A typical new block of flats looks like this: hallways and lobbies, typically without windows, connect to apartments with just the bare minimum of amenities allowed by laws. There is no wit or thinking in the arrangement or delight in individual places – simply the pursuit of the quickest way to cramming in as much room as possible – nor in the materials used to construct the structure. Whether completed in slender brickwork or another cladding material, the exterior walls have a just-stuck-together appearance.
There is no feeling of solidity, only a hastily put-together collection of construction materials that, if tapped, would most likely sound dull and hollow. You have no reason to believe that the results of opaque technical and regulatory processes will not burn, leak, or fall off, but you do.
The new architectural firm Apparata’s A House for Artists in Barking, east London, aims to be the polar opposite. External staircases and balconies link the street to the house, providing fresh air, vistas, and a feeling of spaciousness and connection to the neighborhood.
There is ample room for homeowners to fill balconies with plants and personal items while yet allowing for enough circulation. The apartments’ ceilings are high, and the walls are largely glass, allowing light to flow in. When the weather is nice, large windows and doors may be folded open to allow the interior and outdoor areas to flow into one other.
The 12 apartments in the tower, the majority of which are two-bedrooms, have no lobbies or hallways, giving them a greater feeling of space. Their layout allows for some flexibility, such as shifting the kitchen and adding or deleting a bedroom to suit new children, growing or moving out, or an elderly relative moving in.
The goal, according to Apparata’s Astrid Smitham, is to represent “the diverse configuration of people’s lives today.” There is very little waste. When something is required for a practical purpose, such as a fire escape path, it is also used as a recreational opportunity.
The structure is made of solid concrete with a slightly gleaming finish that prevents it from streaking in the rain and a cement content that has been lowered with the use of alternative materials to lessen its carbon footprint. It has a comforting weight to it.
The weight of the structure may be seen and felt. The apartments’ ceilings are also made of exposed concrete, which makes you feel like you’re in something made by humans and made of things with a tangible presence.
This remarkable block of apartments has a unique history. It is for artists, as the name implies, and is the product of a six-year campaign by the arts group Create London to offer affordable rental accommodation for creative individuals at 65 percent of market rate. It was created in partnership with Barking and Dagenham Borough Council in London. As a “advocate and sounding board,” Grayson Perry provided his assistance.
The project’s goal is to not just offer cheap accommodation for cash-strapped creatives – whose abilities range from printing to photography to video art – but also to give back to the community, to tap into artists’ well-known capacity to breathe life into a space. The bottom level is a glass-walled communal space where artists may create and show their work, as well as organize adult education programs, parties, and other activities that benefit the community. (The well-lit apartments are equally suitable for working, although renters do not have their own studio area.)
Neither are the flats planned as separate living units, but as integral members of the whole block’s community. Residents will be encouraged to take charge of its administration.
On one level, double doors in the party walls between apartments may be opened to unite living rooms into one large communal area, which are soundproofed when closed. The block’s layout facilitates connectivity between the apartments, with three units on each of the four stories above ground level, accessible by communal balconies.
A House for Artists is a creation of uncomplicated nice things and simple joys. Its design is based on a clever interpretation of the requirements regulating fire escape; it eliminates the need for interior corridors by offering exterior balconies on both sides of the building.
It has architectural intelligence as well. The joints in the concrete were thoughtfully placed to assist give the idea that the structure is composed of enormous stone blocks, reinforcing the image of strength. It seems to be made up of pillars and beams, which have been staples of building since at least ancient Egypt. But, just when you think it’s becoming too serious, it lightens the atmosphere with circles and triangles carved into the walls like a child’s toy, with more triangular forms on the rooftop.
It manages to speak to all of the different features of the William Street Quarter, a nearby redevelopment project. This is an odd mix of enormous depressing grey blocks that seem uncannily like the worst 1960s estates and rows of little pitched-roof brick dwellings. With its triangles and oblongs and mid-sized stature, A House for Artists combines the best of both worlds while being more attractive than either.
It’s a peppy and energetic structure, enormous and little, magnificent and intimate all at once. It’s tough rather than delicate, cold rather than warm, yet it’s still a place to call home. Create London sees it as a prototype: now that they’ve proven the concept in Barking, they want to take it elsewhere. Let’s hope that more structures like these are constructed, and not only for creatives. A House for Artists can teach us something about how to build new housing.