Open House 2017: Highgate

omved gardens

Highgate’s hidden gem – Omved gardens


Honestly, I am finding it harder to enjoy London these days, and it is partly due to the city being overcrowded. The worst time is June and July when tourists and school children from abroad flock over here – it is a nightmare. September used to be pleasant, but not anymore. Once upon a time, the Open House weekend used to be a well-kept secret, but now it has become a major event in London where every ticketed events are sold out weeks in advance.

Hence I decided to focus on neighbourhoods outside of zone 1, hoping that I would not have to spend hours queuing or being turned away when I arrive. On day one, I headed up to Highgate village to visit a well-hidden and delightful Omved gardens, which is not normally open to the public.


omved gardens

omved gardens

omved gardens

omved gardens


A few years ago, the sloping site of a former garden centre was bought by developer Omved International hoping to convert the site into luxury homes, but locals protested and the council later rejected the plans (thank god!). Later, London-based architectural firm Hasa Architects was hired to transform the six derelict glasshouses into a multi-functional events venue.

This garden project aims to explore the possibilities of a forgotten piece of land, and how it could be rejuvenated. It was a collaboration between architects, structural engineers, landscape architects, artists, artisans and craftsmen; and the result is very impressive. Besides the glasshouses, the community garden is lovely as well, and it offers a nice view of the local area.


omved gardens

omved gardens

omved gardens  omved gardens

A temporary exhibition at the Omved garden focusing on the architecture in Highgate and the planning and building process of the garden


Built in only 6 weeks, the architects have retained the frame and construction of the original building. They used birch plywood panels for the platforms, joinery and walls for the space, as well as sliding doors, while the original metal frames and glazing of the structures have been restored.

The truth is that London actually has a lot of derelict buildings and lands, but instead of regenerating these wastelands, the local councils and property developers are constantly gentrifying areas in London that do not require it. I think London desperately needs more innovative projects like these rather than the current social cleansing projects that are ruining the city and pushing out poor Londoners from their homes.


highgate school

The nearby Highgate School


My second destination was 8 Stoneleigh Terrace in Highgate New Town, a social housing estate that I have always been curious about every time I passed by it. In recent years, I became interested in London’s post-war social housing, and I have visited several estates at the Open House in the past like the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, Golden Lane estate and Balfron Tower. If we could ignore the grim and untended concrete exterior, we would pleasantly surprised by the functional and thoughtful layout and designs of these buildings. Do not judge a book by its cover. I think the demise of the English social housing scheme (and NHS) is quite tragic because some of the architects and planners behind these projects were visionaries and pioneers who made a difference during the difficult post-war period.


stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace  stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace  retcar place

stoneleigh terrace


Located next to Highgate Cemetery, 8 Stone Terrace – within the grade II listed Whittington Estate – was designed in the 1970s by the architect Peter Tabori (who used to work for Ernö Goldfinger) during Camden Council’s ‘golden age’ of progressive social-housing development under Borough architect Sydney Cook. Inspired by architect Neave Brown‘s designs for Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, and has a similar ziggurat-style exterior.

The estate is also know as Highgate New Town stage 1, and like most housing estate at the time, concrete was used as the main material. There are 273 dwellings, varying from one-bedroom two-person flats to six-bedroom eight-person houses. Due to overspending (4 times the original estimate) at this estate, therefore the houses at Stage 2 and 3 of the estates nearby were assigned to Bill Forest and Oscar Palacio with less flattering exteriors.


stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace  stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace


Our host/resident at the estate gave us a tour around the estate and provided us with fascinating history and information about it. Being a musician, his home is filled with Scandinavian mid-century furniture and decor that look harmonious with the modernist style flat. Interestingly, the entrance leads to first floor where the living room, kitchen and terrace are situated, while the bedroom, study and another terrace are located downstairs on ground/road level. Although the flat is not very big, the heedful layout and design created a space that is livable, functional and very cosy. It is no wonder why flats like this from this estate has become very fought-after by modernist lovers in recent years.


acland burghley school

acland burghley school  acland burghley school


My last stop of the day was another Grade II listed building – Acland Burghley School – in Tufnell Park. The comprehensive school was built in 1963-7 and designed by the foremost post-war architectural practices at the time: Howell Killick Partridge & Amis (behind the Young Vic theatre).

