Open house 17: Hampstead garden suburb

free church central square

Free church and Central square


I have long wanted to explore the Hampstead Garden Suburb, and so I was quite excited when I saw a guided walk of the area listed on Open House London. With the housing crisis in London worsening, it is time to review what went wrong and examine ideas and schemes from the past to see what could be learned from them.

Described by American historian, sociologist and philosopher, Lewis Mumford, as ‘a masterpiece and an artistic triumph’, Hampstead Garden Suburb was founded in 1907 by the social reformer, Dame Henrietta Barnett. It was an ambitious and ground-breaking social experiment and town planning for that period.

After setting up Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust Ltd, the Trust bought 243 acres of land near the Hampstead Heath Extension from Eton College, hoping to transform it into a beautiful, healthy, and friendly neighbourhood that accommodated all classes of the society. The planning was created by Raymond Unwin and Richard Barry Parker (both were involved with the Arts and Crafts movement), emphasising on nature, community and harmony.

Despite the project’s initial utopian and noble intention, the aim to create a neighbourhood for all classes somehow failed; and now, the area with over 5000 properties is one of London’s most affluent areas.


Free church

Free church

The Grade I listed Free church was design by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1911


I guess there were many curious Londoners like me who wanted to explore the area, because the walks were oversubscribed, but our guide (a resident of the suburb) was not too bothered by this. We started off at the open and tranquil Central square, where the two Grade I listed churches are located: St Jude’s church and Free church.


St Jude's church

St Jude's church

St Jude's church

St Jude's church  Walter Starmer at St Jude's

Walter Starmer at St Jude's

The Grade I listed St Jude’s was also designed by Edwin Lutyens. Building began in 1909 and did not complete until 1935. The murals and paintings were done by Walter Starmer


Opposite the Free church is the former house of Dame Henrietta Barnett, and there is a memorial nearby (see below) which is also Grade II listed. On one side of square stands another grand building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The Henrietta Barnett School is a voluntary-aided state grammar school for girls founded in 1911 – during a time when educational opportunities for women were severely limited. As part of her master plan, Dame Henrietta Barnett built the School on the principle that education should be open to girls from different backgrounds to study and learn together and from each other, regardless of social, economic, cultural, ethnic or religious background. Now the school is considered to be one of the best schools in the country.


The Henrietta Barnett School

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Top: The Grade II listed Henrietta Barnett School; 2nd row left: Henrietta Barnett memorial


After the introduction, we spent the next two hours walking around the quiet and leafy neighbourhood, passing by many interesting houses built in the arts & crafts style.


Hampstead Garden Suburb

Hampstead Garden Suburb

Hampstead Garden Suburb

Hampstead Garden Suburb

Hampstead Garden Suburb

Hampstead Garden Suburb



One fascinating aspect of the suburb is its hedges and trees. Henrietta Barnett insisted on using hedges to mark boundaries, so they play an important role in the area. Every house also had two fruit trees planted in the garden (what a wonderful idea!). Consent is required by residents for significant changes to gardens, erection of garden sheds, removal of hedges and felling or pruning of trees.

We also visited two hidden community allotments in between the houses; but more surprisingly, two ancient woodlands – Big wood and Little wood – that have existed for over 1000 years.


Hampstead Garden Suburb



Hampstead Garden Suburb  Hampstead Garden Suburb



The suburb’s rurual countryside atmosphere, big houses, and proximity to Hampstead heath have turned it into a popular residential area for the wealthy. It is a far cry from Henrietta Barnett‘s utopian ideal, which is a shame. However, we can still appreciate her paradigm and determination, and how it may help us to re-evaluate the housing problems that we are facing today.


