Barber sets out his stall on the street

Joe Holyoak

In September I attended an online talk by the architect Peter Barber, which he called Street: Who owns the city, part of the Architects’ Journal AJ100 Festival. Barber has become well known, at least within his profession, for designing several exceptional social housing schemes, all of them in London, which have won him many awards. His talk was the usual combination of revealing influences, attitudes and beliefs, and showing the work. His political stance is socialist, with three core beliefs related to housing: one, council tenants’ Right to Buy should be abolished; two, put stronger rent controls on private sector properties; and, three, just build a lot more social housing for rent.

There is a consistency between Barber’s politics and the architecture that he practices, a consistency rare among architects. But the reason that I am choosing to write about Barber’s work here is not because of his political attitude, admirable though I find it. It is because of two characteristics which should make his work connect to and resonate with urban designers. One is the close attention that he gives to the ordinary, quotidian aspects of domestic urban life. The other is his employment of a familiar vocabulary of formal and spatial types: perimeter block, terrace, mews, street, courtyard and alley. He does this in ways which draw knowledgably on precedent, but at the same time often re-invent the type, and do it at an unusually high density.

Barber’s domestic designs, like those of the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger, maximise sociability, creating social connections through casual encounters. One factor in this is wherever possible giving each dwelling a front door at ground level, no shared internal access corridors. The site of one of his recent schemes, McGrath Road in Newham, was originally intended to contain two blocks of flats. Barber showed that the same density could be achieved with back-to-back houses, up to four storeys high, each with a front door either on the street or on the courtyard at the centre. He expects to see lines of washing being strung across this courtyard. He doesn’t always get every detail right: in his talk he showed an endearing mosaic-photo of tiny square windows in the front doors of one scheme, inserted so that residents could scrutinise a visitor. But of course the visitor could also look in. So, the windows now contain a miniature art gallery of pictures, which Barber delighted in photographing.

Barber regards high density as a virtue, encouraging social contact and requiring him to find inventive ways of fitting houses together. Like another social housing champion, Walter Segal, he is often given difficult or restrictive sites. So he builds to the back of pavement, maximizing the built footprint and putting any shared outdoor space inside the block. He observes that ‘When we design housing, we are designing cities’, and his residential schemes, although very distinctive in their architectural character, are all normative pieces of urban fabric. Their language is invariably brickwork, composed to emphasise the solidity of the material, pierced with window openings, sometimes with chamfered surrounds. At McGrath Road, there is a sly reference to Red Vienna’s Karl Marx-Hof, in its big parabolic brickwork arches which contain the houses’ front doors and the windows of the dining rooms. But these too have a behavioural purpose, recessing the private indoor realm just a small way from the public realm of the street.

Recently in the Architects’ Journal, Catherine Slessor wrote that Barber’s use of the familiar form-types of street, square and terrace is ‘paradoxical’, because those types are also espoused by pressure groups such as Create Streets, whom she labelled ‘reactionary’. I find this baffling: the director of Create Streets, Nicholas Boys Smith, may be an adviser to the Tory government, but the organisation surely shares some common ground with Peter Barber in its rejection of anti-urban forms of development, and in its endorsement of sociable, street-based, mixed use architecture. The political contexts may be different, but Barber’s inventive use of the traditional forms of block, street and courtyard represents an exceptionally distinctive example of a new conventional wisdom in urban design, which transcends politics.

URBAN DESIGN 161 Winter 2022 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 161 Winter 2022

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Newham, London: two views of Barber‘s housing scheme. Source: Morley von Sternberg

Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation.

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.