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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