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

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

Architectural historian Elain Harwood described the Barbican arts and housing complex as “the greatest piece of combined urban planning and architecture in Britain in the 21st century”. Designed by architects Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon in the 1950s and 1960s, it once drew flak for its Brutalist finishes and impregnability to visitors but is now loved by critics and residents alike.

Filmmakers Laura Cade and Duncan Brown moved into their three-bedroom, two-storey Chamberlin, Powell and Bon-designed property three years ago and could not be happier. “The sun comes shining through the skylights and hits different parts of the hall,” says Cade. “It’s just beautiful.”

But the couple do not live in the Barbican. Their house is on the Vanbrugh Park Estate, five miles along the Thames beside Greenwich Park. They paid £493,000 and the houses now fetch around £600,000. An equivalent-sized duplex in the Barbican was listed for £1.195mn in April.

It is possible to live in the products of some of the greatest minds in postwar architecture for what, by the capital’s standards, are modest prices.

Cade and Brown’s new home is one of a series of terraces facing paved courtyards. A facade with narrow bands of glazing leads to an airy open-plan interior, stretching back 25ft to glass sliding doors and a courtyard garden and up two and a half storeys to a roof lantern. The living space’s central feature is a quarry-tiled cube housing a fireplace; beside it, a suspended timber staircase leads to the upper floor. “When we saw pictures of the interiors we thought, yes, they are just gorgeous,” Cade says.

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

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

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

In the early 1990s, I moved into a two-bedroom flat in Sivill House, a 1960s block overlooking the Columbia Road flower market, above the north-east corner of the Square Mile. Its architect, Berthold Lubetkin, is best known for his penguin pool at London Zoo, with its helix ramps, and for the Highpoint blocks in Highgate. Highpoint One was described by Le Corbusier as “an achievement of the first rank” and is Grade I-listed.

Duncan Brown, owner of the house: ‘There is a flow about it’
Duncan Brown, owner of the house: ‘There is a flow about it’ © Lesley Lau

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

It wasn’t the variegated facade — with patterns abstracted from the dragon motifs on rugs once woven in Lubetkin’s native Georgia — that impressed me most, or the 19-storey spiral staircase. It wasn’t even the most obvious features of my 700 sq ft flat: the recessed balcony where you could dry washing in the rain; the glass wall in the south-facing living room flooding it with light in winter; or even the trapezoid-shaped second bedroom.

It was something more subtle; a feeling that grew stronger over years of the rightness of the shape, proportions and sequence of the rooms, that were so much better and more flexible in use than most other purpose-built apartments I had seen. Like Cade and Brown, I felt I was living in a space conceived as a home rather than just a unit of accommodation.

“He had a very keen sense of how small flats could be laid out in a considerate way that reflected the lifestyles of the people who were likely to live in them,” says John Allan, who has superintended the restoration of some of Lubetkin’s major works and wrote the definitive work on the architect.

Sivill House, in Shoreditch, by Berthold Lubetkin
Sivill House, in Shoreditch, by Berthold Lubetkin; author Louis Wustemann lived here for 25 years after buying a flat in the 1990s © View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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

Does he believe Lubetkin gave the same level of attention to his public housing as to a luxury project such as Highpoint? “Certainly, there is no question about that. It was an important part of his training to interrogate every single detail of a design. There was nothing that was too unimportant to not be worthy of rethinking if a better solution could be found.”

He agrees with my sense that the designer had projected himself into the space to test living in it before it existed in three dimensions. “It wasn’t just a case of looking at buildings,” says Allan. “He almost listened to them, to hear what they were saying.”

This sensitivity to the liveability of their designs was shared by many postwar Modernists, some of whom went on to make their names with commissions for grander buildings but who cut their teeth on city-centre council housing built to be let on fair rents to lower-income families.

Highpoint, in Highgate, by Berthold Lubetkin, also known for his 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 argue the rights and wrongs of these properties’ transfer to the private sector — many on the market were sold to their tenants in the 1980s under the Right to Buy scheme. But it is clear they formed the high-water mark of social housing in the UK — both in volume and in design terms — before local authorities were restricted from building property to rent for three decades.

Sivill House recently gained Grade II listing; you can buy a tea towel printed with its facade. Peach Properties is listing a one-bedroom flat in the block for a guide price of £300,000-£320,000, a comparable price with other ex-local authority one-beds in the area. 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 sq ft one-bedroom flat for £599,999 in a ridged aluminium-clad 1960s co-operative housing development by Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell, separately later responsible for numerous landmarks such as London’s MI5 headquarters and Cornwall’s Eden Project. There is no obvious premium attached to such work by some of the UK’s 20th-century architectural greats.

“A lot of people still want traditional architecture,” says Stefi Orazi, seeking to explain the anomaly. Orazi lives in a Hampstead flat designed by Benson & Forsyth, who were involved in some of north London’s most striking council housing projects and later designed the postmodern extension to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. “When I came into it, I immediately fell in love with it,” she says of the apartment.

The Barbican cultural and residential complex
The Barbican cultural and residential complex © Tony Baggett/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For her blog and later book Modernist Estates, Orazi talked to 21 occupants of some of the most celebrated 20th-century housing complexes, from Eric Lyons’ Span houses to Wells Coates’ Isokon building. (The Modern House website, which often lists lower-priced Modernist properties, has a four-bedroom town house in south London, designed by Lyons-inspired Raglan Squire, for £795,000.)

“Generally speaking, they were all in the creative industries; people who had an appreciation of design,” Orazi says of her interviewees. “They were mostly middle class but didn’t have huge budgets.”

For the minority of buyers who are attracted by Modernist styling, often an incentive to stay comes not just from a creeping appreciation of the quality of the architects’ placemaking but also of the communities they helped foster. I lived happily in Sivill House for more than 25 years and am still in touch with my neighbours. A few miles east in Blackheath, Laura Cade and Duncan Brown are working with others to add greenery to some of the neglected common areas between the estate’s terraces.

“We went out in 2020 and all sang to someone on their 100th birthday,” says Cade. “We have a summer party on the big lawn — it feels welcoming to everybody.” Could they imagine themselves moving away? “No,” they both say.

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