Alison Brooks Architects reinterprets the London mansion block in South Kilburn
Of three projects by Alison Brooks Architects within the South Kilburn Estate Regeneration masterplan, Ely Court is the first to complete. In total, ten practices are working on the 15-year programme, which aims to transform the area and reintegrate the estate into the fabric of the city through the provision of 2400 new homes. Commissioned by the London Borough of Brent and Catalyst Housing, Ely Court provides 44 homes, and is intended to act as a driver for the estate’s ongoing social and urban transformation.
Following an architectural competition for each phase, the council has overseen both community engagement and construction in partnership with the developers. The local authority has also managed the allocation of social housing in the £8.2m development – 50 per cent of flats are affordable, and all existing tenants were offered new homes.
Alison Brooks Architects’ design is a contemporary reinterpretation of the street-based urban grain that characterised the area before its post-war redevelopment with precast concrete slab blocks set in open space.
The 6,509-square-metre project frames a new 400-square-metre garden square in front of Alpha House, part of the 1960s estate. The design draws on the varied nature of its surrounding context, which includes Victorian semi-detached villas, 1960s blocks, a Salvation Army centre and a former pub.
The result is the creation of four distinct building types – Terrace, Mews, Link block and Flatiron – with varying scales and organisation but unified by the common use of brick. Tenure is split equally between social rent and private, with unit sizes generally exceeding the London Housing Design Guide standards. In each type, ABA has aimed to provide “exceptionally high quality, bright and spacious units”, with a 2.6-metre floor-to-ceiling height and full-height French doors.
The Terrace references the nineteenth-century mansion blocks of neighbouring Maida Vale, but adapts the type to include two-storey maisonettes on the ground floor with apartments above. “A rhythmic composition of front porticoes, upper porticoes and recessed balconies creates a highly articulated street facade”, notes ABA. Running parallel with the Terrace, the eight-house Mews introduces a finer grain of development, drawing pedestrians and vehicles into what was previously an under-used space between slab blocks and forming a new green spine. The serrated roofscape allows additional sunlight into the homes.
Viewpoint – Alison Brooks:
“Ely Court is composed of street-facing buildings of different types, of which the main one is a contemporary interpretation of the nineteenth-century mansion block in the form of a long terrace on Chichester Road. The site is on the doorstep of Maida Vale, which has a spectacular consistency of mansion blocks; I live nearby and pass through often, and after a while it dawns on one that there’s something extraordinary about the type.
The key thing is that there are no corridors, which can institutionalise a domestic building. Nevertheless, mansion blocks are incredibly malleable, as you can have two, three, or four flats off a core. Each option changes the building and sets off different patterns and rhythms in the facades.
They were very smart in the nineteenth century, in the sense that a mansion block is a straight bar, which avoids a lot of problems that you encounter in trying to turn the corner with housing – problems with light, air, gardens, balconies, and overlooking. It’s also quite nice to have gaps between urban blocks where you can see through to gardens.
And mansion blocks were obviously seen as a canvas for all sorts of experimentation in style, and there’s often an expressive roofscape, which is another area of lost opportunity in modern architecture.
The ‘mansion block’ at Chichester Road has the appearance of terraced houses, another London type, so it’s a kind of hybrid. That arises from the way that we must now incorporate a range of tenures within any new development. Family units are larger and it’s good if they have direct access to outside space, so they are embedded as two-storey maisonettes on the ground and first floors – which was not done in the nineteenth century. Because they have a very clear entrance defined by a porch, they read as individual houses. Communal entrances give access to the flats on the upper floors via double-height spaces that lend a sense of grandeur.
The thinness of the block – the fact that it is effectively two rooms deep and you can see right through from front to back – is also more commonly associated with houses than apartment buildings, which often have double-loaded corridors and become very bulky. Although the building could easily be higher – six or eight storeys – and work well, it retains a domestic scale. The shallow plan also means that all units are through-units, so you get flats that are at least dual aspect, if not triple, with sun in the morning and in the afternoon.
London’s Victorian mansion blocks were experimental formally, materially and with iconography, but the approach at Ely Court draws on the clean form of the Georgian terrace; its expression is about rhythm, proportion and the sculpting of mass by carving out recessed balconies or adding elements in a different material.
The Georgian influence on London’s residential architecture in recent years has been good for the city and for the longevity of buildings. Though many are generic or inoffensively neutral, their simplicity means that they will be more durable than those buildings of the 1990s characterised by lots of colours, materials and layers, which have not aged or weathered well.
But there’s an even worse problem now, which is that most high-density housing is built to London Housing Design Guidelines minimum standards. The guidelines are good, but because architects’ briefs always ask for ‘LHDG minimum’, the results are all starting to look the same. I call it the ‘LHDG Minimum Style’: a six-square-metre balcony, two panels of glazing for the living room and so on. You need a bit of generosity to make buildings adaptable, and that is being compromised. And while many developers recognise that good ceiling heights make a better product, it’s hard to get agreement for taller widows that give a better proportion to the elevations, for example.
Interior views (phs: NC)
Added to that are demands for plans that are highly efficient in terms of the ratio of sellable area to communal area, or floor area to facade. A thin footprint building such as the mansion block is inherently inefficient in those terms, though much better in terms of quality of life. Ely Court was possible because the council’s project is restoring a piece of city. It first priority is good urban design and architecture, and if that means a thin-footprint building that’s a little more expensive, so be it.”
Alison Brooks Architects
WSP, Tully De’Ath
Norman Disney & Young
London Borough of Brent, Catalyst Housing
Traditional Brick & Stone
Windows and doors