The in-betweeners

A triumvirate of architects is turning a failing estate into a centre with a sense of civic pride through grand gestures and sympathetic piecemeal interventions

Peter Barber’s newly completed housing for private sale is part of the first phase of the Grahame Park redevelopment and forms the eastern side of the new southern gateway square.
Peter Barber’s newly completed housing for private sale is part of the first phase of the Grahame Park redevelopment and forms the eastern side of the new southern gateway square. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

Studio 54 partner Charles Thomson tells me that he thinks the collective name for a group of architects is ‘a pride’. I suggest it’s ‘a murder,’ but Jestico + Whiles’ director Heinz Richardson nails it with ‘an envy’. I happily defer to their knowledge and experience – along with Peter Barber Architects they have been collaborating for the best part of eight years on the Grahame Park masterplan in London’s northern suburb of Colindale and, over the course of the project’s gestation, have had plenty of time to get to know each other’s strengths and foibles. Completed this July, Barber’s development of 70 flats, retail and parking at the southern tip of the estate is, in a way, the figurehead of a £550m, 18-year regeneration by Barnet Council and the Genesis Housing Group of the 1970s former Greater London Council estate and turn it from one blighted with social problems into the de facto centre of the Colindale area, complete with retail, further education college and community facilities.

Genesis’ openness to engaging not one but three architects on the 500-unit first phase of the Grahame Park estate is to be lauded. The trio won the two-stage RIBA competition with its joint proposal for the first phase 2004 Pollard Thomas Edwards masterplan to kick-start the regeneration process to reverse the estate’s run of bad fortune. Only 600m wide but running 1km south to north, Grahame Park’s distended form can be attributed to the fact that most of it is built on the site of the World War II Hendon Aerodrome and so followed the line of the airstrip. Grahame Park’s blocks are named after the planes that took off and landed here, while its mock Tudor former Officers’ Club faces out north over the new public square that the architects created to act as a gateway to the newly incubating estate

The south elevation evidences Barber’s picturesque urban form-making.
The south elevation evidences Barber’s picturesque urban form-making. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

Opened in 1971, Grahame Park was designed according to Radburn principles, an interpretation of Garden City thinking that was developed in the US then sold back wholesale to the UK and Australia. Radburn was chiefly characterised by the reversal of traditional street patterns, with the backs of houses facing the ‘service’ road and their fronts of facing each other, with pedestrian lanes to access them, separating vehicular and foot traffic. With both isolated from each other and effectively unmonitored, it was not long before anti-social problems started and the design experiment was deemed a failure only a few years after it was instigated. Wandering the estate I’m keen to romanticise the trees that terminate the buckled concrete paving of its lanes and alleyways but Jestico + Whiles’ Richardson points out that at one time you were as likely to come across a burned out car as a tree. Confusingly pulled away from the roads, housing was cast adrift in a swathe of grass and looked inwards rather than out, creating an unwelcoming landscape of parking yards and garages.

As part of the regeneration strategy, Barnet sought to make sense of a estate that, due to Thatcherite right to buy policy, was one third privately owned. Demolishing 1300 units, it also wanted to increase the suburban density, taking the 1800 home estate up to over 3400 – both social and for market sale. The architects proposed to connect the estate back to the streets that served it by stitching in the housing in a piecemeal fashion, while creating a new suburban centre for Grahame Park.

Peter Barber Architects’ new market sale housing block and associated retail marks the start of this new urban centre. It is executed in a pale, sandy brick – counterpointing the dark, stock brick of the existing estate – that is part of a limited palette of materials which the three architects agreed on to maintain the homogeneity of the new stitching work they are carrying out. Barber’s intervention is most interesting in the way it moves away from his signature ‘modernist kasbah’ work of white render and curved walls to work with a more conventional materiality and orthogonal planning. That said, with its elevation of projecting and recessed balconies and seemingly randomised fenestration, the housing still bears the imprint of the architect’s earlier work.

