Pitman Tozer’s Mint Street housing for Peabody is an ingenious and handsome response to its noisy viaduct location, writes Ellis Woodman
Talking with me outside the apartment block that his practice has designed for the housing association, Peabody, Luke Tozer is making a valiant attempt to describe the project against the frequent interruption of passing trains. The building stands on Mint Street in east London, 12 metres from the viaduct that carries the railway from Liverpool Street Station out to Stansted Airport, and at precisely the point where the route begins to make its sharp curve north. The clattering is even louder here than where the trains run straight. When two pass simultaneously, you literally cannot hear yourself speak.
The project occupies land that formerly formed part of the headquarters of the pharmaceutical manufacturer, Allen and Hanburys. Five years ago the developer, Workspace, bought the site with the intention of converting the factory building that occupies its north end into space for creative industries. The project was to be part-funded through the sale of an adjoining car park, and with that aim Workspace commissioned a feasibility study which addressed the land’s potential redevelopment as housing. That study identified the possibility of introducing a linear block, laid out parallel to the curve of the railway, but concluded that the best means of addressing the noise issues was the use of gallery access on the rail side. In consequence all apartments would suffer from a single and north-west facing aspect.
Peabody entered negotiations to buy the site and commissioned a feasibility study of its own from Pitman Tozer Architects. Working with Max Fordham as environmental consultants, the practice advocated an alternative strategy. While acknowledging the attraction of a linear configuration, it argued that appropriate sound engineering could enable each of the building’s apartments to enjoy the better daylighting and more expansive views afforded by a south-easterly orientation. Exchanging the use of gallery access for a plan based on multiple stair cores would also allow more than half the 67 units a double aspect. Peabody was persuaded and, much to its credit, maintained the then relatively untested Pitman Tozer as the £11 million project’s architect after it purchased the land.
Its faith in the practice has been rewarded with a building that not only answers the site’s technical challenges, but offers an object lesson in the capacity of housing to define the form and character of the city. The pedestrianised Mint Street represents a route through the site where none existed previously. All units are accessed off it but, lying midway between Bethnal Green’s overground and underground stations, Mint Street also represents a valuable resource for the community. It has been attractively hard landscaped to double as a children’s play space. The railway arches are currently occupied by light industry but Network Rail’s plan to install café and retail units promises to intensify its inhabitation.
Pitman Tozer describes its building as lying in the tradition of London mansion blocks, 19th-century examples of which neighbour it to the west. It comprises a base of maisonettes interspersed by three stair cores that provide access to apartments ranged over five floors. Tenure is divided in approximately equal measure between affordable rent, shared ownership and full ownership, with the apartments on the upper two floors belonging to the latter category. The base - which approximates the height of the viaduct - is distinguished through its facing in green ceramic brick. A run of widely spaced circular hollow section columns extends in front, ultimately picking up the slightly projecting mass of the upper storeys, which are faced in a more sober Staffordshire blue brick.
The entrances to the stair cores are signalled through the placement of a floor-to-ceiling glazed winter garden above each one. While the London mayor’s Housing Design Guide would ordinarily require every unit to be provided with a private external amenity space, the noise levels are such as to make balconies effectively unusable. The maisonettes enjoy pocket-gardens on the north-west side but all other units have railway-facing winter gardens, enclosed by double glazing both externally and on the face opening on to the apartment. Projecting out from the body of the building, the ones above the stair-core entrances are the most emphatically expressed. On the upper storeys, they are subsumed into the plan, their glazing effectively indistinguishable from the windows that give directly on to the interior. The result is a facade of regularly distributed openings of cinematic format, its horizontal emphasis confirmed by the recessing of every fourth brick course in the intervening solid areas.
The dominant wall surface on the rear elevation is a cream-toned brick, chosen for reasons of cost and its capacity to reflect light into the intimate courtyard that it addresses. In further contrast to the front facade it has been given a strong vertical emphasis by teasing the stair cores out from the body of the plan. Of curving profile, these are faced in the Staffordshire blue brick but here laid in a vertical stack bond. The building’s curvaceous modelling becomes more expressive still at its two ends, where it has to negotiate challenging rights-to-light and overlooking restrictions. In each case, large expanses of blank wall are handled with great sculptural élan and constructed impeccably. The quality and diversity of the brickwork is one of the project’s chief pleasures. Peabody’s development director, Claire Bennie, has been a strong advocate for the use of the material - instituting a marked change of culture from the era that brought us such highly bespoke Peabody projects as Bill Dunster’s BedZED. The greater robustness of a brick wall over a polycarbonate cladding panel represents an obvious advantage for a client hoping to build homes with a lifespan of many decades.
Each stair landing provides access to four apartments. Two are of a two-bed type, their bedrooms distributed against the rear facade with a kitchen and living area addressing the rail side across the winter garden. The acoustic strategy proves enormously effective. When the glazed doors between the winter garden and the living area are open, the train noise is discernible but hardly intrusive. When closed, it is all but inaudible. The other apartments on each landing are of a one-bed type and of single aspect on to the railway. Here, the winter garden extends only in front of the bedroom so residents have to contend with a greater level of noise in their living space: not an ideal arrangement, but the best that could be realised within units of such compact dimension.
The acoustic problem is also alleviated significantly by the provision of mechanical ventilation and heat recovery to all units. Cool fresh air is supplied to all rooms from vents on the building’s north side while warm air is extracted from bathrooms and kitchens. Residents can override the system if they choose, but they should be able to enjoy a ready supply of fresh air without recourse to opening a window.
Most of us who live in a city accept a reduction in space, privacy and peace, and those costs are presented particularly starkly in this most intensely urban of sites. And yet if living on Mint Street represents a compromise, Pitman Tozer’s ingenious and handsome building offers a strong case that it is one still worth making.