Housing by Peter Barber Architects at Grahame Park shows a sensitive approach to estate regeneration, finds Douglas Murphy


Douglas Murphy

Morley von Sternberg

The recent news for council estates, and the people who live in them, has not been good. The government’s new Housing Bill includes plans to force councils to sell off ‘high value’ social housing, but its promise to replace buildings lost at a one-to-one rate look extremely hollow based upon previous performance. Add to that the end of the guaranteed lifetime tenancy for tenants and it was looking pretty bleak, even before David Cameron announced that he wants to demolish hundreds of ‘brutal’ estates, offering £140 million of state money, a paltry sum that – as Jeremy Corbyn has rightly pointed out – won’t even pay for the bulldozers.


Roof terraces are created by pushing and pulling the top of the building into an array of setbacks, turrets, notches and slots

Cameron’s rhetoric may have been lifted wholesale straight from the ‘Book of 1980s Antimodernist Cliche’, but he’s drawing on recent work by people such as Lord Adonis, estate agent Savills and pressure group Create Streets, who have all suggested that rebuilding post-war council estates with traditional street patterns would allow far higher numbers of homes to exist on sites that are, by today’s standards, rather low density. To some ears this might sound like a land grab, offering state assets to private developers, but might similar principles, applied generously, offer a positive way to revitalise estates that have suffered decades of neglect?

Where the Radburn housing turns its back to its surroundings… new low-rise blocks have reasserted the primacy of the road”

The Grahame Park estate in Colindale, north London, where architects Peter Barber, Jestico & Whiles and Studio 54 have all recently been building, is an example of that most denigrated of urban forms, the Radburn Plan. The principles of traffic segregation here led to low-rise houses oriented around central pedestrian walkways, with cars banished to the outer edge, a front-to-back arrangement that led to much confusion regarding privacy, and a perception of danger and criminality.

A ‘gateway’ site to the south was identified by Barnet Council and Genesis Housing Association to kick off their proposed estate regeneration, but rather than demolishing wholesale, some clever stitching work has been the order of the day.

“At Grahame Park we have infilled new street-based terraced housing in order to help reinforce a clear, well integrated, easy to understand urban layout,” explains Peter Barber. Where the Radburn housing turns its back to its surroundings and feels like it was scattered randomly across the site, new low-rise blocks have reasserted the primacy of the road, both by filling in small gaps in the site, and also by building extensions onto existing housing to create new frontages. The new work has been defined by the use of a pale yellow brick, less erratic than London stock but still textured, that sets off the three practices’ buildings against the existing estate’s sombre purple tones.


At the most prominent location on the estate, a public square has been created on land that was previously given over to a car park. Barber’s office has completed the most prominent building on the site, a block of market housing set on top of a supermarket. The full-plot depth of the supermarket creates a raised plate that becomes back gardens for what is basically a courtyard form of housing above, but one that incorporates a number of different flat types.

The block is tallest to the west, with six storeys above retail, and four to the east. These taller elements are filled with flats, while the lower parts of the building provide maisonettes, including Barber’s trademark ‘sliced’ apartments incorporating sheltered open space. Every unit in the block has a unique layout, and is provided with a generous outdoor space through projecting balconies, terraces, or large cut-outs from the massing of the building, creating a highly diverse silhouette and a constantly changing appearance when viewed in the round.


This irregularity is further accented by Barber’s tendency to place fenestration in seemingly randomised arrangements, here intensified by occasionally running the windows directly between floors, giving the impression of double-height spaces, but also generally making it difficult to spot the boundaries between apartments. It’s also satisfying to see, when every other architect seems to be getting sucked deep into the brick platitudes of the ‘New London Vernacular’, that Barber is capable of navigating this tendency whilst sticking to his own approach, one whose ethos has far more in common with precedents like ‘radical post-war council’ than with the Victorian volume-builder.


So far the ground level has been treated quite sparsely, with not a great deal of benching and trees yet to bed in and green the space. But it is early days; a taller block by Jestico & Whiles is set to complete another side of the square, accentuating a route further into the estate, while the completed block features a set of odd-sectioned concrete columns, alternately ‘Minoan’ or ‘aerofoil’ according to Barber, that create a deep colonnade, giving a welcome civic quality to the public space.


“We share a critical view of where society and architecture should be heading”, states Charles Thomson of Studio 54; “the opportunity to discuss and share and support each other is very valuable”. The generosity of the work so far at Grahame Park has to be attributable in part to the collaboration of the three architects as part of the regeneration team, a welcome attempt to work with a council estate’s existing conditions, rather than treating it as so much mess to be cleared away. “We have tried to improve the estate for the benefit of new residents as well as the existing well-established community”, agrees Barber. “It’s a benign alternative to Cameron’s bulldozer love.”

Additional Images


Peter Barber Architects
Structural engineer
Brand Leonard
Services engineer
Countryside Properties

Highcliffe Weathered Buff by All About Bricks
Front doors
John Watson Doors
Single-ply roofing
Sika Sarnafil