Review: Edgewood Mews by Peter Barber Architects nurtures a sense of community
Peter Barber Architects does it again with Edgewood Mews, a quiet, car-free and iconic street next to one of London’s main traffic arteries
Every now and then, Peter Barber posts snapshots of a small brick housing scheme in London on Twitter, eliciting a response perhaps unparalleled by any contemporary architect. Amid the heart emojis, there are critics, of course, but the general trend is to rejoice that Peter Barber Architects’ imaginative rehabilitation of familiar urban forms and forgotten building types demonstrates a viable alternative to cynical, identical new buildings, despite the budgets of the sites’ modest and leftover properties.
The latest to go viral, with millions of views, is Edgewood Mews in Finchley. It is the largest scheme yet from the six-strong practice – 97 homes, half of which are “affordable” – and the most challenging. Facing the North Ring Road, this street shelters a car-free street behind what looks like an ancient fortified castle, complete with fortified towers at the corners.
The narrow, long-vacant plot of land that follows the curve of the six-lane motorway has been offered a showcase by the Mayor of London’s Small Builders programme, practice managers and project leaders Phil Hamilton and Alice Brownfield explain when we meet outside, shouting to be heard over the incomprehensible roar of engines. It stops.
The expectation was that its location and difficult topography – storey heights descending from end to end and front to back – would allow for around 50 homes in enclosed apartment blocks at the three widest points, where the boundaries jagged against semi-adjacent gardens. .
Instead, the PBA envisioned dense, two-sided stables extending between leafy roads at either end. Barber is a long-time advocate of streets as the best catalyst for social integration, and argues that since housing makes up the lion’s share of the city, its designers have a special responsibility to the public realm. “This project started as a piece of urban design,” Brownfield says. Civic ambitions were fueled by the instinct that a masonry wall would provide the best defense against harsh conditions.
This 200-metre-long, five-storey enclosure is mostly one room deep, so almost all of the living spaces get ventilation from the stables. With the entrances there, it is a rear elevation facing the North Circular. “However, it is important that buildings do not turn their backs on the city,” Hamilton says. Comprised on a heroic scale of elements that are repeated in the work of the PBA – double-height parabolic arches, projecting bays and separate upper storeys forming an ornamental roofline – the strangely scaleless façade has the weight to enable it to hold its own on the A, but with the lively expression of street dwellings .
Outside, with dirt clinging to every surface, it seems impossible for this to be a comfortable place to live. But as you turn toward the stables, the air seems to clear and the traffic noise immediately drops to the faintest hum. The architectural expression is also inverted, as the stylized sound gives way to a softer, more intimate scene. Notched “pedestals” form protective corners in the south terrace as they curve out of sight around the bend, and leafy shrubs sprout from the terraces above. Gabled dormers line the roofline and a jetty with oriel windows dance above the jagged edges of the block-paved driveway.
Even the complexity of this unabashedly picturesque composition fully reveals the underlying complexity of the plot. Beneath the stables is a 76-car garage, which can be used as a retaining wall. This is made no sense by the gentle slope of the trail, which seems to follow the natural lie of the land.
The houses on the north side of the stables face walled lightwells, like many houses throughout London. But the upper floors are manipulated to form a set of small balconies for the living rooms on the middle floors, and roof terraces for the bedrooms above. These cracks and cavities make the buildings appear porous, so that a portion of each private residence contributes to the street theater.
This terrace is less traditional than it appears at first glance. At the back is a mat of single-storey apartments, surrounding the house’s courtyards and standing at the height of the neighbours’ fences.
Things get more complicated in the building across from the stables, which are designed as row houses each containing three small apartments. Below are affordable homes for rent. The ground floor living rooms, entered through small sunken courtyards, are located one floor above the north rotary. Open stairs connect them to the kitchen below, so that these rooms do not depend on roadside windows for ventilation. Shared ownership apartments arranged on the first floor and part of the second floor are served by external stairs up to a sheltered terrace. Internal stairs ascend to the market apartments, which have bedrooms on the second floor and open-plan living areas on the third, opening onto rooftop terraces on both levels.
In essence, they are a bespoke version of Edwardian country flats. “What seems like a relatively complex arrangement means that each house has its own front door on the street,” Brownfield says. Eliminating shared stairs and corridors means residents meet in public spaces, where the architects believe interaction between neighbors is most likely. The arrangement also ensures that the different periods are clearly intermingled along the street. Another ambition was for children to play in the stables, which residents say they do.
There are drawbacks and trade-offs, but they have clearly been carefully considered. For example, a few houses on the south side have a level sill, which may have been achieved through more ‘modern’ terracing of the land, at the expense of connection to the neighbourhood. “Accessibility is really important, but to get that many homes and create a path where everyone can reach some compromise,” Brownfield says.
One criticism that is sometimes leveled at PBA schemes is that the high wall-to-floor ratio is a carbon-heavy architectural indulgence. Once again, the architects have a thoughtful answer. The detailing of the buildings allows proximity and thus high density at low height. Without elevators and lobbies, the built-up area is reduced by a fifth, with lighting and heating subsequently provided. “The sustainability debate is often about reducing carbon per square metre,” says Hamilton. “But what if we could achieve the project goals with less space?”
The real question is whether big-picture urban ideals are prioritized at the expense of homes. It’s not, although the layouts are certainly unusual, even eccentric. In a duplex apartment in one of the corner towers, for example, the en suite bathroom has full-height windows overlooking a balcony overlooking the stables. Privacy is maintained, but it feels exposed. Most cases are not serious faults, but rather the kind of quirk that many people have in older homes.
There are also places that look compressed, as if the architect tried to do too much with the available space. These east windows are too small to sit in. There is unexpected generosity in such a compact scheme – three times the amount of private outdoor space required by local policy, for example. In the eyes of the southern building’s rooftops, the terraces seem to double the size of the living rooms and the lights stream in from three directions. The larger window offers a huge view of the tree-covered hills. Below, the North Circle is almost out of sight, easy to lose sight of.
The residents I spoke to were clearly happy with the place. And so does the client. Construction, handled by its own team, was more straightforward than many D&B contractors fear when considering PBA plans, and homes were purchased quickly. All of this suggests that the Twitter fans are right. To borrow a common response: More of this, please.
Total interior space 800 m²
Peak predicted photovoltaic power generation on site 102.12 kW
Construction cost Trusted
structural engineer Peter Barber Architects
Housing associations Main group
Structural Engineer Hall Davis
Planning consultant DP9
Transportation consultant Lime
Monitoring and evaluation consultant Mendick Waring
Daylight Advisor Point2
Audio consultant Acoustics KP