The Brutalist style school was listed in 2016 for the following principal reasons: “the design’s bold elevational treatment and skillful handling of precast concrete components and their finishes confer a strong aesthetic while respecting the wider Victorian townscape. The jewel-like, top-lit assembly hall is a particularly notable feature where the use of timber and concrete gives a rich texture. Plan-form: the innovative plan, comprising three towers radiating from a central administration core with the linked assembly hall, remains relevant and fit for purpose, affording permeability and appropriate levels of accessibility combined with practical and humane functioning spaces.”


acland burghley school

acland burghley school  acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school  acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school


Although inspired by the ideas of the iconic French architect Le Corbusier, the school’s Brutalist gloomy concrete exterior is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But inside, the departments are divided by a clever colour scheme with spacious public area and bright classrooms due to natural light from the large and roof windows. The school’s emphasis on the arts can also be seen from the art work on the walls throughout the school.

I was particularly impressed by the former hexagonal assembly hall which had been refurbished in 2010 by Studio Cullinan And Buck Architects into an experimental teaching/learning laboratory. The 490m2 floor space can be used as a a large classroom or as a theatre with raised platforms and seating area. The new lighting scheme of vertical and horizontal strip lights are also highly innovative.


acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school

acland burghley school  acland burghley school

A former assembly hall has been transformed into a Superclass by Studio Cullinan And Buck Architects


wall mural

Intriguing wall mural near Tufnell Park


Tokyo’s surviving & endangered Modernist architecture

Jiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen Myonichikan Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan

 Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan


Japan is a country that deeply respects its traditions and heritage. Architectural conservations efforts by the authority could be seen at the Edo Tokyo open air architectural museum (read my previous entry). Yet is it too little, too late? In fact, due to rapid growth and urbanisation of Tokyo in the last few decades, the city has lost numerous architectural masterpieces, historical cultural buildings (like Ginza’s Kabuki theatre), shrines and gardens. Now many of the remaining iconic Modernist buildings are under threat again because of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I am flabbergasted by how little effort had been spent on preventing property developers and other parties from tearing down these buildings. One would ‘expect’ this to happen in China, but the truth is that Japan had been the forerunner of this culture and trend since its economic boom in the 1970s.

The renowned American Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed 14 buildings in Japan from 1912 to 1922, yet only a few have been preserved. His iconic Imperial hotel in Tokyo survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and bombing in the Second World War, but it could not escape demolition by property developers in 1968 (somethings never seem to change). Miraculously, a portion of the hotel (including the grand entrance/lobby and the reflecting pool) had been saved and relocated to the Meiji Mura Museum, an open-air architectural park in Inuyama near Nagoya.

Today the only surviving building by Frank Lloyd Wright in Tokyo is Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan ( The house of Tomorrow) built in 1921. Surprisingly, this architectural gem is still an under-the-radar tourist destination, which suited me fine as it gave me the opportunity to explore it freely.


Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan Jiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen Myonichikan Jiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen Myonichikan


Located in Ikebukuro, this former girl school is ‘well-hidden’ from the bustling part of the area. Listed as an Important Cultural Property in 1997 for its historic and artistic values, restoration work of the buildings was conducted from 1999 through 2001, and was officially opened to the public in 2001.

Built of economical 2 x 4 wood and plaster, the Myonichikan consists of four buildings: the main, the east, the west buildings and an auditorium designed by Arata Endo located across the street south of the site. The main building is considered to be a ‘Prairie house’ design, commonly seen in the late and early 20th century. The colour scheme is simple: creamy yellow walls paired with dark green door and window frames/decorative lines; while dark brown furniture and flooring is used throughout the building.


Jiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen Myonichikan Jiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen Myonichikan


Strongly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and fascinated by Japanese woodblock prints, Wright‘s design embodies the simple and subdued quality that can often be found in traditional Japanese architecture. I love his use of natural light, geometrical patterns and lines. Wright also paid a lot of attention on the details such as the furniture and lighting; his hanging lights are the prominent feature in the dining room, and the Japanese-inspired wooden stenciled screen reveals his fondness for craftsmanship.


Jiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen MyonichikanJiyu Gakuen Myonichikan


The most spectacular room though is the lounge area, where visitors can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit (for an extra 200 yen at the entrance) while admiring the stunning window design, Biblical wall mural and cute wooden chairs and tables specifically made for children.

