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The Places that Camden Built: Part 1, Small Scale

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Regent's Park Road bridge. Varda Zisman, 1972.

In the first installment of her exploration of Camden's architectural highlights, Ruth Lang looks at some of the borough's best small-scale projects...

An introduction

In the years since its formation, the Borough of Camden has become renowned for its careful balance between the value of conservation and the futurespective qualities of innovation it has encouraged in architecture across the borough[1]. Historically, Camden has provided a home for seminal works by the likes of British stalwarts John Soane, Norman Shaw and Phillip Webb, as well as Modernist masters Tecton, Erno Goldfinger, and Powell and Moya. This mindset is continued in Camden’s current guise thanks to the work of the Planning Department, rooted in the precedent of the schemes for which the Borough has won such renown. The built legacy these characters left behind has been delivered over a series of scales; some developed through independent commissions, others within the jurisdiction of the Council under the watchful eye of characters such as Sydney Cook [see THE PEOPLE WHO BUILT CAMDEN] and Martin Morton[2].

Part 1: The Small Scale

The large number of notable one-off projects of experimental design led renowned historian Nikolaus Pevsner to declare that “no other part of London can boast such a range of individual modern buildings of the later 20th century.”[3] The most prominent may well be John Winter’s Cor-Ten box built at 81 Swain's Lane (1966-9) overlooking Highgate Cemetery as his own home[4], but South Hill Park alone contains several notable one-off houses: No. 78 (1965), an innovative concrete and glass block gridded construction by Brian Housden which is no more typically cosy on the inside than it appears from the outside; next door are Nos. 80 to 90 (1956), an experiment in “compact, low-cost housing”[5] in brickwork framing with exposed concrete slabs and prefabricated infill panels by and for the architects Stanley and Isabel Amis with William and Gillian Howell. The gentlemen won renown for their concurrent work on the Alton Estate in Roehampton as part of the LCC’s housing division, the principles of which are continued here; and No. 29 (1962) by T. Ingersoll, again in barefaced brickwork with exposed concrete slab structure, forming a loosely associated pair with Michael Brawne’s adjacent development at No.31 the previous year[6].

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81 Swain's Lane by John Winter
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Left: 78 South Hill Park (1965) Right: 80-90 South Hill Park (1956). By Stanley and Isabel Amis with William and Gillian Howell. (Image: Londonphile)

In addition to these, Michael and Patty Hopkins’ house at 49a Downshire Hill (1977) provided not only a base for their fledgling architectural firm, but also set model for the development of their practice. The house is a sleek advocate for the high-tech movement of which they played a founding part, employing commercial construction systems in contrast to the adjacent Regency villas which line the rest of the street. Unexpectedly for a residential property, an open steel structural grid to the roof and floors sandwiches full-height glazing to the front and rear of the property, exposing the Mecano-like frame within which the use of the house can be readily adapted. Thanks to the dramatic topography of the area, the house appears to be a single storey from the road to diminish its appearance, yet opens up behind where the ground falls away to reveal an additional storey.

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49a Downshire Hill by Micheal and Patty Hopkins

This was an approach also adopted by numbers 2C and 2D Belsize Park Gardens (1981), which nestle diminutively within the brick-and-stucco context of the residential Belsize conservation area. Their single storey steel-frame structures were originally designed to provide open plan family homes for their architects Robin Spence and Robin Webster[7], although the plan was designed with the potential to be subdivided so that it could also be used as a self-contained flat, for providing additional children’s bedrooms, or to act as a workspace. The form and detailing of the structure combine to give the appearance of a building which is much more slender than it truly is, leading Professor Neil Jackson to proclaim that the design “…allow[s] for modern living within an historic environment without imposing themselves while, at the same time, being true to contemporary design principles and aspirations.” [8]

The two residences are based around a courtyard to maximize secluded internal and external living areas within a tight site - in turning discretely away from their neighbours, each dwelling is instead opened up to the sky through the use of large skylights and the flexible use of the courtyard. The innovative use of the courtyard design was deemed of particular importance by the Twentieth Century Society, who argued the case for their listing in the face of proposed demolition in 2010.

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2C and 2D Belsize Park Gardens by Robin Spence and Robin Webster

Article by Ruth Lang. #Camden50

Footnotes

[1] An ethic clearly demonstrated in the multi-award winning redevelopment of the area around Kings Cross – including the new university complex for Central St Martins within the old Granary building by Stanton Williams, and the station itself, which creates “a remarkable dialogue between Cubitt’s original 19th century station and 21st-century architecture” in the words of the architects John McAslan + Partners, who also undertook the latest iteration of developments to the Roundhouse in 1997.

[2] Who served on the council from 1964 to 74, during which he was also Chair of the Housing Committee from 1968-70.

[3] Pevsner, Nikolaus and Cherry, Bridget, “The Buildings of England: London 4: North”, Yale University Press, 1994

[4] Winter also built the Electric dustcart depot at Vicar's Road whilst working within the Borough’s architects’ department, and Modernist houses on Ornan Road

[5] Pevsner, Nikolaus and Cherry, Bridget, “The Buildings of England: London 4: North”, Yale University Press, 1994

[6] Camden Mews and Murray Mews also boast a wealth of such notable developments by Team 4, Edward Cullinan, and Tom Kay. A fairly comprehensive list of others in the area - and there are many more - can be found at http://daveanderson.me.uk/houses/london.html

[7] However, the house was designed to be subdivided so that it could also be used as a self-contained flat, for providing additional children’s bedrooms, or to act as a workspace.

[8] Jackson, Neil “The Modern Steel House”, Taylor & Francis, June 1996. Jackson is Professor of Architecture at Liverpool University. See also Modern Homes in Camden, Camden Council, 1984