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

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

Architectural historian Eileen Harwood has described the Barbican Arts and Housing Complex as “the greatest piece of urban planning and architecture in twenty-first century Britain”. Designed by architects Peter Chamberlain, Jeffrey Powell, and Christoph Boone in the 1950s and 1960s, it once drew attention for its brutal ends and lack of exposure to visitors, but is now beloved by critics and residents alike.

Filmmakers Laura Cade and Duncan Brown moved into their three-bedroom, two-story Chamberlain, Powell and Boone designer home three years ago and couldn’t be happier. “The sun comes shining through the skylights and hits different parts of the hall,” Kidd says. “It’s just beautiful.”

But the couple does not live in the Barbican. Their home is located on the Vanbrugh Park Estate, five miles along the Thames next to Greenwich Park. They paid £493,000 and the homes are now selling for around £600,000. A similar sized duplex was listed at Barbican for £1.195m in April.

It’s possible to live in the products of some of the greatest minds in post-war architecture for modest prices by DC standards.

Cade and Brown’s new home is one of a series of terraces facing patios. A narrow glass-striped facade leads to an open, airy interior, extending back 25 feet to sliding glass doors and a patio garden and two and a half stories high to a rooftop lantern. The central feature of the living space is a tiled cube containing a fireplace; Next to it is a suspended wooden staircase that leads to the upper floor. “When we saw pictures of the interiors, we thought they were pretty cool,” says Kidd.

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

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

It’s not just the look of the space they appreciate, but the way it functions. “There’s a flow about it,” Brown says. “It’s half the size of the house we used to live in [a four-bedroom Victorian home] But I don’t feel it. ”

He says that for six weeks during one of the pandemic lockdowns, they shared the house with their daughter, husband and son, who slept on the sofa. “But I never felt crowded and never felt like we were bumping into each other. It worked out perfectly.”

In the early 1990s, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Sivill House, a 1960s building overlooking the flower market on Columbia Road, above the northeast corner of the Square Mile. The architect, Berthold Lubetkin, is best known for his penguin pond at London Zoo, with its spiral cliffs, and High Point blocks at Highgate. Le Corbusier described the Highpoint One as a “first-class achievement” and it is listed in Class I.

Duncan Brown, homeowner: There's a flow around it

Duncan Brown, homeowner: “There’s a flow around it” © Leslie Lau

While the Barbican was built by a local authority for private rental purposes, under the ownership of the City of London Corporation, Svill House and Vanbrugh Park were commissioned as social housing. Sivill was one of Lubetkin’s later works, designer for Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council with Frances Skinner and Douglas Bailey.

It wasn’t the variegated facade—with patterns extracted from dragon motifs on carpets once woven in the hometown of Lubetkin, Georgia—that impressed me the most, or the 19-story spiral staircase. It wasn’t even the most obvious feature of my 700-square-foot apartment: the cozy balcony where you could dry your laundry in the rain; The glass wall in the south-facing living room floods it with light in winter; Or even a trapezoidal second bedroom.

It was something more subtle. The feeling that has grown stronger over the years is from the correctness of the shape, proportions and sequence of the rooms, which were much better and more flexible in use than most other purpose-built apartments I have seen. Like Cady and Brown, I felt like I was living in a space that was envisioned as a home rather than just a condominium.

says John Allan, who oversaw the restoration of some of Lubetkin’s major works and wrote the final work on the architect.

Seville House, in Shoreditch, by Berthold Lubetkin

Seville House, in Shoreditch, by Berthold Lubetkin; Author Lewis Westman lived here for 25 years after buying an apartment in the 1990s © View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Civil house spiral staircase

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

Does he think Lubetkin gave the same level of attention to his public residence as a luxury project like Highpoint? Certainly, there is no doubt about that. It was an important part of his training to question every detail of the design. There was nothing so unimportant that it was not worth rethinking the possibility of finding a better solution. ”

It agrees with my sense that the designer has positioned himself in space to experience living in it before it exists in three dimensions. “It wasn’t just a case of looking at buildings,” says Alan. “He almost listened to them, to hear what they had to say.”

Many of the post-war modernists shared this sensitivity to the livability of their designs, with some going on to establish their names through commissions for stately buildings but cutting their teeth on downtown council housing built to allow fair rents for lower-income families.

Highpoint, in Highgate, by Berthold Lubetkin, aka the penguin pool 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 discuss the rights and wrongdoing of transferring this property to the private sector – many of these properties were sold on the market to their tenants in the 1980s under the right-to-buy scheme. But they clearly constituted the UK’s high watermark for social housing – in terms of size and design – before local authorities were banned from building properties for rent for three decades.

Sivill House was recently awarded a Class II listing; You can buy a tea towel with a printed front. Peach Properties is listing a one-bedroom apartment in the building at a guideline price of between £300,000 and £320,000, a price similar to a single bed for the area’s former local authority. But even in privately developed Highpoint, Litchfields is advertising a studio for £325,000.

In St John’s Wood, opposite Regent’s Park, Chestertons is offering a 615-square-foot one-bedroom apartment for £59,999 in a 1960s aluminum-clad cooperative housing development by Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell, later separately responsible for many landmarks such as the headquarters Headquarters MI5 in London and The Eden Project in Cornwall. There is no clear premium attached to such work by some of the UK’s 20th century architecture greats.

“A lot of people still want traditional architecture,” says Stevie Orazi, trying to explain this anomaly. Orazi lives in a Hampstead apartment designed by Benson & Forsyth, who were involved in some of North London’s most striking housing projects and later designed the Postmodern Annex for the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. “When I came to her, I fell in love with her instantly,” she says of the apartment.

Barbican Cultural and Residential Complex

Barbican Cultural and Residential Complex © Tony Baggett / Getty Images / iStockphoto

For her blog and subsequent book modern real estate, Orazi spoke to 21 residents of some of the 20th century’s most iconic apartment complexes, from the Eric Lyons Spahn Homes to the Escon Building on the Wells Coates. (The Modern House website, which often features lower-priced properties, has a four-bedroom townhouse in south London, designed by Lyon-inspired Raglan Squire, for £795,000.)

“In general, they were all in the creative industries; people who had an appreciation for design,” Orazi says of the people she interviewed. “They were mostly middle class but didn’t have huge budgets.”

For the minority of buyers who are drawn to modernist design, the incentive to stay often comes not only from a creeping appreciation for the quality of place-making for architects but also for the communities they helped foster. I’ve lived happily in the Sivill House for over 25 years and still keep in touch with my neighbours. A few miles east in Blackheath, Laura Cady and Duncan Brown are working with others to add greenery to some of the neglected common areas among the property’s terraces.

“We went out in 2020 and sang all for someone on their 100th birthday,” Kidd says. “We have a summer party in the big garden – you feel welcome to everyone.” Can they imagine themselves turning away? They both said “no”.

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