Does the Future of Public Housing Lie in These Cozy London Projects?

Peter Barber’s housing complex in Newham. Photo: Morley von Sternberg

If you happen to be walking down McGrath Road in Newham, a deeply untouristed part of London that stretches east of Olympic Park, you might stumble on an incongruously battlemented citadel of narrow, three-story houses encircling a stone-paved court. A row of parabolic arches lines the street, like a railway viaduct seen through a slightly distorting lens. The elements on the brick façade could almost be out of a catalogue — recessed windows framed in olive green, French doors with flat-arch lintels, and so on — but their arrangement is layered and complex, like a Cuban percussion section. You could bang out each level as a different rhythm: the bass-drum downbeat of the large arch, the regular three-quarter time of the doors above, the balcony railings’ rat-a-tat of semiquavers, and variously sized windows snapping separate syncopations.

The complex was designed by Peter Barber, who, along with a loose confederation of like-minded architects, hopes to revive the noble art of affordable housing in one of the world’s most unaffordable cities. He and his peers are fomenting a mini-revolution in social responsibility infiltrating the cracks between broad blocks of indifference. Local councils, which for much of the 20th century used national government grants to put up vast quantities of public housing, have had to become fiscally creative, often behaving like nonprofit private developers. The results are getting noticed: This year, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded its prestigious Stirling Prize to a complex of 100 energy-efficient council homes on Goldsmith Street in Norwich designed by the London-based firm Mikhail Riches. The prize blared the virtues of social housing as a way of encouraging more of it.

I meet Barber at his storefront studio near King’s Cross, where the window is so jammed with architectural models that passers-by periodically ring the bell to see what’s for sale. There’s something vaguely Dickensian about the ground-level space and the way Barber clatters down a narrow staircase from the atelier and hauls out great ledgers filled with drawings, plans, and photographs of projects stretching back a couple of decades. “It’s still a poxy little practice,” he says, “just eight or nine of us. But we get a lot of work done. Nobody ever leaves, because we have good fun and we know what we think housing is about.”

Barber’s designs don’t look radical: At a glance, you might easily mistake one for a handsome, freshly refurbished holdover from a more generous time. Most are two- and three-story structures, though the architect is also adept at the kind of midsize apartment block that strikes terror into neighborhoods of single-family houses. Peckham Road Mansions in Southwark, for instance, looks conventional at first glance and slightly nuts at the second, bristling with bays, terraces, and jutting balconies as if Barber had bolted together a bunch of thrift-store finds for the sheer joy of assemblage.

His practice is an unexpected mixture of progressive politics and ye olde urbanism. For Barber, the street is the main ingredient in city building, and that is where architecture should begin. That may seem self-evident, but Barber’s portfolio shows just how much effort it takes to reinvent the past. It has been exactly 100 years since the British parliament passed the Addison Act, after which providing decent shelter to everyone was considered one of government’s basic duties. But the history of council housing stretches back even farther and covers an immense range of styles, from the brooding Victorian flats of the Boundary Estate, which graciously embraces Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, to Aylesbury Estate, a massive arrangement of concrete domino tiles executed in a style best described as High Penitentiary. Like so many housing projects in the United States, Aylesbury was built with fine intentions and poor materials, then left to decay. (It has been under fitful reconstruction for years.)

That self-fulfilling parable of social housing, in which management’s neglect of the physical plant gets reinterpreted as a sign of social rot among the residents, led to its predetermined conclusion: that affordable housing creates more problems than it solves. That philosophy of distaste culminated in the policies of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1980 promulgated the “right to buy.” Residents of council housing could purchase their homes at discounts so deep it would have been foolish not to.

The law produced a bouquet of ironies. Relatively well-off, often older residents bought, while a poorer, younger cohort didn’t. Flipping the properties fast-tracked gentrification, and the stock of subsidized homes started sluicing away, making a council flat an ever-rarer prize. There is always a housing shortage in the U.K., but in London it has reached a kind of grotesque extreme, with vast swaths of Chelsea and Marylebone owned by absentee investors and young professionals commuting from other cities like Bath, two hours each way. (Barber long ago moved to Brighton and shuttles to his storefront office.) Mayor Sadiq Khan announced in 2017 that the city needed to construct 66,000 new homes per year, most of them subsidized, in order to ease the crisis. The actual number built has been less than half that.

