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Alternative housing checklist

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I love revisiting our built housing projects to see how people’s lives are played out, says Peter Barber

This is a collection of some of the things which I find helpful to think about when I’m trying to design our urban housing projects. There are numerous ways to approach the design of housing – lots of hats that we can and should wear – abstract and analytical, political, sensual, social, artistic, pragmatic even. We need to be a sociologist, geographer, architect and urbanist as well as an old-style masterplanner and situationist. These ideas and observations are offered as a counterblast to the functionalist checklists, the bullet-point codes and design standards with which government tries to control what we do and which I feel inhibit the design of magical housing and beautiful cities. There are no tick boxes here. This is more pick and mix.


In a passage in his 1924 book One way Street, the Marxist cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the culture and form of a street in Naples: ‘Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes.’ Benjamin captures the idea of a city and architecture animated and activated by the business and activity of its occupants. He gives an intimation of the fragile, complex reciprocal relationship between people and space, culture and architecture.

I always find it helpful to try to visualise how people might inhabit the spaces that we create and I love revisiting our built housing projects to see how peoples’ lives are played out in homes, courtyards and streets which we have made.

Michel de Certeau has said that: ‘Space is practised place … everyday narrative, a word caught in the ambiguity of actualisation … on streets, in apartments … in the most imitate of domestic habitats.’ Spot-on.


Seventy per cent of all the buildings in London are houses or housing. Housing is what our city is made of. It is what creates a hard edge to our streets, it’s what surrounds our squares. We can say, therefore, that when we design urban housing, we design cities. Housing schemes should not begin as housing schemes, but as urban designs. Designs for housing should be driven, to begin with, by our vision of a beautiful city. We should design streets and public space first – domestic layouts should follow. Projects like our Donnybrook Quarter and Hannibal Gardens contain housing, but more fundamentally they are a celebration of the public, social life of the city.


I’m for street-based neighbourhoods. Streets work; they are an ingenious and effective means of organising public space. In my view they are essential to the social life of cities.

I like to try and arrange our projects as a network of streets, often interspersed with little public squares and gardens. I aim to align streets so that they create handy shortcuts and strong spatial and visual connections with adjacent, and sometimes socially and functionally diverse, neighbourhoods. I like to imagine narrow streets which concentrate the public world into quite limited space, bringing lots of different types of people in to one place. And its nice to think of narrow building frontages and numerous front doors, creating visual diversity and the potential for people to personalise the space outside their homes.


I am interested in lower-rise, higher-density housing and often try to explore achieving this with houses instead of flats. I experiment with unconventional and sometimes obscure housing typologies, some of which are quite archaic and belong to a pre-modern vernacular, such as the cottage or Tyneside flat, back-to-backs, courtyard house types and the terrace/courtyard hybrid notched terrace with which we are associated and which I pinched from Adolf Loos and Josep Lluís Sert.


Sergei Eisenstein said that Greek urbanists were the first great cinematographers. While I’m designing, I sometimes try to imagine our schemes as a screenplay, a sequence of views, picturesque, filmic even … long, lyrical ‘following shots’, a shocking ‘jump cut’, Sergio Leone-style scale shifts from detail or foreground to widescreen panorama … silhouette, close-up, perspective shifting, space unfolding, picturesque, sensual, a shadowy street with a little kick, tapering and narrowing suddenly before opening through an archway into a sunny square … nice! 

  • Peter Barber is director of Peter Barber Architects
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