Architecture review: Just 3.5m wide - but check out the view
PUBLISHED: 06:00 02 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:09 02 August 2020
Architect Gordon Shrigley looks at some new houses which make up for their minimal width with impressive height, and touches on a forthcoming new landmark for Old Street.
Since 2018 Hackney Council has built a number of architecturally significant projects in the borough.
Many have been part of its cross-subsidy plan, which funds new affordable housing, while others have been for sale, with profits used to pay for new council homes.
The cross-subsidy plan is an innovative way to pay for new social housing. It also ensures that the council continues to nurture the culture of Hackney by creating homes people can afford, so avoiding in part, the market-led social cleansing experienced by some parts of the borough.
1-7 Aikin Villas, one of the first cross-subsidy projects, designed by Hackney-based Stephen Taylor architects in 2018, is for seven townhouses (four for social rent and three for sale), that replace an uninspiring 1950s block of flats in Barbauld Road, Stoke Newington.
Hackney’s cross-subsidy plan though has attracted criticism. Using precious council land to partly create homes for high income groups will never be a popular policy, but for a cash strapped council, this is the only way to create more affordable homes without government subsidy.
Discovering though that one of the townhouses was recently sold for £1.2 million, does feel irksome within a borough whose average income is only £28K.
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On the upside, Hackney’s cross-subsidy plan does result in tenants living in houses worth £1.2 million, which is no bad thing, if you believe that high quality housing should be for all and not just for those who can afford it.
Apart from an example of innovative housing policy, Aikin Villas is also interesting architecturally too, as the first thing one notices about the houses is how skinny they are, measuring only 3.5 meters wide. Designing each house in this way allowed the architects “to rethink the anticipated brief for seven flats into a project for seven houses”, as most would prefer, it seems, to live in a ‘cosy’ house rather than a ‘functional’ flat.
For most people a 3.5-meters-wide house might feel a bit tight, so to counterweight the reduced width, each house is four storeys high, giving each dwelling the character of an 18th century Dutch townhouse, and if you have the legs for stairs, the rooftop terrace allows spectacular views of both the Shard and the City of London skyline.
The houses also include a series of strikingly minimalist bay windows, clad in a luxurious chocolate brown brick tile, that give a sharp crispness to the ground floor façades in contrast to the more everyday detailing above.
Another iconic feature is the brick gable wall on Harcombe Road, the top of which leans forward in the style of a rockabilly ‘fohawk’ haircut, refreshingly breaking the overall rectilinear geometry of the project and the adjacent buildings rooflines.
Aikin Villas is then socially and architecturally of note. However, one can definitely see where money has been saved, as parts of the facades are already weathering in an unsightly fashion. Nevertheless, for a vision of how social housing could be, this project definitely gets my vote.
Another significant project currently in construction is the new 22-storey Shoreditch Art’otel, which has been designed in the words of the architects Squire and Partners, as a “fractured cogwheel form”. Through sheer scale alone, this will make an impressive addition to the buildings around Old Street roundabout.
Gordon Shrigley architect July 2020
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