Social climbers

Words:
Hugh Pearman

With the local council staying firmly hands on, these two new ‘luxury’ apartment towers in east London will help subsidise regeneration of a vast postwar housing estate

  • All-round brickiness frames the view south to the City.
    All-round brickiness frames the view south to the City. Credit: Simon Menges
  • Relationship between the towers is angled to reduce overlooking.
    Relationship between the towers is angled to reduce overlooking. Credit: Simon Menges
  • Seen from Shoreditch Park, the two towers act as a gateway to the reviving estate behind.
    Seen from Shoreditch Park, the two towers act as a gateway to the reviving estate behind. Credit: Peter Landers
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Few things are as controversial as the regener­ation of council estates. This is under­standable when some high-profile examples involve seemingly naïve or complicit councils handing over their stock of homes – where real people in real communities live, remember – to developers for what turns out to be social cleansing. There have been enough examples of tenants and leaseholders being cynically priced out of their former locations to make this a continuing scandal. 

But there are other ways to tackle the problem of finding ways to finance the necessary upgrade of often enormous estates dating from the postwar reconstruction boom which have reached the end of their design lives. Here is one: the Colville Estate in Hoxton, east London. This project works on the ‘Robin Hood’ principle – upmarket pads for the rich cross-subsidising ­housing reconstruction for the poor. Only with Hackney council keeping control in a way that some other councils previously have not, although the savvier ones increasingly are.
Here architects Karakusevic Carson and David Chipperfield have collaborated, with the former masterplanning and designing phases of the whole estate renewal project of 928 homes in phases over 15-20 years, and the latter invited to jointly design the two hexa­gonal towers containing 198 apartments that now act as a gateway to the district. 

A few years ago, the very idea that such a pair of ‘luxury’ residential towers would sprout here would have been laughable. This was and is one of those sprawling areas of social housing – serried ranks of 1950s walk-up slab blocks in the southern part and stumpy 1960s tower blocks in the northern part that looks like it was lifted straight out of an artist’s impression of slum clearance in the 1943 County of London Plan. If you were a Londoner you might have skirted the edge of it on your way down the New North Road from Islington to the City, but there was no great reason to go there unless you lived there.  Well, times have changed along with the physical character of all such City-fringe zones. And with a canal at the back and a park at the front, it has plenty of amenity space. So welcome to the development known as Hoxton Press, after a Victorian printworks that once stood here. 

  • A gentle landscape mound forms a threshold between the towers and flows into the lobby of the darker one.
    A gentle landscape mound forms a threshold between the towers and flows into the lobby of the darker one. Credit: Simon Menges
  • The entry lobbies are vaulted, forming caves of brick.
    The entry lobbies are vaulted, forming caves of brick. Credit: Peter Landers
  • Entering the apartments via the kitchens, with direct views out through the living rooms.
    Entering the apartments via the kitchens, with direct views out through the living rooms. Credit: Iona Marinescu
  • The landscape mound flows into the café area of the taller block, causing the floor to swell slightly.
    The landscape mound flows into the café area of the taller block, causing the floor to swell slightly. Credit: Peter Landers
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At the time of writing the quoted prices of available apartments ranged from £600,000 for a one-bed 55.5m2 apartment on a fifth floor to £2.95m for a three-bed 141m2 example on a 19th floor, with the penthouses yet to be marketed. 

The towers are concrete structures clad in Belgian brick – dark red for the 16-storey one and dark grey for the 20-storey one. They are hexagonal partly (one assumes) to dis­tinguish them from the ­rectilinear 1960s council tower blocks north of the canal, partly because of the planning efficiencies (especially the cores) that the geo­metry allows, partly to sidestep some tricky utility mains and partly so as to allow more south light through to the mid-rise blocks behind. 

When I say they are clad in brick, they are very thoroughly clad, the brick skin wrapping round the balconies above and below and flowing into arched vaults in the foyers. This is demanding brickwork – stack-bonded in a way that requires invisible supporting stainless-steelwork, and in places invisibly changing from full-depth bricks to brick slips – the foyer vaults being an example – where the slips are mechanically fixed to a supporting armature and so act more like tilework. 

