As London prices thrust ever upwards, we thought we’d look at an alternative way to find a place to call home without having to compromise on size or location. Buyers generally feel they have two choices when the demand for property sends prices out of their budget: look at a cheaper neighbourhood, or downgrade the amount of space they’ll accept for their money. But there is another option that doesn’t get so much publicity; buy a former council property.
As home to London’s first council estate and a good few buildings that set the standard for contemporary architecture, East London has a collection of former council blocks that sell for significantly less than their trendier lofty counterparts without compromising on location or size, and often with more than a nugget of visionary modernism.
At the top of the tree there’s the Barbican, one of London’s most well-known addresses and arts hangouts. As Brutalist as they come, it’s home to some pretty radical living spaces, from the double storey apartments of Ben Johnson House to some true diamonds in the sky at Shakespeare, Cromwell and Lauderdale – its three iconic towers. The Barbican, however, is not for those on a budget and has become seriously hot property. But not everywhere is so famous or costly.
Sivill House on Columbia Road – and you can’t say that’s not a great address – is a 1950s Constructivist tower of 56 apartments with increasingly fine views as you work your way up the 17 floors inside its Tetris-style concrete shell. It was designed by a group of architects including Berthold Lubetkin, an early pioneer of modernism in Britain and the man behind, among other things, the penguin pool at London Zoo and also the Finsbury Health Centre, that went on to become the model for a newly created and accessible NHS.
Sivill House, Shoreditch
16-storey Keeling House in Bethnal Green, the first post-war council flats to become Grade II Listed, is a cluster of 4 blocks arranged around a central service tower. A radical transformation occurred when, after falling into disrepair, the building was sold to private developers. In 2001 they added architectural ponds, a penthouse floor and a glass atrium, garnering a RIBA award in the process and turning the Denys Lasdun (of South Bank Centre fame) -designed building into something of a Mecca for budget-conscious minimalists. It’s fast catching up on regular prices.
Keeling House, Bethnal Green
If you prefer it old-skool, but can’t stretch to a school conversion, how about the world’s very first council estate? Arnold Circus, right in the middle of Shoreditch (yet still, somehow, fairly quiet) is a series of red brick Victorian buildings arranged around an elevated central bandstand. Also Grade II Listed, it replaced a former slum (which moved to Dalston) and could be regarded as an early sign of the new middle classes forming an interest in the East End.
Arnold Circus, Shoreditch. Photo courtesy of lovelondoncouncilhousing.com
We’ll be exploring ex-council modernism in other parts of London over the coming months.