From a cramped attic studio in a Dickensian building in north London, award-winning Peter Barber Architects is not only living Victorian values but building them. By Jessica Cargill Thompson
From the scale and proliferation of its public housing schemes, the invitations to speak at government conferences or the well stocked trophy cabinet, you’d expect BD’s Public Housing Architect of the Year to be, well, bigger. Actually, Peter Barber Architects is a team of 10 — six architects, two year-out students and a part-time book-keeper — squeezed into an old grade II listed printing workshop at the top of King’s Cross Road in north London.
Peter Barber bought the building on impulse four years ago, seeing the “for sale” sign go up on his way to work and putting in an offer that day. He renovated it himself and left in quirky details such as the original narrow staircase more for comedy value than practicality, given that Barber must be London’s tallest architect. “You’d never get that staircase past Building Control these days,” he says with glee.
The former shopfront, exposed to pavement and traffic, multi-tasks as meeting room, project display and bike park, while the two upper floors accommodate the designers. The tiny glass-roofed kitchen is the only place for personal privacy, but is usually occupied by someone on a mobile. A decked roof terrace, reached by a ladder through the skylight, comes into its own in warmer months with a communal picnic table among potted trees and bushes — pride of place goes to the purple-flowering Bottlebrush.
Most of the team, with the exception of 47-year-old Barber, are under 30, creating a relaxed, jeans-and-trainers culture where the staff lunch together, drink together, go snowboarding together, and take educational citybreaks together. “You can’t know a city until you’ve got drunk in it,” he philosophises.
But the spectre of expansion stalks the practice like a parent threatening to arrive home early and spoil the party. Ever since the completion of breakthrough social housing scheme Donnybrook in east London, clients have been queuing up. So far, the practice has got by, it says, on sheer efficiency and productivity.
“We’re bloody quick,” says Barber. “People think there must be 30 or 40 of us. But there’s none of the time-wasting unavoidable in larger practices, where juniors don’t know what they’re doing and can’t easily be overseen.” He also swears by the office internal communications system, which is basically to shout questions up or down the stairs.
The spectre of expansion stalks the practice like a parent threatening to return early and spoil the party.
But soon, inevitably, there will be too much work for a team of 11 and a quaint Dickensian office to handle. Much as he clearly enjoys being the big brother in the family, Barber is coming round to the fact that the practice must step up to the next level. At the end of last year, he promoted his former student Phil Hamilton, who joined the practice six years ago, to associate director, easing the administrative burden and forming a platform for expansion.
“It would be nice to keep a small team, but it’s our responsibility to grow and get as much of this work as possible because I think we’re getting it right,” he says with characteristic self-confidence.
Barber, an alumnus of the universities of Sheffield and Westminster, started the practice in 1989, having worked for Jestico & Whiles, Will Alsop and Richard Rogers, as well as teaching at the Bartlett. He remains a tutor at Westminster and an RIBA external examiner. Frustrated by the divergence of practice and education, he decided to set up on his own to bring some of the idealism of heroes such as Walter Benjamin and Marshall Berman to bear on the practice of constructing cities.
“‘Practices were pretty resistant to experimentation because of the risks, but at the same time architectural education in this country was buzzing. Too often, teachers have lost the practical skills to build, or practitioners have lost their spirit. If you can drag the hard nuts of commercialism and the dreams and idealism of the theorists into the same space, something really wonderful could happen. In a way, both of those worlds reside in my head and in our work.”
At the same time, a number of his contemporaries were adopting the same practice/pedagogue model: Alex de Rijke, Niall McLaughlin, Sarah Wigglesworth, and old college friends Muf — who remember him as hard-working to the point of obsession even then. “It was pretty dispiriting to begin with,” Barber recalls, “because none of us were getting the commissions we thought were our due. We saw things being built which we didn’t think were any good, and couldn’t understand why we weren’t being given the chance.”
Donnybrook Quarter, now talked of as the epiphany not only for the practice but for contemporary social housing, was radical in its return to a street-style masterplan, its insistence on public space and individual front doors, and subversion of stepped terraces made sculptural and modern by extensive use of white render. Critics swooned and the Circle 33 project reached the last eight of the 2006 Stirling Prize.
