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  • Articles by Susan

    The Burton House: Open House weekend, September 2015

    The distinctive round Baggins-style gate of the Burton house in Kentish Town swung open to its final visiting public in September's Open House weekend. Richard Burton and his wife Mireille have decided, after more than a decade of opening their home to the curious hoards, to close the gates of this much-loved, and very private, local icon.

     Where thousands of other British houses (mainly from the post-war period) have been built using minimum standards as maximums, this is architecture as revelation – of warmth, vitality and the pleasure of living the domestic life.  Designed by its owner Richard Burton, who was a founding partner of the firm Ahrends Burton Koralek (they of the infamous ‘carbuncle’ on the face of an old friend splenetic rant by Prince Charles), the house is and set on a corner site, behind a rather imposing brick wall, on the dignified and lovely Lady Margaret Road.  

    A modernist house in a conservation area was bound to cause a rumpus with the planners. And so it did, with plenty of voluble exchanges in Camden’s open plan offices. Burton persisted and, eventually, the planners desisted (he admits though they were right to insist on the use of London stock bricks for the long garden wall).   This is a 1 bed house, and in many ways it is an extravagant use of a precious London site, but it also contains a two storey studio and a smaller guest house.  

    The main house-plan is built in enfilade; each room, like those in a Baroque palace, opens on to the next, with no intervening corridor.  The visitor comes straight off the street through the Hobbit-like gate, into the glass-roofed winter garden, then into the building proper with its kitchen, living room and study.  Upstairs (the staircase is hidden behind a bookcase) is the bedroom and bathroom; a surprising triangular wedge sliced from the bedroom.  All the rooms face south onto the small and pretty garden.  

    Highly insulated with passive(orientation and shading) and active solar (fitted for solar panels), the house uses about half the energy per square metre of a normal house and was self-built by Burton and his family, thereby cutting costs. Where Burton has triumphed though is in his use of materials; steel and glass, which have acted as a wrecking crew to so many modern buildings, are tempered with a lavish use of wood (maple and chestnut) and soft tawny coloured brickwork.  There are no ostentatious flourishes; the house is filled with artwork, rugs and simple, useful furniture. The cabinetry was designed and made by two of Burton’s sons, who ran away from architecture to make their respective livings as carpenters.  

    When you come upon a house like this, which welcomes you in off the street with its practicality as well as its beauty, the obvious question is why aren’t more homes of this quality built in this country? Burton was lucky of course, he secured his site by accident (he bought a house in the adjacent Leighton Road and didn’t know it had a garden of more than 70 feet attached, which he eventually added to by buying up another garden and building this complex on it). He was also an experienced architect who could see the opportunities the site offered.  

    But it’s more than blind luck. And although Burton bought the site in the late 70s for only £22000, it is not about costs either; Walter Segal, an architect who dedicated himself to designing simple and modest homes, proved this when he devised an inexpensive and fast method of building aimed at inexperienced self-builders. The homes that have been built using this method, aptly known as Segal houses, are robust, sustainable, beautiful and cheap when compared to the homes erected by volume house builders.

    Very simply, a large part of the issue, the quality of design, relates to the guidelines and policy that builders work within (or manipulate to their advantage).  Burton worked within the stricter codes of thirty years ago. He also chose to build a modern house in a conservation area, thereby adding to his pile of potential woes and he triumphed within these limits. He says that conservation codes are unnecessarily restrictive, but they force architects to take great care of assessing the neighbourhood, building to appropriate scales and using similar or complementary materials.  In the case of his own house, at street level it is largely obscured by a wall, which echoed the original wall on the site. The large massing of the upper floor and the studio block jutting above the wall are clad in an elephant grey coloured anodised aluminium. The massing, which might have been overwhelming, is tempered by a large London plane tree which encloses the entrance and dominates the overall design, giving shade to the rooms below and offering contact with the natural world.  

    Humane and decent housing such as the Burton House that ignites joy, not just passive acceptance (or worse), is rare and is definitely not nurtured by the destruction of essential planning and design guidance and policy by the present government; in thrall to big business interests.  Just a few miles north of the Burton House, the London Borough of Tottenham is suffering a rash of ill-conceived and ugly buildings, much of it granted using current lax planning policy under permitted development or PD as it is generally known.   

    If Prince Charles wants something to rant at, he would do better to aim his ire at PD which really is the carbuncle on the face of our towns and cities.  



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