Hampstead Heath extension

Hampstead Heath extension

Hampstead Heath extension

Hampstead Heath extension


After the walking tour, we had just enough time to visit the nearby Grade II listed Waterlow Court, which was designed by the renowned A British Arts & crafts architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott in 1904 and completed in 1909. The development was a project of Sir Sydney Waterlow‘s Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, and was initiated at the request of Henrietta Barnett. The fifty flats (vary in size) were designed for single working women who would not be able to keep servants, but would benefit from some degree of co-operative living. The co-living space included a communal dining area, a communal kitchen, a small common room, and servants’ (including a housekeeper’s and porters’) quarters. Before this visit, I have never heard of this place before, but I find the concept very intriguing and I think it could still work in this day and age.


waterlow court

waterlow court

waterlow court

waterlow court


As soon as I walked through the lychgate, I was immediately impressed by dark timber-framed roof and the arts and crafts style lighting. The next thing I noticed were the round arches that are featured throughout the compound, and they create a ‘cloister’ effect which resemble a convent or monastery or Cathedral. The covered walkway leads to the quadrangular building with a large courtyard in the middle.


waterlow court

waterlow court

waterlow court


Our guide first gave us a tour of the back garden, which features not only some cool hedges, old trees and interesting plants, it also houses an air raid bunker.


waterlow court garden

waterlow court garden

waterlow court garden

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The garden of Waterlow Court and the entrance to an air raid bunker


Nowadays, the flats are no longer limited to females only, but the community spirit still thrives. We spoke to a few volunteers/residents on the day and they all seem to enjoy the tranquil setting and the friendly co-living atmosphere. However, most of the complaints were related to the tiny kitchens (probably because the working women didn’t cook much back then) and either tiny or oversized bathrooms.


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waterlow court

waterlow court

waterlow court   waterlow court

The corridor and a flat at the Waterlow Court


Accommodation is arranged in three to five room flats, designed with plank doors, mullioned windows and some open fireplaces. The original fittings, door and window furniture were made by J Pyghtle White of Bedford for Ambrose Heal of London. A resident kindly opened up and showed us her flat, and despite its small size, it is functional, cosy with original features are rare to find in London these days.




Corringham Road


I believe that the example of Hampstead garden suburb and Waterlow Court can provide us with some indications on how to strike a balance between nature, architecture and community. Aside from this balance, the housing needs to be (really) affordable… sadly, I can’t see this happening in the near future. Perhaps we need another visionaire like Henrietta Barnett to instigate and implement changes, changes that we urgently need.

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.


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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

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stoneleigh terrace

stoneleigh terrace

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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


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Intriguing wall mural near Tufnell Park


Open House London 2015

Over the years, I have witnessed how Open House London evolved from a relatively low-key architecture event to a major and extremely popular one. Although it is encouraging to see the public’s growing interests in architecture, it is also frustrating because advanced bookings are filled up quickly and long queues are common outside of popular buildings over the weekend.

My strategy this year was to stay away from the landmarks in order to avoid queues, yet many had the same idea as me, so I still had to wait and accept that queues were unavoidable!


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 Alexandra & Ainsworth estate


My first stop was the Grade II listed Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in South Hampstead. I have read a lot about this estate before my visit, and I was keen to find out more about the most expensive social housing project ever built in this country. Designed by architect Neave Brown for Camden Council, the 6.47-hectare site (the size of 12 football pitches) ended up costing £20.9 million and was completed in 1978.

During the Thatcher years, the estate fell into disrepair and it took some time for dissatisfied residents to get the estate listed. Along with Golden Lane estate, Dunboyne Road estate (also designed by Neave Brown) and The Branch Hill Estate, this estate is now being regarded as one of the most important examples of social housing in Europe.

It is hard not to be impressed by Brown‘s design and vision as I walked along the pedestrian walkway (Rowley Way) with terraced maisonettes on both sides. Unlike Ernő Goldfinger‘s vision for high-rise social housing ( like Balfron and Trellick Towers), Brown‘s ziggurat style terraces provide a greener and more aesthetically pleasing exterior. There is a documentary about this estate called Rowley Way, and you can find out more about the architect’s ideas via this film.


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Alexandra Road park


Although there were guided tours of a flat and the park on the day, the waiting time for the flat was more than 1 hour and a half, and so I skipped it for the park tour instead (which was a shame).

The newly restored Alexandra Road Park was granted The Heritage Lottery funding in 2013, and our tour was lead by landscape architect Neil Davidson from J & L Gibsons, the studio responsible for the restoration work.

At the tour, we were informed that the park was previously a no-go area for kids, so the restoration of this 4 acres park is significant as it aims to create a relaxing multi-functional communal space for all ages. Now the contemporary and beautiful park has five playgrounds, circular lawn, meadow, rows of trees and benches that hopefully would benefit the residents of the estate in the long run.


