The development known as Hoxton Press represents a curious reversal of the architectural and social history of east London. Where once acres of brick terraces were demolished to make way for council housing in tower blocks, this scheme sees two towers of private apartments set in a low-rise landscape of new social housing.
One tower is in grey brick, the other in more familiar red brick (they are the same material; the darker one has been fired one extra time) and they are striking, elegant and unexpected structures.
While many of the new towers nearby are glassy or metallic (too close to their own computer-generated images) and the local council towers are simple slabs (their bases dominated by bins) these are chamfered, irregular and moulded in such a way as to maintain views through the estate to the park and to allow the sun to continue to reach surrounding housing.
The ground floors are heavily glazed, but their luxury is in solidity rather than glamour. The bare bricks envelop the interior of the lobby as well as the outside with an elegant curving ceiling and a sparse reception desk — these are not buildings that display their wealth to their social-housing neighbours, which are also executed in brick and designed to at least the same standards.
What is so unusual — and so admirable — in this design is that the private apartments are directly funding the building of the social housing in this phase of the Colville estate redevelopment. The towers have displaced local authority properties and all tenants of the 432 social rented flats have been given the right to return to new properties around the estate.
The existing residents preferred low-rise housing, which is what they got. The master-planners here, architects Karakusevic Carson, have built a reputation for working with the local authority, Hackney, in conjunction with residents and communities. Hackney itself deserves great credit for building council housing at a time when local authorities are struggling with fierce budget cuts, and for developing a housing department that is rich in expertise and is building in a way that councils have not in almost two generations.
Karakusevic Carson teamed up to build the towers with David Chipperfield Architects, who are better known for high-end housing, such as One Kensington Gardens in London and The Bryant in New York. The combination has been successful. Clearly aware of the architectural legacy of slightly flimsy council housing towers, these are solid volumes from which generous terraces have been carved.
Also clearly cognisant of the legacy of shabby, unused grassy patches between towers, the landscaping here is hard and neat, granite cobbles set into a gentle mound at the centre.
More importantly, the whole estate is permeable and united through its surfaces — brick walls, stone floors that run through all parts, whether social, privately sold or rented. There is no sense of separation here, that the towers might have some kind of special status.
These towers do not contain fantastically decadent apartments, but they do feature remarkable views across Shoreditch Park to the City of London and Canary Wharf, with double-aspect windows wrapping around the contours of the structure.
There are carefully considered architectural touches in the language, like the bricks that are laid in a stacked bond (like a regular grid rather than the staggered and more familiar version) to communicate that they are not structural but more akin to a cladding of tiles. Yet the bricks have their own tactile solidity: handcrafted and carefully mortared to maintain the handmade, irregular feel.
The landscaping around the whole estate is outstanding. Meticulously designed using bespoke components and high-quality materials, it is the work of local practices Muf and Vogt, and its careful continuity is critical to ensuring a visual flow, binding the buildings together through a shared material and formal language. It is a quirky landscape, a shallow mound between the towers, kerbs defining little front gardens around doors, beautifully laid granite blocks making elegant but subtle geometric patterns.
A nervousness around gentrification affects any large new development in north and east London especially, but to have built almost 200 new apartments and, at the same time, increased the quantity and quality of the surrounding social housing and made a mixed new neighbourhood of real architectural quality is a remarkable and admirable achievement.
Photographs: Peter Landers; Simon Menges