Maturing with dignity

Appleby Blue Almshouse Witherford Watson Mann Architects

How the poorest members of society can be decently accommodated, integrating them into our communities, even in old age, is an increasing problem. In London, with its accute shortage of social housing, recent demographic changes with longer life expectancies, have resulted in greater numbers of older generations struggling to find or afford appropriate homes. Designing housing to improve the lives of older people is challenging, and not usually associated with innovative architecture. However, Appleby Blue Almshouse, a recently completed project in Bermondsey, inner south London, appears to offer a new architectural approach.

As a building typology, the english almshouse is traditionally associated with courtyard cluster forms of low rise residential units, detached from their surrounding neighbourhoods, predominantly in small town settings, but also scattered around London. As the word almshouse suggests, their social form is of charitable housing. The historic examples, and their new more conventional housing counterparts, have similar aims encouraging the elderly to live in enclaves of sheltered housing or care homes, segregated from their surrounding wider, mixed generation communities. Working with the client United St Saviour’s, a five hundred year old almshouse charity, Witherford Watson Mann, have designed a contemporary almshouse as a model for how to sustain an increasingly ageing group of the urban population, in a communal residential form, simultaneously integrating its members into the surrounding community. The project accommodates a diverse cohort of the over sixty fives, with a wide range of generations and physical abilities. Its configuring of sequences of communal spaces through layers of transparency, from the street to its central courtyard, and to access the apartments, encourages the potential for resident encounters and intergenerational relationships. The project contains fifty seven one and two bedroom flats, with communal spaces for its dwellers and the neighbourhood, including a garden room and public café, community kitchen, activity rooms and a courtyard. It also includes two studio flats to rent to younger people, who might be involved in St Saviour’s research into better ways of communal older living.

Typological transfers

It is a substantial civic housing block, by necessity densely developed, in a typical inner London urban context of mixed scales, simultaneously fronting a high road, and ending a pair of conserved Victorian terraces. Unlike the post war blocks opposite, placed in a loose garden, at random angles to the street, Appleby Blue fills its site, with a five storey building on its front range and side wings, reducing to two storeys to meet the adjacent terraced housing to its south, with a lower wing completing the block to enclose an exterior courtyard space.

The resultant external form, interprets civic housing as public building, with its uniform brick box opening on its main street frontage. Its hybrid approach to the urban block uses a playful english architectural pragmaticism to reinvigorate the form, with each manipulation carefully composed and purposefully apposite. Whilst maintaining the block’s formal integrity, the bulk of its monolithic external body is attenuated by inflecting its forty meter long frontage, and also by the plasticity of its brick envelope folded on its lower floors into bay windows to the apartments along the side roads, extruding a version of a familiar London housing feature. On the north east, this results in a more typically Dutch inverted corner. The design connects to other WWM projects, including the brick Cremer Street studio/office building (2019)

The other distinctive element disrupting the block’s length is an elongated two storey timber framed projecting bay, reminiscent of an enclosed public loggia of a Florentine urban palazzo, such as the Palazzo Rucellai, where the largest family gatherings took place in full view of the palazzo and the city. Appleby Blue’s bay contains a sequence of public spaces, the largest, a two storey salon, which through the transparency of its extensively glazed facades, connects the courtyard garden to the street. This gestural building element opens the block to its neighbourhood, purposefully inviting the community into the café and at its the heart, its narrow, lush garden. On the bay’s upper level, a widened gallery along the front acts as a threshold layer where the residents can look over the grand public salon and across to the courtyard, or sit together and look out on the street to engage with passers by. The latter recognised as a more preferable activity than sitting in the more typical segregated gardens in elderly housing schemes.

Cosiness thanks to wood

Inside the block, sensible to some of the borough’s historic building forms, the architects have referenced the elongated courtyard typology of Southwark coaching inns, one example being the existent George Tavern near London Bridge, where guest room accommodation was accessed from open galleries. In Appleby Blue this translates into housing connecting the residents by means of the enclosed galleries overlooking the central courtyard. This reference also seemingly draws from earlier WWM projects, including two projects working with existing buildings: Nevill Holt Opera (2018) where a timber theatre was inserted into an old stone stable block, and to an extent their Stirling prize winning (2013) Astley Castle, Warwickshire, where a holiday rental home was inserted into the core of a medieval ruined castle, a designated ancient monument, the new joinery structure forming inhabitable rooms. In Appleby Blue, the oak framed, largely glazed, openable curtain walled facade around the courtyard, renders the building more intimate and domestic in character. It encloses a continuous wide strip of communal verandah, or winter garden, as access to the apartments, with openable sliding and pivoting hinged windows. Departing from a more conventional homogenised institutional control, these enable the residents to attenuate their climate and make sensory contact with the courtyard garden and the rooftop allotments on the south. Eschewing the private individual balcony, Appleby Blue’s focus is on shared space. The wide galleries in which meandering recesses form thresholds to the apartment entrances, and informal places to sit, affirm the design’s integrated communality, as well as the intimacy of its architecture. One can imagine promenading as if in a great house’s long gallery, or the continuous glazed corridor around the Uffizzi’s open courtyard. Simultaneously, it feels as if it has spaces for the residents to be on their own. On the block’s exterior, and in its interior, the notion of urban intimacy and collective memory is introduced through tactile detail. This includes the subtle brick colours and surface differentiations used in the block’s envelope and the pronounced headers on the lower storeys, enriching the experience for the passers by. In the courtyard, and interior public spaces, the wood panelling bears a rich familiarity of recent and old timber linings, introduced to domesticate masonry structures, and to humanise the project’s living environment.

Ros Diamond, Philip Vile (photography)