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McCann Building


I have walked past the stunning streamline art deco McCann building near Russel Square countless times, and I have often wondered what its interior is like. Believe it or not, but this building was built for Daimler as a car hire garage back in 1931. Designed by Wallis Gibert (the architects behind Perivale’s Hoover building and the Victoria coach station), this garage was the inspiration for the Fisher Price garage toy. The Grade II listed building was refurbished in 1999 by PKS Architects and shortly after, advertising agency McCann moved in.


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 Interior of the building and W. Heath Robinson’s exhibition/ drawings from ‘How to Live in a Flat’


Unfortunately no photos were allowed beyond the main atrium (except for the roof top), but I can assure you that the interior of the building is as fascinating as the exterior esp. the circular corridors! The atrium’s decor of hanging laundry and balloons were inspired by the drawings from English cartoonist and illustrator William Heath Robinson‘s book ‘How to Live in a Flat’, which were part of the exhibition at the agency.


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Exterior of The Royal College of Physicians


Located next to Regent’s Park, The Royal College of Physicians is another building that has piqued my interest for years. Although the the Grade II listed building is normally open to the public, the guided tour on the day did provide insight into the history and design of the building.

Designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun (who also designed the Royal National Theatre) and opened in 1964, this conspicuous white Modernist building was greatly influenced by Le Corbusier. Like Neave Brown‘s vision for social housing, Lasdun‘s vision to build a modern building for a centuries-old traditional body was considered to be quite radical at the time.


The Royal college of physicians The Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physiciansThe Royal college of physicians The Royal college of physicians

 Interior of The Royal College of Physicians


Aside from the exterior, Le Corbusier‘s influence can also be seen inside esp. in the Lasdun Hall, where light floods the hall from the enormous windows. Yet Lasdun was also keen to merge traditions with modern values, hence he recreated the Censor’s Room, which is lined with original 17th century oak paneling from the College’s third home in Warwick Lane. Other notable architectural features include the stunning spiral staircase and stained glass window created by Keith New.


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The medical garden of the college


The Medical garden was created in 1965 and it contains 1,300 plants either used as medicines in the past 5000 years or which commemorate physicians. Each plant is labelled with its Latin name, plant family, and the regions of the world from which they come from. It is not only an oasis in central London, but also a fine complement to the impressive building.


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Superhome: 8 Belsize Court garages


A few years ago, I visited one of the Superhomes in Belsize Park ( 2a Belsize Park Gardens), and it was eye-opening to learn different energy-saving methods that can be applied to a traditional house. This year, I decided to visit another superhome nearby, which was converted from a Victorian coach and horses stables.

The 19th century mews house is now home to an award-winning architect’s studio and 4 bedroom upper maisonette. It was very interesting to meet the architects from Sanya Polescuk Architects and learned about how they have retained many of the original Victorian features like the wall tiles, ironwork and cobblestones while making many carbon-reducing improvements as possible.

One of the best things about the Open House event is getting the opportunity to visit private homes of Londoners and learn more about how to create sustainable housing through creative ideas and simple methods. This visit has definitely inspired me to visit more private homes next year, though I am not sure if the queuing time will be reduced. I wonder if the popularity of this event will turn it into a biennial one? I sincerely hope so.


Open House London 2014

A ‘belate’ entry on the Open House event last month…

I didn’t have time to do much research before Open House weekend this year, and so I missed most of the pre-booked tours. And due to the London design festival (not sure why are these events all crammed within the same week), I only had Sunday to uncover some hidden gems in this city.


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The Mathematical society on Russell Square; Right: An Brunsviga  mechanical calculator produced from 1929-1948


I did not want to queue at the popular spots, and so I decided to concentrate around Bloomsbury, one of my favourite areas in London. I first visited Grade II listed London Mathematical society which occupies two of the nine terrace houses along the south side of Russell Square. Built by James Burton (who was responsible for large areas of Bloomsbury including the Foundling Hospital) in 1800-03 for the upper and middle classes, the interior of the buildings was subsequently converted into offices. Sadly, there is not much to write home about because apart from the original staircases and the ornamental fireplaces, the rooms inside this Georgian building are filled with MFI furniture and carpet. It was a big disappointment despite being lead by an informative and enthusiastic volunteer.

