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A House for Artists - a perky, punchy affordable housing in London

The Observer's Rowan Moore reviews the House of Artists in Barking east London, designed by Apparata

House for Artists
Photograph © Johan Dehlin

"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.

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."

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