Animating the Pavements

A House for Artists at Barking, London, by Apparata architects

Edwin Heathcote

The last moment when the UK attracted international attention for its housing was in the remark-able period of Post War reconstruction when British architects and municipal councils conducted a radical experiment in urban housing, building millions of units. Much of it was in a Le Corbusier-inflected mode of deck access slab blocks. The best of it, like the London County Council's de-signs for the Alton Estate in Roehampton (set in the rolling grounds of a former country house) was widely admired and has lasted well. Other examples like Sheffield’s Park Hill or Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens either failed or has been radically altered. Sometimes the architecture was at fault, sometimes social and government policy, but the effect of an entire layer of social housing being neglected and becoming associated with social problems, crime and deprivation led to a blanket demonisation and condemnation of an entire typology. That typology was deck access slab blocks. In concrete. Arguably almost everything that has happened in British housing since the early 1970s has been a reaction or a response to these failures.

It is surprising then to see a brand new concrete deck access slab block being lauded as the best new thing in British housing. But it is also completely deserved.

Designed by Apparata Architects, formed by Nicholas Lobo Brennan and Astrid Smitham, it is not quite co-housing (it is owned and operated by the borough’s own social housing association) but more a very flexible and, as they suggest, ‘convivial’ form of housing. Built to the standards of local authority (i.e. social) housing and designed to function in art as an experiment and a prec-edent in pushing what can be done to a tight budget and space requirements, it presents an amalgam of British social housing archetypes melded with a memory of the English house with its distinct front and its back and a more Swiss model revealing Lobo Brennan’s years practising and teaching at the ETH in Zurich. This is something very different to the standard British model for social housing with its single-aspect apartments, unlit, tight internal corridors and obsession with separation. Here all apartments are reached by external staircases which give views across the far-east of the city (and out into the country beyond) and decks, simply paved in cheap red slabs. The decks themselves are carefully-designed to be neither too wide nor too narrow, not exactly the streets in the sky dreamt of by the Smithsons but more like attenuated patios which allow some ownership by residents and space for plants and furniture rather than being designated purely functional escape or access space. Lobo Brennan describes them as akin to a quad or a colonnade, traditional models for conviviality and communal space and remarks that ‘the tenants have suggested that the building itself, particularly the walkways, have helped them to actualise a community.’

The apartments’ windows open fully to create inside/outside rooms and the ledges transform in the open position to a bench or table, expanding the footprint of the interior in the summer, keeping the demarcations fluid and blurring categories between architecture and furniture.

Inside the apartments are centred on a generous living space with a raw concrete ceiling and an extremely flexible interior in which even the kitchen can be picked up and moved with minimal intervention and a whole raft of layouts allow the apartments to be adapted to evolving patterns of living. The initial apartment plans are based on a kind of grid which increases privacy as you move through, from the open living space, to a kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms at the end. It is something very different from the crowded, traditional British flat plan.

The windows are huge, back and front, the interiors are flooded with light and there are extensive views out to the rather odd and evolving landscape of London overspill housing all filtered through the layer of walkways. On one floor, sets of double doors allow, in principle, all three apartments to be linked together to form one large enfilade space. Most current social housing in the UK struggles to accommodate anything other than the traditional nuclear family. It has difficulty with less conventional relationships or with extended families. This floor is an attempt by the architects to provide a working model for a new kind of flexibility.

Residents benefit from a reduced rent, at the lower end of the scale for social housing (determined at 65% of local average rent), through a mechanism in the contract in which they agree to participate in the organisation and managing of events in the community space downstairs. They become, effectively, caretakers of the communal space on the ground floor. This is a deliberate attempt to bring the residents together through rotas and activities, embedding them in the communal life of the neighbourhood but also drawing them to cooperate and collaborate together. They become active in forming the cultural life of these city blocks rather than passive consumers. It is the design of the building and the contract which give them agency in their own condi-tions of living, but which don’t then add to the inflationary pressures on local housing so that their presence is not part of any effort towards gentrification of what remains an extremely mixed neighbourhood.

The twelve apartments sit on top of a glazed communal room which gives the ground floor the feel fo a public building. Conceived as a first step in a mooted arts district and in the attempts by the council to retain artists rather than losing them to that inevitable future gentrification (artists are always, not through any fault of their own, seen as agents of change), it anchors the building into the streets becoming something between a community space and a shopfront for the activity inside, animating the pavements. The community space is currently being fitted out as the programme is being invented so that it can adapt to requirements for more or less privacy and the accommodation of functions from kilns to kitchens. It was designed as a blank, but flexible interi-or which could adapt to the needs of its users.

The building is intended to have a presence in the city. Its concrete has been formed to give the impression of trabeation, of a structure of posts and beams but the expression of the joints also picks up on the neighbouring blocks which are built in an almost plattenbau style of concrete panels and which distinguishes it from what has become an almost universal language of London brick veneer. That urban charisma is highlighted by the Platonic forms of the corner openings, the triangle and circle which poke out of the block at the corner, giving the building its calling card. They also give identity to the floors, an idea of where we are within the structure.

Something of a throwback to the Brutalist blocks of the 1950s and 60s in which the concrete was both structure and external finish, the solidity and material presence of this block sets it apart from a generation of British housing characterised by wafer-thin cladding. In recent years this has mostly been a brick veneer rain-screen surface, previously it was the brightly-coloured Brit-pop panels, examples of which are still plentiful around here.

British housing is still profoundly haunted by the memory of the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 in which 72 people died. Exacerbated by flammable cladding and lacking adequate escape routes, the 1970s block still stands like a gravestone, a reminder of poor planning, inadequate regulation shoddy materials. Apparata’s House for Artists looks like an alternative future, a serious, credible model for another kind of social housing.

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