Not from this is the quirky The Horse Hospital, a Grade II listed stable-turned arts venue also built by James Burton in 1797. I was surprised that I have never noticed this venue before even though I have walked past the street several times before (something that seems to happen in this city all the time).


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 The Horse Hospital & Contemporary wardrobe collection


Once inside, you can access to the basement or the first floor via concrete moulded ramps. Both floors have five cast iron pillars, several original iron tethering rings and a mock cobbled herringbone pattern re-enforced concrete floor. The basement provides a gallery space for arts, music and fashion related events, while the first floor is home of the fantastic Contemporary Wardrobe Collection where you can hire vintage and street fashion couture items and accessories.

Unfortunately, this idiosyncratic independent and non-profit art venue is facing closure because the building is to be sold in March 2015. I think it would very sad if this historical building to be turned into some sort of trendy entertainment/retail complex by property developers, so efforts must be made to save this. You can click on the web link above to find out more.


The art workers guild The art workers guildThe art workers guild The art workers guildThe art workers guild The art workers guild The art workers guildThe art workers guildjohn nash IMG_0885

The art workers guild


On Queen Square, there is a seemingly conventional Georgian building, it is the home of the Art Workers guild. This Grade II listed building was built in 1713 and although altered, it is one of the few original houses remaining in the square.

The Art Worker Guild was founded in 1884 by 25 artists, architects, craftsmen and designers, with the aim to reach out to workers in related disciplines, going beyond the confines of ‘fine’ art set by the Royal Academy. William Morris was elected in 1888, and serves as Master in 1892. In 1913, the organisation moved to this location and in 1914, a new meeting hall was rebuilt by F.W.Troup and W.R.Lethaby in a neo-Georgian style.

It is wonderful to see that a lot of the original features inside the building are still intact, esp. in the back hall. I also love the display of both traditional and contemporary art and craft pieces side by side. This organisation would occasionally host arts and crafts related exhibitions and events, so don’t miss the opportunity to visit this historical and beautiful building.


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 St Pancras Waterpoint


Moving away from Bloomsbury, I headed towards Kings Cross to visit the Victorian gothic-style St Pancras Waterpoint designed under the direction of Sir George Gilbert Scott to complement St Pancras Station and the adjoining Midland Grand Hotel (now St Pancras Chambers).

Built in 1872 to supply water to the rapidly growing steam network at St Pancras, the ornate brickwork and elaborate detailing is an indication of the importance of engineering to the Victorians. In 2001, the Waterpoint was threatened with demolition because of the development of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link Terminus. Eventually, English Heritage intervened and saved the structure by relocating it 700 metres to the north east of its original location.

In order to move the 238 tonnes and 9 m high structure was no easy task, but it would have a significant loss if this structure was to be demolished. Now the new site of the Waterpoint stands prominently on a viaduct overlooking King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations, St Pancras Yacht Basin, Regent’s canal and Camley Street Natural Park.


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St Pancras old church and churchyard- 3rd row middle & 4th row: The Hardy Tree Bottom: Tomb of architect Sir John Soane and his wife


For a long time I have wanted to visit The Hardy Tree in the churchyard of 4th century St Pancras old church, which is considered as one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. The history of the church is interesting, but what is more intriguing are the stories and people related to the churchyard…

The churchyard is the resting place for the remains that were exhumed when the Midland Railway was built in 1866 over part of the original churchyard. The vicar of St Pancras insisted that the 8,000 remains be respectfully removed and re-interred, and commissioned the architect Arthur Blomfield to supervise the exhumation and dismantling of the tombs. The Blomfield then passed this ‘sought-after’ task onto his apprentice (and later novelist/poet) Thomas Hardy. And bizarrely, the relocated headstones were placed around an ash tree, which has become known as the Hardy Tree. Now the tree has grown in amongst the tombstones, creating a remarkable sight that looks almost like an art installation! The spooky and horrendous task later inspired Hardy to write the following poem:

“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!”