Last but not least, there is also a shop that sells lifestyle goods made by local designers and communities, as well as books and souvenir related to Frank Lloyd Wright, including a paper model of the building.


national museum of western art national museum of western artnational museum of western artnational museum of western art

The National museum of Western art in Ueno park


A more well-visited Tokyo Modernist architecture is The National museum of Western art located inside Ueno park. Designed by the renowned Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier (or Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), the building was completed in 1959 as a symbol of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and France after World War II. As the only building designed by Le Corbusier in the Far East, this building was designated as an Important Cultural Property / Buildings in 2007.

The museum was born to house the remarkable Impressionist art collection amassed by Japanese industrialist Kojiro Matsukata in Paris from 1916 to 1923. This vast collection was briefly confiscated by the French Government at the end of the Second World War, and a majority of it was eventually returned to Japan (while some valuable ones were retained in France) on the condition that the works should be housed in a museum designed by a French architect.


national museum of western artnational museum of western artnational museum of western artnational museum of western art


Designed in the later period of his life, this exterior of this building differs in style from his famous earlier works like Villa Savoye and Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut ( except for the columns). As a supporter of utopian ideals and Brutalist architecture (which flourished from 1950s to 70s), this building is a fine example of this architectural style.

From the exterior, this austere and inconspicuous grey concrete structure appears to be almost windowless, with only one window on each side of the rectangular building. Yet once inside, one can see that the natural lighting reaches the exhibition rooms from the ceiling/roof or through the floor to ceiling windows that overlook the courtyard. The high ceiling, skyline windows (now partly artificially lit) and columns create a dramatic effect and strong impact as one steps into the exhibition room.


national museum of western artnational museum of western art


It is highly significant that great works of art can be viewed in a non-intrusive environment where the public can linger and be absorbed in the artworks. This is partly why this building is a timeless masterpiece, unlike many contemporary museums designed by celebrity architects who are more concerned with showing off their signature styles than its contents and viewers’ experiences.



Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Tokyo Bunka Kaikan

 Tokyo Bunka Kaikan


Opposite the National Museum of Western Art is another Brutalist architecture: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan designed by renowned Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa (whose beautiful house can be visited at the Edo Tokyo open-air architectural museum mentioned in my previous entry).

The prodigious concrete building was built in 1961 as part of the project to celebrate 500 years since the birth of Tokyo. Renovated from 1989-99, it is one of the oldest concert halls for classical music in Japan.


Ikebukuro Tobu Department StoreIkebukuro Tobu Department StoreNakagin Capsule Tower

Left & middle: The brutalist facade of Tobu Department Store in Ikebukuro; Right: The Nakagin capsule Tower in Ginza


Tokyo’s endangered Modernist architecture:

There are currently a few Modernist buildings that are facing the possibility of being demolished and one of them is the iconic Nakagin capsule Tower in Ginza. Built in 1972 by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the founders of the Metabolism (who later designed the National Art Center in Roppongi), this peculiar and intriguing building is a rare example of this home-grown architectural style.

The Metabolism is an avant-garde Japanese architectural movement inspired by utopian ideals, organic biological growth, recyclability and sustainability. The residential and office-mix building consists of 140 individual capsules stacked on top of or next to each other, and they were designed to be replaced every 25 years (although this never actually happened).

Due to neglect and disrepair, 80% of the building’s remaining residents voted to have the building demolished to make way for a more modern apartment block in 2007. Since then, many have been trying to preserve this unique building. A ‘Save Nakagin Capsule Tower‘ community was formed and a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds for the group to buy the capsule one by one. The fate of this building is yet to be decided, but visitors to Tokyo can stay in one of the capsules via Airbnb for around £50 per night.

I sincerely hope that this innovative and futuristic (in the 70s sense) building will be saved, and I shall try to book at least one night there when I next visit Tokyo.


The trailer of the 2010 documentary ‘Japanese Metabolist Landmark on the Edge of Destruction’ produced by Michael Blackwood


The demolition announcement by the owner of the iconic Modernist building Hotel Okura has been causing outcry recently. Opened in 1962 ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the main wing of the much-loved hotel will be demolished and be replaced by a bigger 18-storey glass tower in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Since the announcement, Monocle magazine has created an online petition to ‘Save the Okura; while Tomas Maier, the creative director of Italian luxury goods company Bottega Veneta, has partnered with Japanese architecture magazine Casa Brutus to launch a social media campaign asking social media users to post photographs to Twitter under the hashtag #MyMomentAtOkura. You can also watch the designer’s plead in the video below:



The interior of Okura Hotel (downloaded from the internet)


Save Japan’s Modern Architecture – Tomas Maier in Japan BOTTEGA VENETA 


I highly doubt that these petitions will change the minds of the hotel’s management. It is a real shame that I have never visited Hotel Okura during my many visits to Tokyo, but I was fortunate enough to have stayed at the massive 40-storey Akasaka Prince hotel before it was torn down in 2013. Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Kenzo Tange in 1982, the rooms at this Blade-runner style hotel were spacious (unlike most other cabin-sized hotel rooms in Tokyo) and the view was spectacular.



