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More pleasant: Mount Pleasant Studio by Peter Barber

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As the controversial Mount Pleasant housing scheme gets the OK, Peter Barber has created a hostel nearby that is its antithesis, writes Owen Pritchard. Photography by Morley von Sternberg

Mount Pleasant in central London will shortly see the construction of a controversial 681-home scheme by, among others, Allies and Morrison, Wilkinson Eyre, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, after the project was called in and approved by London mayor Boris Johnson.
At a three-hour hearing, in which Islington and Camden councils asked for the scheme to be rejected and local residents’ associations were ignored, the mayor was heckled and jeered from the public gallery. Johnson has approved a development that was described by local residents’ group the Mount Pleasant Association as ‘fortress-like’ and a ‘slum of the future’.

As the decision was being made, I met architect Peter Barber at the southern end of Mount Pleasant, where the narrow winding street finally meets Gray’s Inn Road. He lives close by and is despairing at what is happening at City Hall. ‘I even did my own scheme for the site,’ says the architect somewhat ruefully.

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We are standing on the street outside his latest project, which is also a sort of fortress. It has tightly controlled access and will exclusively serve a very specific section of society - but is the antithesis of the project that Johnson is waving through while we meet.

Mount Pleasant Studios is a hostel for the homeless delivered for Camden’s Community Investment Programme - a 15-year plan to invest much-needed money into homes, schools and community facilities. Peter Barber and his team have transformed an existing facility into a secure and modern institution that will house people as they adjust to independent living. There has been a hostel on the site since the 1900s, and the team had to rationalise the existing buildings, which had been a warren of rooms sited within an H-shaped plan that divided two courtyards - one for male residents and one for female.
‘It was a maze of corridors,’ says Barber, ‘and very oppressive. We asked ourselves if we could do a hostel without corridors to place importance on the communal areas.’

Although the exisiting building was in a conservation area, Barber was sure that they could, if he wanted, have knocked the assemblage of red and yellow brick buildings down. He says: ‘I am pretty sure we could have started again. No one really loved these buildings. But I thought that would be a waste, that there was something else we could do.’

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On the exterior Barber has stitched together the red brick of the existing building with a new building that flanks the perimeter of the site.  Yellow London Brick has been balanced with white render, and the roof height and window pattern varied to create a seemingly ad hoc facade to the street.  The render references the residential buildings opposite, while deep windows cut into the lower part of the facade make for a building that thoughtfully addresses the complexity of its immediate context. ‘I like architecture that feels urban, solid and robust,’ says Barber.

The existing brick buildings have been rationalised internally, and the tiny rooms turned into shared kitchen spaces that serve clusters of simple bedrooms, each with an en suite bathroom. Arranged around the generous courtyard, the section through the accommodation blocks is small, meaning most of the rooms are dual-aspect, with views internally and externally.  There are more than 50 rooms in the hostel: 14 are set aside for the eight-week assessment period for new residents; there are 34 rooms for residents who will stay for 12-18 months and then a few more for emergency accommodation.

‘The social heart of the building is the courtyard,’ says Barber.  The removal of a block that divided and confused the site has created a calm sun trap a storey below street level. All the accommodation and staff areas look out onto this space, the laundry and training kitchens spilling out into the square. From this central space all of the accommodation blocks - there are four in total - can be accessed.There is a sense of peace and calm, but also of freedom to move unhindered between spaces.  There are no ‘airlock’ corridor spaces or security hatches; it feels like a student hall of residence.

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‘The staff here talk about the unplanned encounter,’ says Barber. ‘If you make an appointment with someone then they most likely won’t turn up.’ By providing a space where people might linger or gather, and putting the most-used rooms - such as the laundry - on the courtyard, the architect has helped maximise the chances for impromptu interaction. The lack of corridors means the building feels less institutional. While the finishes are necessarily tough and Spartan, people will still stop and linger - the ashtrays placed by benches and steps in the courtyard lead you to guess at where this will likely happen.

Peter Barber Architects has extensive experience with this kind of project and has started work on another hostel in Kentish Town, again centred on a generous courtyard. Barber is full of praise for Camden Council and its commitment to the community investment programme. ‘We always consider the social perspective beyond the provision of necessities,’ says Barber as we exit the building onto the street. ‘It is always about getting the right balance.’  We check our phones to learn that Johnson has approved the development at the other end of Mount Pleasant and part company, Barber’s words hanging heavily in the air.

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