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’”

Not far from the ash tree, you can find one of the two Grade I listed tombstones in London that architect Sir John Soane designed for his wife and himself. Believe or not but this mausoleum provided the inspiration for the design of the iconic red telephone box by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

And in 1968, the Beatles were photographed in the churchyard grounds, in the famous publicity photographs for “Mad Day Out”. You can also see a plaque mounted on a bench where the four of them sat.


st mary's churchst mary's churchst mary's churchRoman Catholic Church of St Aloysius

Top row: St Mary’s church designed by W. & H.W. Inwood in 1822-1826. Bottom row: Roman Catholic Church of St Aloysius


After visiting the sites, I wandered around the back streets of Euston (also known as Somers Town) and coincidentally discovered many interesting architecture including contemporary arts venues and Modernist social housing.

In the 19th century, the area used to be slums and it was redeveloped at the beginning of the 20th century and were replaced by new social housing. The scheme was led by Father John Basil Lee Jellicoe, a clergyman in the Church of England who devoted his time and effort on improving living conditions of local people and helping build a strong community in Somers Town.


Ossulston EstateChalton street estateChenies Place Chalton street estateChenies Place Chenies PlaceOakshott CourtIMG_0918 IMG_0926

Top row: Ossulston Estate; 2nd & 3rd row right: Chalton street estate; 3rd row left and 4th row: Chenies Place; 5th row: Oakshott Court


I first stumbled upon Ossulston Estate and was captivated by its white facade. The Grade II listed modernist council estate was built between 1927 and 1931 by G. Topham Forrest of the London County Council in Somers Town. The designer was influenced by Viennese modernist public housing such as Karl Marx-Hof, and this type of modernist social housing was unusual at the time.

Walking towards Chalton Street, a block of housing estate with a streamlined facade caught my eye. This looks very Art Deco like, but I couldn’t find information on the building date and architect of this building. Yet the style is fairly consistent with the nearby Chenies Place, so I assume the two buildings were built probably around the same period.

On the opposite side of the street is a large L-shaped complex, Oakshott Court built in 1976 by Peter Tábori of the Camden Council Architect’s Department. This modernist social housing has 114 flats and maisonettes and looks a lot more pleasant and ‘livable’ than other social housing in London. I think a large part of it has to do with the large green lawn and the well-sized balconies. And from the photographs I found on the internet, the interior is bright and spacious, which is designed better than many of the new and over-priced commercial flats.


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Contemporary architecture in Somers Town


Although I didn’t visit many ‘grand’ venues at the Open House this year, I enjoyed my visits to the smaller and lesser-known gems in the city. However, I must say that stumbling upon an area full of architectural wonders was probably the highlight of the day. Now I would love to return to Somers Town again with a walking tour to find out more about the history and stories of the area.


Open House weekend 2013

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The magnificent ceiling painted by Sir Peter Paul Rubens in the hall in 1636 at the Banqueting House


As an architecture lover ( I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid, because Lego was my obsession at the time), the Open House weekend has always been one of my favourite events in London. Unfortunately, this year, I was too busy to pre-book and too sick to plan, and so I did not manage to take full advantage of the weekend. And unlike my friend, I was not willing to queue for hours either.

On Saturday, a friend and I met up in Westminster to try and get into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but was put off by the extremely long queue outside. Hence, we walked across the street and opted for the shorter queue outside of the Banqueting House instead. We noticed that there were a lot more tourists than the previous years, perhaps it was due to the publicity, but the event that once was enjoyed by mainly Londoners has become a very ‘touristy’ event. ( I probably sound like a bitter and grumpy old fart, but I can’t help feeling that London is far too ‘touristy’ these days!)

We waited for only 10 mins and were eventually allowed into the only surviving building of the old Palace of Whitehall. This Palladian-style building was designed by Inigo Jones for James I in 1619 and in 1936, Flemish artists, Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s ceiling paintings were installed. Lying on the beanbags provided in the hall, my friend and I were rather gobsmacked by how three-dimensional the paintings looked from below! The painting techniques of these old masters made me understand why their work would stretch millions today because they are truly outstanding.


