London housing shortage: architect Peter Barber's calls for more social housing and a 'Hundred Mile City'

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According to housing charity Shelter, some 170,000 Londoners were homeless at Christmas, either sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation.

Building public housing to address this crisis seems like a pipe dream, but there is one man making this happen — meet architect Peter Barber.

“I detest those glass corporate towers,” says Barber, 59, who works from a tiny Dickensian shopfront in King’s Cross. “I like buildings that look as if they have been there for a long time.”

He’s talking about Holmes Road Studios, the terraces of tiny brick cottages for homeless people he designed for Camden council and Genesis Housing Association, where circular windows sit below a crimped-edge parapet: “They look like they have been there for a hundred years already.”

After a delay following their completion, 59 people started moving in to these modern-day almshouses in Kentish Town just in time for Christmas.

The cottages, together with education and counselling spaces, are temporary, stepping-stone accommodation to larger, permanent homes.

The courtyard is a shared garden where the residents can learn to grow plants. It is the successor to the homeless hostel Barber designed in Mount Pleasant, where residents eat at refectory tables using herbs they have grown.

Barber got his hands dirty to make it happen, donating money and gardening time each week.

These are the precursors to about 500 homes his eight-strong team is currently designing — “quite good for a poxy little practice,” he laughs.

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Community care: studio houses for homeless people in Kentish Town (Morley von Sternberg)

Barber’s projects of recent years appear almost medieval, with deep arches, intimate courtyards and narrow lanes.

Look at the models on his studio walls and you are struck by the fine grain of the buildings compared with the aggressive, insensitive scale of many of London’s new homes.

So how has he managed to build public housing at a time when such a project seems all but impossible?

The vehicle has been the sometimes arms-length housing companies set up in by councils like Camden, Croydon and Newham as a creative response to the Government’s spending restrictions.

Just as important is an architectural vision that people warm to: “Our stuff is not always the cheapest,” admits Barber, “but if people say, ‘That’s nice,’ then even the most determined bean counter will help make it happen.”

His hostility to an obviously modern style is perhaps surprising from an architect whose early London projects were “souped-up minimalism”, all white curves and barrel vaults inspired by Modernists like Oscar Niemeyer.

Among Barber’s early designs was a home in this style in Hackney’s Broadway Market — a pioneer in a street that may now be a hipster haven but was mostly derelict at the turn of the century.

Soon after, in 2002, he got his big break by winning the Architecture Foundation’s competition to build 42 homes near Victoria Park for Circle 33 housing association.

At the time, his office comprised himself and a student. The resulting Donnybrook Quarter, a bright white slice of kasbah, was a revelation, achieving high densities without going high-rise.

The influences were Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos but, deadpans Barber, the locals admire it more for its Torremolinos qualities.

Several epiphanies led to the Donnybrook moment. One was an exhibition at London’s Architectural Association about Mexico’s Luis Barragán, which made him turn his attention to heavy rather than lightweight structures (he had worked for Richard Rogers on Hi-Tech projects).

The second was talking to estate tenants in Haggerston for an unrealised project: “‘We’d love to have our own front door and a bit of outside space,’” he recalls them saying. “It left us oven-ready for Donnybrook”.

Since then he has eschewed institutional corridors and communal staircases, with circulation taking place in narrow streets and alleys outside.

His McGrath Road housing, designed for Newham, is a contemporary version of Victorian back-to-backs, a typology arranged around a courtyard and cleverly tweaked to allow in more light.

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Peter Barber’s scheme of shared ownership housing in Newham (Morley von Sternberg)

This and careful internal planning means many more homes can be fitted on a site; an upcoming scheme, Beechwood Mews in Barnet, achieves double the densities of rival bids.

Barber describes another tightly planned project by the Thames as a “little bit of Genoa in Wapping”.

Some might find the densities challenging, but he is a great believer in neighbourliness: “What’s the point of being in the city if you don’t believe in your fellow citizen?”

Last year the Design Museum showcased his idea for the Hundred Mile City, a 200-metre-wide ring of high-density homes around the edge of London, linked by monorail, that could house millions.

It was a riposte to an Adam Smith Institute paper that claimed the green belt must be built on to curtail the housing crisis.

“Not true,” he argued. “In the aftermath of the Second World War 150,000 homes were built each year when the country was on its knees. We can do it now.”

Of London homelessness he says: “For one of the richest cities the world has ever seen it’s a disgrace and needless.”

His social commitment developed early. After school in Petersfield, Barber got a job at a multi-ethnic school in Botswana, where he worked in building maintenance.

It fuelled a desire to study architecture, first in Eighties Sheffield when it was dubbed the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire and bus fares were a flat 3p (“magic times”), then at the University of Westminster, where he fell in love with London.

He now divides his time between “the smallest house in Brighton”, bought for his family when he couldn’t afford the capital, and “the smallest flat in London”.

A committed socialist, he is critical of both major parties’ past performance on housing and has no faith in the Johnson Government to get it right.

What it will do is unclear (the Conservative Party’s manifesto was silent, for instance, on plans to extend Right-to-Buy to housing associations, and some noises suggest a shift to a part-rent/part-buy tenure rather than social rent).

For Barber, the keys to solving the housing crisis are private rent controls, an end to Right-to-Buy, and the building of more social housing.

Architects need to get involved as citizens and activists, he says, dismissive of those who claim design can solve all society’s ills: “Even smart people say, ‘we’re going to build a community’. This is lazy, fascistic.”

Architects, he agrees, can help create the spaces where communities are more likely to emerge successfully, but they can’t just conjure them into being.

That said, he is justly proud of projects such as Holmes Road, which “could change people’s lives”.

“I’m for a street-based form of housing — the way we structure our cities affects how we relate to each other,” he argues. “We need to be visible to one another not in separate ghettos. The street is our salvation.”

  • Peter Barber gives this year’s CR Ashbee Lecture at the Old Wash House, E1 (eventbrite.com) on Jan 23