Villiers Road Studios bears the trademarks of a Peter Barber Architects project, but its apparently formulaic exterior belies a highly focused and well-researched approach, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Morley von Sternberg
Practice statements made by architects tend to emphasise two points. The first is the importance of their clients, often reinforced by an assurance that the practice aims to surpass client expectations. The second is the differing approaches the practice takes to every project.
But it would be difficult for London-based firm Peter Barber Architects to make such a claim. Its projects are easily recognisable by a number of trademarks, most notably their white-rendered external finishes and their geometry. Villiers Road Studios, a row of three single-occupancy units in the rear yard of an existing St Mungo’s hostel for homeless people, cannot be described as a radical change of direction.
As English architect Baillie Scott (1865-1945) once said: ‘If in doubt, whitewash’
After working with Richard Rogers and Will Alsop, and establishing his own firm in 1989, practice director Peter Barber had a road-to-Damascus experience when he visited the Álvaro Siza-designed architecture faculty at Porto University, Portugal, in 1994. He renounced his interest in lightweight building systems in favour of an idiom closer to the vernacular architecture of North Africa.
Significantly, Barber’s first independent project was a villa in Saudi Arabia, and he is fond of Brighton’s famous white regency facades. Visually, white facades in render, stucco or whitewash are a winner, especially when complemented by sympathetic materials such as zinc. As English architect Baillie Scott (1865-1945) once said: ‘If in doubt, whitewash.’
The white acrylic render on Villiers Road Studios looks good alongside its cedar cladding, and these materials distinguish it from the drab brickwork buildings surrounding it, including the hostel; a particularly uninspiring example of late 20th-century residential architecture. This contrast identifies the new units as ‘move-on accommodation’, the next step towards becoming more independent.
Each unit has its own courtyard leading to a combined living, dining and kitchen area on the lower level. A narrow staircase above a small storage area winds its way up to the vaulted double bedroom on the top floor. It isn’t ideal that the entrance to the combined WC and shower room is next to the kitchen sink, but these are very compact units. Full-height glazing at ground-floor level and a large south-facing window in the bedroom provide relief and ample daylight, with high-performance glass to prevent overheating.
Many architects would have struggled to fit three units on to this site. They sit barely 7m from the terraced houses to the north, and have no windows on this side to comply with planning restrictions on overlooking. However, Barber is an enthusiastic advocate of high-density planning as a sine qua non of urban life and there is actually a certain amount of overlooking on to, and also from the courtyards, with oblique grazing views into the living areas. In order to allow more sunlight to enter neighbours’ gardens, the lower levels of the units and their courtyards are 600mm below grade, and they have stepped sections with radiused profiles. According to the practice’s associate director Phil Hamilton, ‘the planners loved it’.
As Hamilton explains,‘this site has been discussed by Peter Barber Architects and St Mungo’s for over a decade’. He adds that the practice addressed the demanding site by using a notched terraced housing typology. The notches act as courtyards that allow light to enter the units from their longest side, thus enabling Barber to enhance the scope of terraced housing; a traditional component he regards as essential to successful urban design. This typology can be seen in the practice’s 2001 Haggerston West and Kingsland masterplan, an unexecuted east London design developed with Jestico + Whiles, and it was also used in the practice’s design for the mixed-use Donnybrook Quarter, completed in east London in 2005.
Back on Villiers Road, Hamilton says: ‘Architecturally, the idea was a single element that we cut into.’ The external finishes reinforce this idea. Timber cladding represents the surface of the terrace volume and white render represents the inner core that is exposed. This resembles Austrian architect Adolf Loos’ Steiner House in Vienna, completed in 1910, which also has a radiused section.
So not only the stylistic idiom, but also the typology of Villiers Road Studios could be regarded as recycled. I hesitate to use the expression ‘house style’ when discussing the project with Hamilton, and immediately add that this could be regarded as something positive, especially if it involves seeing previous projects as a form of research.
He doesn’t dispute this. The notion of house style is more palatable if it is seen not as a glib design formula, but rather as an approach. Critic Colin Rowe alluded to this in an essay citing philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: ‘With style your power is increased, for your mind is not distracted with irrelevancies, and you are more likely to attain your object… style is the exclusive privilege of the expert.’
Barber’s stylistic idiom could be compared to shorthand, in the sense that it is a consistent approach used as a means to an end, enabling him to focus on his passion for urbanism and his social and political agendas. He has embraced an architecture that eschews feature details. It is well put together, but, as befits its essential opacity, its tectonic interest lies beneath the surface, like the logic board of an exquisitely packaged computer.
At Villiers Road Studios, the brackets that support the rainscreen boarding on the roof penetrate the single-ply membrane, and the ends of these boards were trimmed after they were installed. The windows have bespoke timber frames. No wonder this cost £5,000 per square metre.
But Villiers Road Studios also demonstrates Barber’s capacity to build on his research, using the notched terrace for a different brief in the fresh context of a courtyard development on a difficult site.
He has combined timber cladding and render to emphasise an architectural concept that is grounded in the building’s typology.
Start on site August 2008
Contract duration 12 months
Gross internal floor area 80m2
Form of contract Design and build
Total cost £400,000 (including fees)
Cost per m2£5,000 (including fees)
Client St Mungo’s
Architect/landscape architect Peter Barber Architects
Structural engineer Bolton Priestley
M&E consultant/sustainability consultant Abba Energy
Quantity surveyor/planning supervisor Philip Pank Partnership
Main contractor Quinn London
Annual CO2 emissions 39.47kgCO2
Do you like the look of Villiers Road Studios, London, by Peter Barber Architects?