Barber traces his career to the Urban Task Force convened by Richard Rogers at the behest of the government in the late 1990s. “At that time, we were still in the postwar functionalist era: very big distances between houses, huge parking requirements, and so on,” he says. “Traffic engineers ruled the roost.” The task force produced a welter of recommendations for cultivating denser and more humane neighborhoods — the kind of suggestion that might have been filed away under “Good Intentions” were it not for Rogers’s clout. Barber exulted. “Traditional urbanism was reborn at the same time that I was fascinated by North African and Southern European cities,” he says.

You can sense the call of the south in his competition-winning design for a housing scheme that became the Donnybrook Quarter, a dense but gracious huddle of flat-topped white houses with balconies, terraces, and bays, and a street and piazza slicing through. “It’s not a housing scheme; it’s a piece of the city,” he says. That project contains the seeds of all the design his firm has produced ever since, although it has ditched white stucco for good old British brick.

Ah, brick. By training a modernist, by necessity a pragmatist, Barber is at bottom a romantic rooted in English scenery and traditions. The essays he occasionally posts on his website offer glimpses into the emotional life of architecture, and none are more rapturous than his ode to brick: “My first love? … the vernacular buildings of Surrey and East Sussex. Hunkered down against a fold in a Wielden landscape … soft pinky bricks of downland clay in rat-trap bond with a dusting of lichen and mossy grapevine pointing.”

Barber’s surfaces are knotty and mottled, full of friction and shadow. You could light a match on one of his façades. “We like bricks that have lots of variation and look like they might be in some barn in New England.” (Brick barns are rare, but they do exist.) “So the forms are modern but the material old, and it has a visual complexity and a kind of handmade vibe.” In most contemporary practice, a veneer of bricks is pre-bonded to a concrete panel and hoisted into position. Barber’s buildings, on the other hand, involve laying them the ancient way. His arches aren’t made by decorating steel supports but instead use the same technique the Romans used, letting bricks support one another. Immigration has helped build a corps of willing craftsmen. “We’re lucky enough to have laborers coming here from Eastern Europe, where brickwork is still part of the vernacular,” he says. (That supply of imported expertise is one of the many things Brexit may change.)

Far from imposing an all-purpose stylistic solution on a complex social issue, Barber is attuned to the quirks of law and local character, which is why most of his buildings are small and low to the ground, but interior layouts vary. Each of the McGrath Road houses is organized as a stack of rooms, which he acknowledges is not for everyone: “They’re rubbish if you have bad knees, because you’re walking up and down stairs all the time.” His Holmes Road Cottages in Kentish Town, designed for people who have been homeless, is a row of studios facing onto a courtyard, each one with a narrow, brightly painted door surmounted by a porthole window and a wavy parapet.

“In this country, we love to have our own front door on the street rather than sharing an entrance with hundreds of other flats so we don’t know who’s coming and going. I think it’s quite a London thing. Or an English thing,” Barber says. That predilection is expressed in a welter of regulations: Each house must have at least 530 square feet of garden, porch, or terrace; face in at least two directions; and leave at least 72 feet of open space between the wall and a neighbor’s window. Rules like these encourage architects to hew to the most unthinking solutions, producing homes that fetishize conformity. Barber’s skill is to come up with idiosyncratic interpretations, packing entirely legal little villages into unpromising scraps of land.

Sometimes this means reinventing long-disdained forms, like the back-to-back houses that once packed cities in England’s industrial north and have since been almost completely obliterated. “People were living in absolute squalor,” Barber says. “The sanitation was appalling. The maintenance of the buildings was dreadful.” But give residents good plumbing and a few more square feet and bring in abundant daylight, and he believes that, as with so many forgotten elements of city building, housing, and civic-minded architecture, it’s time for the back-to-back to come back.

Public Housing’s Future May Lie in These London Projects