In some ways, there doesn’t seem much that is special about this scheme. It is a good piece of south London brick infill, a reinterpretation of the city’s suburban terraced housing and a solid and respectful intervention. The architecture is determinedly contemporary but with enough rhythm and geometry to echo the bays and composition of the surrounding houses, which is itself not uniform.
What is original here is not so much the architecture (although the architect, Peter Barber, is arguably the most interesting designer of housing in London today), but rather the funding model.
Hafer Road is a typical terraced street in south London’s Battersea. A gap in the Victorian fabric caused by a Luftwaffe bomb during the second world war, like many of these sites it was filled in with social housing by the Greater London Council in the 1950s. This was part of a deliberate effort to mix social housing in with the established neighbourhoods of the homeowning and private-rental sectors. The residents in the replacement block had all managed to buy their homes from the council under the right-to-buy initiative introduced under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s (the ethics and economic consequences of which are another story entirely). The seven householders grouped together to build a new block, and added eight new residences that were sold for enough to fund the whole project. They effectively traded up for free.
It might seem that there isn’t much unusual in this. Certainly in central Europe, in Germany, Austria, Hungary as well as in Scandinavia, there would be nothing at all out of the ordinary in this. But in Britain and in the US it does count as unusual. There is no real culture here of building for yourself, particularly communal projects like this. Instead, housing is left almost exclusively to big housebuilders that have a virtual monopoly on the supply of land. Banks and building societies are also unwilling to lend on this kind of undertaking and somehow, despite endless reality TV shows and property section features, the culture of commissioning an architect to build a development privately has not taken root.
Hafer Road’s group of houses shows just how successful it can be — in both urban and financial terms. Much of this is thanks to Barber, whose specialism is social housing. That is a rare and frankly rather special specialism to have in the contemporary environment of London development. Yet he has made a notable career of it and, as a result, designed some of the city’s most urbane, intelligent and beautiful housing. His Donnybrook Quarter in Hackney looks like a hybrid between the Middle East and early avant-grade modernism, Worland Gardens in Stratford is reminiscent of inter-war vaguely Art Deco housing estates and his Holmes Road housing for the homeless, manages to mix Victorian workshop architecture, elegant mews and a jolly row of beachfront huts with the most minimal of means.
I know this column is not exactly aimed at social housing tenants, but there is nothing bargain basement about Barber’s architecture. It is serious, respectful and dense, and in Hafer Road he has shown how homeowners can take lessons from social housing and apply them to a broader context. Why not build your own apartment block?
Photographs: Morley von Sternberg
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