 © Tange Associates


Elsewhere, Kengo Tange‘s Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium in Takamatsu City (featured in Maier‘s video) is also facing possible demolition after it was closed to public due to safety reasons last year. The brutalist building was built in the same year as Tange‘s Yoyogi National Gymnasium before the 1964 Olympics.

An Association of Conservation of Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium was formed to preserve the building, and it is backed by many local architects. Will this effort falls on deaf ears again? Regardless of the outcome, I think it is about time that the Japanese authority reviews their conservation effort and policies especially in regards to modern architecture.

These cases are emblematic of a larger problem in the Far East/Asian countries. The constant thirst for newer and glossier buildings and objects is a prevalent mindset throughout Asia. Aside from Japan, culturally and architecturally significant buildings are also being torn down in other parts of Asia despite public outcry. As Maier mentioned in his video, we need to act before it is too late, but perhaps it is already too late.


Lisbon’s Brutalist architecture

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation


In recent years, Brutalist architecture has made an unexpected comeback. Eyesore or masterpieces? It is all relatively subjective. In Lisbon, there are some fine examples that are worth exploring if you are interested in this type of architecture:

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – The foundation is a vast complex that houses Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which was constructed in 1969 by Alberto Pessoa, Pedro Cid and Ruy Athouguia. The austere horizontal concrete structure contains a world-class art museum, auditoriums, offices and a library which sits above an underground world of conservation, study and storage.


 Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Museu Calouste GulbenkianCalouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation P1120077Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation


I think the highlight of this complex is its serene modern park designed by landscape architect Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles. The contrast between the cold concrete structure and the beautiful landscape is what makes this place intriguing. The complex would look rather depressing without the lawn, bamboo forests, exotic plants, ponds and hidden streams; and it demonstrates how nature and landscape can alter our environment dramatically.


Centro de Arte ModernaCentro de Arte ModernaCentro de Arte Moderna Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation


The later addition to the complex is Centro de Arte Moderna in 1983, which was designed by British architect, Sir Leslie Martin (famous for London’s Royal Festival Hall). This outstanding multifunctional space is bright and airy with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the tranquil pond outside. You can also see the interior of the building from my previous post entry here.


Palácio da Justiça Palácio da Justiça Palácio da JustiçaPalácio da JustiçaPalácio da Justiça Palácio da Justiça

Palácio da Justiça


I was walking through Edward VII Park one day and I suddenly noticed a conspicuous concrete structure from afar. Moments later I was standing underneath it and feeling quite ‘insignificant’.

This massive and imposing modernist architecture is the Palácio da Justiça or Palace of Justice (Rua Marquês da Fronteira 1098 – 001), constructed between 1966-1969 and designed by Januário Godinho and João Andresen. The architects adopted a highly original conceptual language, and they combined it with new materials employed in its construction. Personally, I think the beauty of this structure lies in its subtle details, i.e. the repetitive patterns of squares, rectangles and circles used throughout exterior, as well as on the ground (large overlapping circles).


liberty seguros lisbon

Liberty Seguros Building 


Another of my accidental discovery was the Liberty Seguros Building (Av. Fontes Pereira de Melo, 6), designed by António Gomez Egêa and Ionel Schein from 1966-70.

This 14-storey office building (formerly the Edíficio Winterthur) has a rather unique zig-zag facade, in which all the windows are angled downwards, thereby creating a serrated surface. I am particularly curious in regards to the amount of sunlight that penetrates into the building. I would love to see the interior of this building, and enjoy the spectacular view of the city from its rooftop.



London festival of architecture: Balfron Tower

balfron tower


The month-long London festival of architecture this year was full of interesting tours and activities. I took the opportunity and book myself onto a tour to visit the iconic Grade II listed Balfron Tower in East London by British Hungarian architect, Ernő Goldfinger. (believe it or not, Ian Fleming did name his villain after him and had to pay the architect compensation when he threatened to sue).

