint One was described by Le Corbusier as an “achievement of the first order” and is a Grade I listed building.

Duncan Brown, owner of the house:

Duncan Brown, owner of the house: “There’s a river” © Lesley Lau

While the Barbican was built by a local authority for private letting purposes, Sivill House and Vanbrugh Park, owned by the Corporation of the City of London, were commissioned as council housing. Sivill was one of Lubetkin’s later works, designed with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey for Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council.

It wasn’t the colorful facade — featuring patterns abstracted from the dragon motifs on rugs once woven in Lubetkin’s native Georgia — that struck me most, or the 19-story spiral staircase. It wasn’t even the most obvious features of my 700-square-foot apartment: the set-back balcony for drying laundry in the rain; the glass wall in the south-facing living room, flooded with light in winter; or even the trapezoidal second bedroom.

It was something more subtle; an increasing sense over the years of the correctness of the form, proportions and sequence of the rooms, which were so much better and more flexible than most other purpose-built apartments I had seen. Like Cade and Brown, I felt like I was living in a space that was designed to be a home and not just a living unit.

“He had a very keen sense of how to sympathetically lay out small dwellings that reflect the lifestyle of the people who would likely live in them,” says John Allan, who oversaw the restoration of some of Lubetkin’s major works and overwrote the final work the architect.

Sivill House in Shoreditch by Berthold Lubetkin;  Author Louis Wustemann has lived there since the 1990s in Berthold Lubetkin's House in Shoreditch

Sivill House in Shoreditch by Berthold Lubetkin; Author Louis Wustemann has lived there since the 1990s © View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sivil House spiral staircase

The 19-story spiral staircase at Sivill House © Tom de Gay

Does he think Lubetkin paid the same attention to his public housing development as he did to a luxury project like Highpoint? “Of course, that’s out of the question. It was an important part of his training to question every single detail of a design. There was nothing too unimportant not to consider if a better solution could be found.”

He agrees that the designer projected himself into space to test life in it before it existed in three dimensions. “It wasn’t just about looking at buildings,” says Allan. “He almost listened to them to hear what they were saying.”

This sensibility to the livability of their designs was shared by many post-war modernists, some of whom later made their names with commissions for more sumptuous buildings, but which intersected with city-centre council housing built to be rented at fair rents at lower rents to become. income families.

Highpoint, in Highgate, by Berthold Lubetkin, also known for his penguin tank at London Zoo

Highpoint, in Highgate, by Berthold Lubetkin, also known for his penguin pool at London Zoo © Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections

It is possible to argue about the rights and injustices of transferring these properties to the private sector – many on the market were sold to their tenants as part of the right to purchase in the 1980s. But it is clear that they formed the peak for social housing in the UK – both in terms of volume and design – before local authorities were barred from letting properties for three decades.

Sivill House has recently been admitted to Class II; You can buy a tea towel printed with its facade. Peach Properties is offering a one bedroom apartment on the block for a guide price of £300,000 to £320,000, a comparable price to other former one bedroom apartments in the area. But even in privately developed Highpoint, Litchfields is touting a £325,000 studio.

In St John’s Wood, opposite Regent’s Park, Chestertons is offering a 615 sq ft one bedroom apartment for £599,999 in a ribbed, aluminium-clad 1960s co-operative development by Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell, later rented separately for numerous landmarks such as; London’s MI5 HQ and Cornwall’s Eden Project. There is no apparent value attached to such work by some of 20th century British architectural greats.

“Many still want traditional architecture,” Stefi Orazi tries to explain the anomaly. Orazi lives in a Hampstead flat designed by Benson & Forsyth, who were involved in some of north London’s most distinctive council housing projects and later designed the post-modern extension to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. “When I walked in, I fell in love with her straight away,” she says of the apartment.

The cultural and residential complex Barbican

The Barbican cultural and residential complex © Tony Baggett/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For her blog and later book settlements of modernity, Orazi spoke to 21 residents of some of the most iconic housing developments of the 20th century, from Eric Lyons’ Span Houses to Wells Coates’ Isokon Building. (The Modern House website, which often lists lower-priced Modernist properties, has a four-bedroom south London townhouse designed by Raglan Squire and modeled after Lyons for £795,000.)

“In general, they were all in the creative industries; People who appreciated design,” Orazi says of her interlocutors. “They were mostly middle class but didn’t have huge budgets.”

For the minority of shoppers drawn to the modernist style, an incentive to stay often stems not only from a creeping appreciation for the quality of the places the architects have created, but also for the communities they have nurtured. I have lived happily at Sivill House for more than 25 years and still keep in touch with my neighbors. A few miles east in Blackheath, Laura Cade and Duncan Brown are collaborating with others to landscape some of the estate’s neglected inter-terracing communal areas.

“We went out in 2020 and we all sang for someone on their 100th birthday,” says Cade. “We’re having a summer party on the big lawn – it feels welcoming to everyone.” Could you imagine moving away? “No,” both say.

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