Street Smart

Three Greenwich housing projects show the importance of the city to the work of Peter Barber, finds Nana Biamah-Ofosu

Buildings.

Words
Nana Biamah Ofosu

Photos
Morley von Sternberg

If 70 per cent of buildings in London are houses or housing, then residential design should be central to the development of the city. It should be guided by a strong urban agenda and a sensitivity to history and continuity. The home and its interior world should belong to the resident – a space that enables their rituals and daily habits – while its formal expression, its presence in the city remains a gift to the public realm, a small piece in a greater ensemble.

Over the last 30 years Peter Barber’s practice has developed a deep understanding of medium-density street-based architecture. His buildings, located increasingly in the outer edges of London, explore the richness of the suburban condition, and three recent projects for the Royal Borough of Greenwich carry on this trajectory. Bevan Road, a terrace development comprising 11 apartments, sits on a site previously occupied by garages. Rochester Way introduces 29 affordable homes organised as three new mews streets. And Sandpit Place, the largest of the three schemes, replaces a single-storey housing office with 32 houses, arranged as back-to-back terraces.

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Clockwise from top left: Bevan Road, Sandpit Place, Rochester Way

These projects share more than a common brief; they explore a mode of practice, key themes and overarching concerns which we discuss in Barber’s office workshop, a space that is itself an expression of the architect’s preoccupations. Much like his architecture, Barber’s office – a shopfront and rooms above in a small Victorian terrace in King’s Cross – embodies a spirit of performance, theatre and a celebration of the everyday. It also alludes to architecture’s obligations to the city, and Barber references Lina Bo Bardi’s ‘Stones Against Diamonds’, in which she reflects on the responsibility that comes with owning a shop window.

In the cosy, street-facing workshop space, bathed in low winter light, a cluster of card, foam and paper models at various scales seems like a small city in its own right. They are crucial to the work of the practice. “Every design project is developed as a model in the first instance”, says Barber. The habit allows for ideas to be formulated quickly while avoiding endless optioneering.

The themes manifested in the Greenwich projects are evident in Barber’s early models and sketches. The drawings express a sense of urgency and hopefulness. In quick, colourful pencil marks, Barber conjures a sense of community, kinship and sociability, lived out on terraces, in small front gardens and at front doors. This is not hard to imagine walking along Duckworth Terrace, the new street created at Bevan Road. Its scale invites a sense of neighbourliness.

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Bevan Road Built for the Royal Borough of Greenwich, 11 homes and a community space sit on a steeply sloping sliver of land between flats and neighbouring gardens, and are accessed via a new planted footpath. The dwellings are arranged as cottage flats, with two-bed ground-floor flats entered via brick arches, and first-floor homes accessed from the footpath via external private staircases leading up to private roof terraces. “A notched profile ensures all first-floor units’ principal outlook is into private roof terraces,” notes the architect, “thereby allowing the scheme to overcome difficult site constraints while providing a good level of density through a street-based design”.

The singular terrace form offers a sense of uniformity and continuity while concealing the fact that the units here are flats rather than houses, arranged in a ‘double stacked’ formation, similar to the historic Tyneside cottage flat type. The ground floor contains five two-bedroom homes, each with a back garden accessed directly from the living space and the main bedroom, while the first floor comprises six one-bedroom dwellings.

Each home has its own front door on the street. These alternate between arched entrance which provide thresholds for the ground-floor flats, and gated entrances in the facade which lead to stairs ascending to individual terraces belonging to the flats above. Small steps at the foot of these gates provide a threshold – some separation from the public realm – while also negotiating a change in level running east-west across the site.

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Rochester Way A high-density, low-rise neighbourhood for Meridian Home Start is organised around three new seven-metre-wide mews streets. It provides 29 affordable homes and spaces for a corner shop, community hall and a local pub or micro-brewery. The use of a notched courtyard house type “ensured homes could be pushed closer together along intimate mews streets without privacy issues, while still ensuring positive overlooking of the new streets”, says the architect. Three-storey homes form taller, more positive edges to wider roads and open green space. Typical houses have ground-floor bedrooms looking into a private courtyard, and an open-plan living and kitchen space at first-floor leading out through full-height glazing to a generous roof terrace. Each has its own front door onto tree-lined mews designed as shared-surface spaces.