  • Studio 54’s interventions involve stitching the existing Radburn principles housing back to the main roads on the estate.
    Studio 54’s interventions involve stitching the existing Radburn principles housing back to the main roads on the estate. · Credit: Sarah Blee
  • Old and new are expressed through a different materiality.
    Old and new are expressed through a different materiality. · Credit: Sarah Blee

A doughnut of housing effectively wrapped around and above a supermarket, the design was never really about the interiors, constrained as they are by space planning guidelines. But Barber says he did manage to convince Genesis, against the odds, to adopt a different arrangement for every flat in the development. For him, it was always about creating a civic sense to the building, which accounts for the seven storeys to the east side of the square, the staggered, picturesque roofline angling away at the corners, and most obviously, what Barber calls his ‘Minoan’ smooth concrete columns, morphing from round to oval as they rise to create a semblance of grandeur for the ground level arcade.

This step back at ground level is key as it will be a pinch point when Jestico + Whiles’ 13-storey residential tower goes up on the north side of the public square. Formal and material crossovers are evident in these two designs, as they were for Studio 54’s community library to its west. This, unfortunately, was victim of central government funding cuts to libraries and is to be replaced by the new campus for Barnet College by HNW Architects; the visualisations for which look less sympathetic to the material ethos of the ­original design than one might have hoped. Similarly, greater sympathy from Barnet’s highways department to the architects’ desire to run the paved stone square over the main access road north to create Hans Monderman-like shared space might have resulted in a more imposing urban space, instead of one bisected with a wide strip of black tarmac.

  • The new public square uses a shared materials palette while allowing the three architects to develop their own formal aesthetic.
    The new public square uses a shared materials palette while allowing the three architects to develop their own formal aesthetic. · Credit: Mohan Karakoc
  • Jestico + Whiles’ first phase housing block uses a slightly harder aesthetic than Barber’s.
    Jestico + Whiles’ first phase housing block uses a slightly harder aesthetic than Barber’s. · Credit: Sarah Blee
  • Peter Barber’s ‘Minoan’ columns are a considered detail that allows the block a civic grandeur where it meets the square.
    Peter Barber’s ‘Minoan’ columns are a considered detail that allows the block a civic grandeur where it meets the square. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

Beyond the formal rigour of the gateway site, things become more relaxed, with Jestico + Whiles and Studio 54 both picking up on Barber’s aesthetic language and informing it with their own to achieve some of that all-important reinforcement of the street line with the Radburn blocks connected back to it. The approach is a worthy one – it is as if the old estate is finally being tethered to its site rather then floating around in it. The new social housing interventions are generally low level but make an event of the corners – their curves here an indulgence on a site of uncompromising orthogonality. Barber points out that the existing homes are nearly 50 years old and have bedded in despite the social ills of the estate – the feathering of new development among the blocks is respectful and restrained. It might be an odd thing to say of a former sink estate, but each seems ennobled by the presence of the other. The grain of the original place is acknowledged and augmented, with routes through the site retained; its memory – a crucial aspect for those who have spent all their lives here – remains intact.

How much this variegated strategy of ad hoc regeneration makes it through to later phases of the development remains to be seen. Richardson and Thomson say the masterplan is still undergoing reappraisal and modification, brought on as much through recession as planning. The process saw Jestico+ Whiles turn a public space and curved block proposal to the north of the new square into a doughnut form with private central gardens. But Barber’s block makes for an encouraging start – an imposing, robust, complex form that strikes a strong civic chord, in marked counterpoint to the massive, generic volume housebuilder offerings to the south of it. And behind Barber, the sensitive pepper-potting of new development into the old is bringing a sense and coherence to those erroneous Radburn principles. This triumvirate of architects seems to be having an effect, safe in the knowledge that, despite three different egos, their agreed common formal language is helping to avoid making an architectural zoo of the new Colindale.