The Burton House shows how small projects can have a big impact, says Paul Finch
The extraordinary phenomenon of Open House is with us again this weekend, and all power to the elbows of Victoria Thornton and her team for their delivery of an event which has had such positive impact on the public perception of architecture.
As usual, there will be a long queue in Kentish Town in order to get a glimpse of the Burton House, designed by Richard Burton of ABK, and now the subject of a nicely produced monograph (available on the day) written by Richard, with a preface by Elain Harwood and photographs by her Historic England colleague James Davies. (An Extra Dimension: The Burton House, Modern Architecture in the Making, Rightangle Publishing, £25.)
The house, completed in 1987, was a labour of love, an example of self-build, use of a backland site, and exploitation of small spaces to achieve maximum results, not least in the kitchen/dining room where Mireille B supervises wonderful hospitality in a splendid non-minimalist volume. Like many architectural stories, this one had its moments of tension, not to say crisis (the great storm of 1987, which blew the temporary roof off during construction). Of course, planning in Camden, at least during the era when the house was being designed, was going to be a problem, and so it proved. The correspondence and sequence of events spelled out in the book are a grim reminder that the impulse to say no rather than yes is part of the reason for the ongoing shortage of homes in the capital.
I was flattered to learn that Richard was including in the book (as one of several end-pieces) an AJ article I wrote in 2003 about the desirability of bringing a myriad small sites into productive use for housing. It was prompted by an idea he had of identifying small sites in local authority ownership, for example a council-owned set of garages, mainly unused, near the Burton House. It provides no great comfort to realise that this is exactly what is supposed to happen under the government’s latest housing initiative. That is because the disposal of sites is likely to go to the usual suspects, who will exploit them for maximum-density development that will quite possibly be sold to anyone except Londoners. (The site Richard identified was eventually sold to a developer nine years ago. Nothing has been built.)
One of the distinguishing features of the Burton House was the way in which it was conceived as a long-term project for multiple use, not speculation, thereby combining social purpose with individual interest. Writing this in the wake of the Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership result, it occurs that he should bring himself to acknowledge the importance of the aggregation of small individual things, as opposed to grand projects like the renationalisation of the railways (doomed from the start).
Still, at Open house weekend, we can suspend thought about policy In favour of enjoyment of house architecture – the threshold, spaces and volumes, interior and furniture design, and relationship to the urban garden which make chez Burton so enjoyable an experience, well described by Harwood as a ‘sequence of riches’. By coincidence, a book by Harwood, with photographs by Davies, has just been published (England’s Post-war Listed Buildings, Batsford £40). This invaluable catalogue is fascinating and includes four works by ABK, though shamefully not their Redcar library, which the council was too dozy to understand formed part of local history when it decided to demolish it to make way for a ‘leisure centre’.
I expect the Burton House to be added to the list in due course. The thought also occurs that Elain herself should be a candidate for listing!