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The Elizabethan ( 1562) Middle Temple Hall in Temple


Although I didn’t visit Middle Temple Hall during the weekend ( which was part of the Open House), I went to the hall 2 weeks before with friends visiting from abroad. I made an appointment for lunch and we were able to enjoy our meal in one of the best preserved Elizabethan architecture ( built between 1562 and 1573 ) in London. And here the hall is equally stunning…


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A grade II listed Art deco building: London school of of Hygiene & tropical medicine on Keppel Street in Bloomsbury’s exterior and interior


On Sunday afternoon, I decided to skip the ‘touristy’ area and went to one of my favourite areas in London: the historical Bloomsbury. My tactic paid off because there were not as many tourists and queues were relatively short. I opted for a guided tour at the art deco building, London School of Hygiene and tropical medicine. The Grade II listed building was officially opened in 1929, but part of the building was destroyed by a bomb during World War II and had to be restored. The exterior of the building features gilded bronze insects and animals that transmit diseases on the balconies, and displays the names of 23 pioneers of public health and tropical medicine on the frieze. Inside the building, it was a mix of old and new, but I especially love the art deco style library, except for the hideous fluorescent lighting!


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British Medical Association, a grade II listed building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1911


Without any planning, I walked into the British Medical Association House just in time for the hourly guided tour, and it turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise. The grade II listed building was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1911, and has been the home to the British Medical Association since 1925. Personally, I found the exterior of the building esp. the courtyard more spectacular than the interior, but it was the tranquil garden at the back that took all of us by surprise. And it turned out that the garden area had been occupied by Tavistock House, which was the home of novelist Charles Dickens in the late 1850s.


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Birkbeck school of arts’s new and award-winning film and media centre and its historical past 


My last stop of the day was Birkbeck school of arts on Gordon Square. The guide was rather shocked by the overwhelming number of people who were interested in joining the tour, as they had not expected so many visitors. As part of the Bedford Estate developed between the early 1820s and 1860 designed by Thomas Cubitt, the school actually looks rather bland from the outside. The highlight of the building is the 2008 RIBA award-winning centre for film and media designed by Surface Architects in 2007. The architects were inspired by the cinematic movement and Virginia Woolf‘s ( a former resident) stream of consciousness narratives. They created a very colourful, bold and striking centre which seems very ‘post modern’ to me. I can’t decide whether I like it or not, but it is certainly one of a kind.

In this maze-like building, we were eventually led to the older part ( no.46), where Virginia Woolf moved to with her family after her father died in 1904. It was here where she met other fellow writers and artists and formed the Bloomsbury Group. Interestingly, not THAT much seems to have changed from view out of the 1st floor window… and this is the reason why I love Bloomsbury, it is one of last few areas in London where it is still relatively intact and has not been redeveloped. I sincerely hope it will continue to stay this way.


Open house weekend 2012

King’s College, The Maughan Library


I have always looked forward to the annual Open house weekend in London, last year, I managed to book and visit some amazing places like the Lancaster House, Commonwealth Institute ( before the renovation to turn it into the new Design Museum) and the Oak room at the New Riverhead etc. This year, due to an exceptional high demand, the website crashed as soon as booking began and then it was turned into a ballot system.


Royal Courts of Justice


Is there a reason for this sudden popularity this year? Is the public more interested in architecture? Or maybe people are just taking advantage of another free event? Whatever the reason, I think the organisers need to consider hosting this more than just once a year!



Luckily, besides the popular ones that required pre-booking, there were still many interesting and historical places that were open for all. I had always wanted to visit the Royal Courts of Justice and this gave me an excuse to go for the first time ( without looking too much like a tourist), as well as the nearby Maughan Library ( part of King’s college).


Golden Lane estate near Barbican

Interior of a flat at the Golden Lane estate


I was fortunate enough to get a successful application through ballot system, which was a tour of a flat at the Golden Lane Estate, another place where I had wanted to visit for a long time. This 1950s council estate is Grade 2 listed and has been much sought after in the recent years. This modernist style estate reminded me very much of Alvar Aalto‘s house in Helsinki that I visiteda few weeks ago, esp. the functionality of the interior and the use of light. The estate also have facilities such as leisure centre, nursery, pub, shops, tennis courts and even a community website that keeps the residents updated on events within the estate. If I have to interpret David Cameron‘s “big society”, I assume this would be close to his ideal “society”.

My friend and I also took the opportunity to visit the nearby Guildhall school of music and drama, going backstage and watching the students rehearsed for their upcoming play. It was great fun.

I simply cannot believe we will have to wait another year for this event to repeat!


Guildhall school of music and drama