Your typical new block of flats is something like this: corridors and lobbies, often windowless, lead to flats where everything is the minimum required by regulations. There is little wit or thought in the layout or pleasure in individual spaces – just the pursuit of the shortest route to squeezing in the maximum possible accommodation – nor in the stuff of which the building is made. The external walls, whether finished in skinny brickwork or some other cladding material, have a just-stuck-together feeling. There is no sense of substance, just an expedient assemblage of building products, which, if you tap them, will probably sound dull and hollow. You have to trust that these outcomes of opaque technical and regulatory procedures won’t burn or leak or fall off, but you have no particular reason to do so.
A House for Artists in Barking, east London, designed by the young architectural practice Apparata, sets out to be the opposite. The journey from street to home is by external stairs and balconies that give you fresh air and views and a sense of space and of connection to the neighbourhood. There is enough space for residents to inhabit balconies with plants and personal objects while still leaving room for circulation. Ceilings are high and the walls to the apartments are mostly glass, which allows light to flood in. Large windows and doors can be folded open in good weather, such that inside and outside spaces flow into each other.
Just when it might become too serious for its own good, it lightens the mood with circles and triangles cut into the walls
There are no lobbies or corridors inside the block’s 12 flats, most of them two-bedroomed, which increases their sense of space. There is some flexibility in their layout, with the possibility of relocating the kitchen and adding or removing a bedroom to accommodate children arriving or growing or moving out, or an elderly relative coming to live. The idea, says Astrid Smitham of Apparata, is to reflect “the diverse configuration of people’s lives today”. Little is wasted. If something is needed for functional reasons, such as a route for escaping from fire, it is also taken as an opportunity for enjoyment.
The structure is solid concrete, whose slightly shiny coating stops it streaking in the rain, and whose cement content is reduced with the help of alternative materials, so as to minimise its carbon footprint. It is reassuringly substantial. You can see and feel the weight of the building. The ceilings of the flats are in exposed concrete, too, which helps you know that you are in something built by human beings, out of materials that have a physical presence.
This unusual block of flats comes from unusual origins. It is, as the name suggests, for artists, the result of a six-year effort by the arts organisation Create London to provide affordable rented housing, at 65% of the market rate, for creative people. It has been realised in collaboration with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Grayson Perry lent his support, as an “advocate and sounding board”.
Living rooms on one floor can be joined into one big collective space. Photograph: Ståle Eriksen
The aim of the project is not only to provide affordable housing for cash-strapped creatives – whose skills run from printmaking to photography to video art – but also to contribute something to the neighbourhood, to harness a little of artists’ well-known ability to bring a bit of life to a place. The ground floor is a glass-walled community space, where artists can make and exhibit their work, or hold adult education classes or parties or indeed anything that might contribute to the life of the area. (The well-lit flats are also good places to work, but tenants don’t get individual studio spaces.)
Nor are the flats conceived only as isolated residential units, but also as parts of the community of the whole block. Residents will be encouraged to take responsibility for its management. On one floor there are double doors in the party walls between flats, soundproofed when closed, which can be opened up to join living rooms into one big collective space. The arrangement of the block, with three flats on each of the four floors above ground level, reached by those shared balconies, encourages communication between the flats.
Through the round window… Photograph: Ståle Eriksen
A House for Artists is a work of simple pleasures and straightforward good things. Its design is based on a smart interpretation of the regulations concerning escape from fire; by providing external balconies on both sides of the block, it does away with the need for internal corridors.
It also has architectural intelligence. There’s thought in the placing of the joints in the concrete, such that they help create an illusion that the building is made of large masonry blocks, which reinforces the impression of strength. It looks a thing of pillars and beams – basic elements of architecture at least since ancient Egypt. But then, just when it might become too serious for its own good, it lightens the mood with circles and triangles cut into the walls as if it were a child’s toy, with further triangular shapes on the roofline.
It manages to speak to the disparate elements of the William Street Quarter, a recent regeneration project that stands next door. This is a bizarre combination of big glum grey blocks, uncannily like the least charming estates of the 1960s, and rows of little pitched-roofed brick houses. A House for Artists, with its triangles and oblongs and its middle-sized scale, has something of both, while being more appealing than either.
It’s a perky and punchy building, at once big and small and grand and intimate. It is robust rather than exquisite, severe more than cosy, but still a place to call home. Create London see it as a prototype: now that they have their Barking example they want to pitch the idea elsewhere. Here’s hoping that more like this are built, and not only for creatives. All new housing has something to learn from A House for Artists.