You get the same density with a Victorian street as you do with a block, but we think a street is nicer.
Once Barber had a successful project to show clients, and the awards to back it up, it was easier to convince other housing associations that though the firm’s proposals might look scarily avant-garde, they are in essence just an evolution of traditional, desirable Victorian streets. Invited onto competition lists, the practice won commissions of a scale and profile comparable to Donnybrook such as 250 homes at Tanner Street Gateway in Barking, East London, with Jestico & Whiles, a scheme held up by architecture minister Margaret Hodge as an exemplar of good housing.
The firm is also building a string of hostels for homelessness charity St Mungos, the result of an influx of government money for homelessness provision. Its project for a hostel in Lewisham is modelled on traditional almshouses, set around landscaped gardens and allotments, with private rooms opening onto a wide communal space. This, say Hamilton and Barber with nonchalant self-assurance, is Stirling Prize material.
Awaiting planning permission are two more large-scale urban schemes for housing association Places for People: a project to replace an introverted, troubled housing block in Milton Keynes; and blocks of low-rise, back-to-back houses in the heart of Morecambe.
“What we say is that you shouldn’t think of these projects as housing — they’re a piece of the city,” says Barber. “The streets and public spaces are created by homes. You get the same density with a Victorian street as with a block — but we think a street is nicer. Blocks give nothing back.”
Often the practice finds that Building Regulations and other legislative requirements such as Lifetime Homes are an obstruction, and it works with a Building Regulations consultant to push the rules as far as they’ll go. “Everything is being dumbed down to a generic type rather than the specific needs of a site being looked at,” says Hamilton. “The regulations seem to be driving people towards doing big blocks with a single stairwell. It makes you wonder if this sort of over-regulation will lead to the same mistakes as in the sixties and seventies.”
To an extent, Barber has found himself one of the right men at the right time, along with design-led contemporaries such as dRMM, Munkenbeck & Marshall and Fat. His own passion for housing coincided with major housing associations morphing from property caretakers to large-scale developers, while Richard Rogers and the Urban Task Force have made density and restoring life to street level the phrases of the day.
In other words, housing is once again delivering the challenges and opportunities it held for a previous generation of architects. “The future of cities is housing. In the nineties, everyone wanted to do a millennium project, a museum or restaurant or fashion store, and housing was sidelined,” says Barber. “But if you go back a couple of decades, the best students went out to work for local authorities. Great architects should be working on housing projects.”
Room for a view
The roof terrace gives views south-west over the King’s Cross area. Squire & Partners is a near neighbour, and its practice-owned pub, St Chad’s, is a regular hang-out.
The ground floor meeting room. It’s only 5.40pm during the BD photoshoot, but staff seem keen to leave...
Down the pub
At 6pm precisely, the entire staff is round the table at Smithy’s pub.
On their bikes
Staff regularly cycle to work. The Fortnum & Mason hamper belonged to Brigid.
What does your job entail?
I work for the practice one daya week and anything to do with money tends to cross my desk: book-keeping, invoicing, billing projects, expenses. And I look after Pete in a PA kind of way. I’m trained as a book-keeper, but an accountant oversees my work.
How long have you been with the practice?
Since 2002 — over five years! I worked it out recently and was quite shocked. It was still really small then, just Pete, one other staff member and me. Pete had heard about me through some other architects I was working for, and asked me to come in and sort him out. He was a sole trader and just had bags of receipt, so I got him computerised.
Book-keeping isn’t your only qualification.
No, I have a degree in psychology and have worked as a crisis counsellor dealing mainly with young people. At the moment, though, I’m trying to write a novel.
What is your psychologist’s view of architects?
It’s a tough business — I hadn’t realised that. It’s very competitive and they’re always walking a tightrope between the practical and the creative. How something created in the imagination turns into real life is fascinating from a psychologist’s point of view.
What do you think of the practice’s work? A lot of non-architects find it quite radical.
Their ethos is that the end user is number one — which isn’t the case in a lot of practices. I’ve counselled a lot of the sorts of people who will be using Pete’s buildings. The hostels, in particular, are fabulous — it’s great that they’re doing something for people who aren’t usually very well served.
Photographs by Ed Tyler
BD Magazine - Housing - April 2008