The 27-storey residential building in Poplar was built between 1965-67 for London County Council as part of the Brownfield Estate. It was once the tallest residential building in Europe and stood as a monument to idealism in social housing. The architect later added two more buildings, Carradale House and Glenkerry House on the same estate to complement the original tower. However, his brutalist style was not very popular with the public nor many of his peers at the time, and it was only in recent years that people started to appreciate his designs. A year after Balfron Tower was built, Goldfinger used it as a model and built a similar 31-floor Trellick Tower (which is also Grade II listed) on Golborne Road in West London completed in 1972.


balfron towerbalfron towerbalfron tower


When I was younger, I remember passing by the Trellick Tower while traveling to/from the airport on the A40, and I did think it was a bit of an eyesore because it looked rather dull, dirty and completely out of place. However, I was always intrigued by it and often wondered what it was like inside… Over the years, my perspective regarding brutalist architecture has changed and I finally began to appreciate the ‘beauty’ of these imposing and grey structures. Apart from the photographs, I have never seen the Balfron Tower in person (I have never even heard of Poplar before the tour), so I was quite excited to be able to visit such an iconic building.

The building is now vacant because it is about to be refurbished as part of the wider regeneration project for the surrounding Brownfield Estate by Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). The refurbishment of Carradale House is completed recently, and now Poplar HARCA is working with PRP architecture and English Heritage to restore the tower.


balfron tower balfron towerbalfron towerbalfron towerbalfron tower


Our tour was led by two Ralph and Michael from London Urban Visits, who took us up to the top floor to visit a one-bedroom flat followed by a three-bedroom maisonette. The first flat is bright with decent sized rooms, but the best thing about it is the spectacular view of London from its living room and balcony. The maisonette is surprisingly spacious and the rooms are very well proportioned, unlike the ones in many new residential buildings these days. Even before the refurbishment, I can see the appeal of these flats because they are very well designed and extremely functional. Personally I would not mind even living in the smaller one-bedroom flat because it does not feel ‘small’ to me.


balfron tower balfron towerbalfron towerbalfron tower balfron tower

The breathtaking view of London from the top…


We were also told that a housing scheme run by the Bow Arts Trust has offered some artists temporary residence in the emptied flats until renovation officially begins. Simon Terrill is one of the artist living there now and you can check out his work here. Another cultural event that is taking place at the tower this summer is the production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by theatre company Rift. The play will last from 8pm until 8am the next day, so audience will have to stay overnight in the tower (Unfortunately this event is completely sold out now)!

Refurbishment may appear to be good news to the previous residents but in reality, the refurbished flats will be sold off privately when they are completed. The social housing was initially built for the less privileged people in the society but now they are being evicted to pave way for the wealthier people. How ironic is this? Yet this is not an isolated case in London, is this the Government’s idea of a ‘BIG society’ (i.e. big profits come before the welfare of the citizens)?


Carradale HouseCarradale HouseGlenkerry HouseChrisp Street Market clock towerGlenkerry House poplar

Main & 2nd row left: Carradale House; 2nd row middle & bottom left: Glenkerry House; 2nd row right: Chrisp Street Market clock tower; Bottom right: Poplar DLR station


London has always been a multicultural and diverse city where the rich would live amongst the poor, it is not like Paris where the wealthy would concentrate in the centre whilst the poor live in the suburbs or banlieues. With a few exceptions, these suburbs are where most low-income foreigners or immigrants live, and now they also considered as troubled areas with riots, high crime and unemployment rates. Yet London is now becoming more like Paris, gentrification in parts of the city esp. in the east end means the lower income group are constantly being evicted out of their neighbourhood. Most of the new housing being built in the city are luxury apartments targeting at foreign investors rather than social housing for the low income group, and Boris‘ so-called ‘affordable’ housing in reality is only affordable for some… e.g. people will need to earn more than £44,000 a year to rent a 2-bedroom council flat in Southwark.

Social and wealth segregation is becoming more obvious in London, and sadly, this is not the London I grew up in and I do not want to this city becoming a ‘bourgeois’ Paris. Any sort of segregation whether it is social, wealth, ethnic or religion will be problematic as inequality of wealth widens and discrimination deepens. I dread to see what London will be like in the future if this segregation continues…