Originally this was all intended to be done in large prefabricated sections but the winning contractor preferred to hand-lay the brickwork. It’s reassuring to know that it was done by the same firm that delivered Herzog & de Meuron’s perforated-brick Tate Modern extension, but given that the mortar is coloured to match the brick, so giving a monolithic appearance, you wonder if ordinary stretcher bond wouldn’t have been ­perfectly fine here. The slightly un­even texture provided by the hand-laying is, how­ever, a bonus.

The other immediately apparent quirk is the shallow mound that defines the pedestrian area between the two blocks. Intended by landscape architect Vogt to fulfil the role of a threshold and to respond to raised areas in Shoreditch Park opposite, the paving here is granite setts that flow from the outside into the foyers of the two blocks. Ambitiously, the taller of the two towers (the dark grey one) straddles one edge of this mound, which thus fades away in its foyer. Fine, except that the glazed foyer cladding frames and interior floor heating channels then have to somehow surmount the upward curve, which is awkwardly achieved. Given that the foyer space in this block is also earmarked for a community café, one waits with interest to find out how tables and chairs and servery will cope with the swelling floor.  

The landscaped mound has almost mystical associations for English social housing projects, a subject thoroughly explored by FAT and Crimson architectural historians in ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’ at the British Pavilion in the 2014 Venice Biennale. Here it is slightly unsettling but mostly successful, like a huge traffic-calming measure for pedestrians and cyclists. Making the Colville Estate permeable rather than hermetic is one of the aims of the Karakusevic masterplan. 

There is the sense of sumptuous austerity in the foyer areas that one has come to expect from Chipperfield: just brick, concrete and glass. The ground floor of the red tower includes a bike store and the entrance ramp to the shared underground car park. This ought to make everything feel cramped but it does not, and the sinuous ramp is treated as a feature rather than as an afterthought.

Upstairs in the apartments – all of them dual-aspect thanks to the hexagonal plan – one is in the world of the developer interior but here done with something of the same restraint and sense of quality. The lobbies are finished in dark wood with trompe l’oeil ‘cube’ tiled floors. High ceilings, flush skirtings rather than the nasty nailed-on kind. Bathrooms made as offsite pods. Sliding space dividers. No corridors, you just emerge into the space, typically via the kitchen and thus to the big view opening up from the living room. These are very large floor-to-ceiling glazing sections, something that is not apparent from outside because of the balcony upstands forming bands around the towers. And the balconies themselves are broad enough, set within the overall envelope of the buildings, to feel like enclosed rather than exposed spaces. 

Paul Karakusevic describes the procurement method as ‘sophisticated design and build’ with a complete specification handed to the contractor and a high level of supervision. And while there is a boutique private developer involved, Anthology, this is far from the capitalist takeover of entire estates that has got such a bad name elsewhere.

How this cross-subsidy model will evolve now that councils’ borrowing cap has been raised by the government is anybody’s guess. But the mix of tenures now emerging on the densified Colville Estate, of which half will be social rent (100 more such homes than previously) and shared ownership, and half market sale, is arguably closer to the mixed-community ideals of the 1945 Attlee government than the low-income monocultural enclaves that eventually evolved. 

This can be argued for ever: but these new sentinels of Shoreditch Park, distinctly reminiscent of Barbican-era design, are no bad legacy of a moment when new funding sources could help enable high-quality social housing. 


IN NUMBERS
GIFA 19,000m2
Cost per m£3,700
Total contract cost £71m
Number of apartments 198
Height of towers 16 and 20 storeys
Bricks used 900,000

 

Credits

Architect Karakusevic Carson and David Chipperfield
Landscape architect Vogt
Commissioning client Hackney Council
Development partner Anthology
Structural/civils/services/ sustainability/environmental/acoustic engineering Aecom

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