Rochester Way is organised around three new streets and introduces a new urbanity to its area, a robustness in scale that stands in contrast to the existing suburban condition, made up of 1930s semis. In addition to its generous urban layout, the project engages with the existing neighbourhood by offering a community hall, space for a local pub and a corner shop in a distinctive building that concludes one of the three terraces, facing a main road. Combined with the back-to-back housing type, the project recalls a nostalgia for a particular British heritage. The scheme contains two- and three-bedroom homes with generous private amenity spaces, provided through terraces and front and rear gardens. It also successfully addresses a triangular park to its north-western edge by providing it with a confident elevation of civic scale, mass

The last of the trio of projects completed with Meridian Home Start and the Royal Borough of Greenwich is found a couple of miles to the north at Sandpit Place, ­where 30 two-bedroom and two one-bedroom homes are configured as three blocks of back-to-back terraces, cascading from north to south, forming two new pedestrian streets.

Like Bevan Road and Rochester Way, Sandpit Place introduces a new scale to the existing suburban context. This is achieved through a material and compositional language common to many of Barber’s projects. At Sandpit Place, the three-storey height combined with the use of brick as the primary material creates a sense of weight and heft, a language of permanence. Barber’s bricks, typically in softly toned beiges, browns and chalky whites, are laid with a darker hued mortar and provide a certain familiarity. “People like bricks”, as Barber puts it. Contrasting with this is the irregular form and massing Barber employs, typically as a result of rationalising the building’s plan. At Rochester Way and Sandpit Place the stepping rooflines accommodate private rooftop terraces and gardens. Sometimes the irregular forms allude to special conditions, like at Rochester Way where a chamfered corner and curved, undulating roofline signify different, more public uses. At Bevan Road, the corners of the block are curved where it meets the existing streets to strengthen the connection to the neighbourhood. Combined with the gentle widening of the pavement, they beckon one to explore this new street.

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Sandpit Place A residential development of 32 houses (30 two-bed and two one-bed) for Meridian Home Start is arranged as three back-to-back terraces running north to south across the site, which was previously occupied by a single-storey housing office. Pedestrian mews run between each back-to-back terrace. Each unit’s primary aspect is into private rear terraces and courtyards, avoiding overlooking issues. The site sits within a housing estate but was previously walled off. Arranging the new housing in a ladder of streets that links to existing public routes creates useful cut-through, and is intended to engender a sense of connection. “The houses borrow their layout from Victorian mews houses”, says the architect, “being pretty square in plan and stepping back at the rear to allow light and ventilation and private roof terraces instead of back gardens. We like terraced houses because they make an edge to the street, and think this is a good model for medium-density lower-rise street-based housing”.

The composition of elevations in these buildings has the same playfulness found in Barber’s bright pencil drawings. The colour and arrangement of doors and windows gives the public realm a theatrical quality, “a sort of concentration on the street,” says Barber.

It also recalls the idea that the street and its architecture are the backdrop to everyday life. The importance of this to Barber is reinforced through observation, whether of his Brighton home, where a tight relationship between terraced houses and the pavement draws the theatre of urban life into the private world of the interior, or of cities that are ostensibly quite different to the contexts in which he works. Barber recalls the Djemaa el Fna, a public square in Marrakesh, as an “architecture of festivity, ephemeral, mobile, in flux – foregrounded by people”, and one can imagine something of the same spirit animating the view from the corner oriel window at Bevan Road, or a chat with friends, drink in hand, in the deep recessed balcony facing the street at Rochester Way.

Perhaps less imaginative are the interiors, a challenge for any council-led housing project where cost and prescriptive and generic design standards preclude the sort of playful nature evident in the elevations. Barber ameliorates this with generously lit, well-proportioned rooms and double-aspect living areas with direct connections to private external spaces. The simplicity of the interiors allows for what Michel de Certeau – a central reference for Barber – describes in ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, a domestic space that is a “practised place”, a space for “everyday narrative” capable of supporting the occupant’s domestic habits and rituals.

The proliferation of historic precedents, references and first-hand observation in Barber’s work owes something to his work as a teacher, which has always run concurrently with practice. The scope for speculation afforded in architectural education has informed the characterful nature of the built work and provides a kind of exercise that preserves mental agility, says Barber.

The scope for speculation afforded in architectural education has informed the characterful nature of the built work and provides a kind of exercise that preserves mental agility”

It is this agility that has allowed the practice’s work to develop themes of interest to both architectural critics and the wider public. And it is rare that contemporary architecture garners the kind of public attention that Barber’s work receives: an image of Bevan Road recently shared on social media gained over 60,000 interactions.

Evidently, the work speaks about ideas or ideals that are widely and deeply held. For Barber, the street is the city’s principal ordering device. It is the clarity of this idea – simple, direct and evocative – that is evident in his new additions to Greenwich, and in his wider body of work as an “enthusiast for the city and the street”.

2021-02-18T15:31:15+01:00

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