Have I got mews for you: Peter Barber, the miracle creator of dazzling streets

He takes slivers of land and transforms them into thriving communities. As the great housing architect picks up the prestigious Soane medal, he reveals his plan to fix Britain, from Orkney to the Isle of Wight

An imposing brick wall runs in a sweeping curve along the edge of the North Circular road in Finchley, lined with arches and crowned with crenelations, looking like a fragment of an ancient walled city. A cartoonish pair of towers poke up at either end of the 200-metre long structure, dotted with projecting lookout balconies, as if keeping watch over all who enter London. Situated among all the mock Tudor semis lining the suburban streets, this great brick bastion is an arresting thing to behold.

The building bears the unmistakable hallmarks of Peter Barber, one of the country’s most distinctive housing architects, who has just been named winner of the prestigious 2022 Soane medal. His leaping brick arches, crenelated terraces and quirky vaulted rooflines can now be found transforming unpromising side streets and leftover backland sites across London. While much contemporary housing has converged towards anonymous slabs of identikit apartments, with single-aspect flats arranged off long, double-sided corridors, Barber’s projects draw on the rich variety of vernacular housing from pre-modern times, breathing new life into centuries-old ways of living that have stood the test of time.

Bathrooms projecting like privies in medieval castles … Edgewood Mews.
Bathrooms projecting like privies in medieval castles … Edgewood Mews. Photograph: Peter Barber Architects

He has revived the back-to-back, mixed it with the Tyneside flat (pairs of single-storey flats stacked within a two-storey terrace), and spliced it with courtyard housing and the Scottish walk-up tenement, to create a varied vocabulary that feels both familiar and strikingly its own. Arranged in narrow streets, mews lanes and cosy courtyards, his projects have a timeless air, drawing on the basic principles that have made good places for as long as streets have been built – earning him an OBE last year. “It’s an approach that really appeals to people,” says Alex Kuropatwa, client of the Finchley project. “Peter makes the kind of public-spirited housing where people actually want to live.”

Edgewood Mews, that great fortified flank on the edge of the North Circular road, is Barber’s most ambitious project yet. It has been designed on a sliver of land, a leftover verge from a road-widening scheme that never happened. In its programme of selling off small sites to small builders, Transport for London imagined that it might be possible to fit around 50 homes here, most likely in a trio of apartment blocks.

Approached by Kuropatwa (for whom he designed a stepped, tenement-style mansion block in 2020), Barber took one look at the site and saw, instead, the ideal shape for a new street. His dense, Dickensian vision would create a crescent-shaped mews, lined on either side with terraced houses, little sunken courtyard homes and stacked maisonettes, arranged in a gentle slope – creating more than 100 homes in the process, half classed as affordable in line with TfL’s requirements.

“It’s firstly about the street,” says Barber, wheeling his bike down the lane, which could almost stand in as the set for a modern-day Hovis ad. “We always try to create the sort of compact, convivial places that might encourage people to meet and get to know each other. Everyone has their own front doors, and the roof terraces and patios are arranged to overlook the street and create a social environment.” Architecture can’t create a community, but if people are more visible to one another, the Barber logic goes, they are more likely to meet, and friendships might develop.

‘There is no housing shortage’ … Barber at Sir John Soane’s Museum.
‘There is no housing shortage’ … Barber at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photograph: Matt Tidby/Sir John Soane’s Museum

When you’re standing in the block-paved street, which rises in a gentle mound to accommodate a sunken car park below, you have little idea that the roaring six-lane North Circular is just steps away. The southern side of the mews presents a monumental five-storey edge to the main road, creating a buffer that blocks traffic noise, forming a car-free oasis withing for neighbours to chat and children to play.

Seen from a moving vehicle, it is a bold piece of highway architecture, the repetitive double-height arches forming a dynamic rhythm as you glide past, with bathrooms projecting out over the pavement like medieval castle privies (only without the hole in the floor). From the other side, the scale is completely different, designed with a cottagey, backstreet feel, where Barber hopes residents’ planting will soon engulf the brickwork (and hide the clumsy array of meter boxes fitted on the street – against the architects’ designs).

Hovis ad warmth … the back of Edgewood Mews.
Hovis ad warmth … the back of Edgewood Mews. Photograph: Peter Barber Architects

“You would never believe that you are living right next to a highway,” says Ihiri Haswani, who moved here with her three children four months ago. “The secluded world they have created means I can let the kids play out in the street, without worrying about cars. Only a handful of people have moved in so far, but it already feels neighbourly.”

Barber trained at the University of Sheffield, followed by the Polytechnic of Central London, now the University of Westminster, where he teaches. The architect began his career working for Richard Rogers, an unlikely fit. “At the time, I loved the idea of light, framey buildings that barely touched the ground,” he recalls. But that soon changed. He found himself designing a house in Saudi Arabia that was the polar opposite to Rogers’ approach. “It was a world of heavy, massive walls, enclosing courtyards,” he says. “Since then, it’s been about architecture being a solid and permanent thing.”

His studio is as unconventional as his trajectory. Housed in a Victorian shopfront in King’s Cross, its creaking floors are connected by narrow winding stairs, its street-facing window overflowing with architecture models – a sweet-shop for building enthusiasts. Belying the prolific output, the office ranges in size from just six to nine people. “I never want to get bigger than the number of people that can fit at the lunch table,” he says. A drum kit, electric piano and guitar fuel the regular studio parties that spill out into the street.

Barber plans to use the platform of his medal lecture, to be given on 8 November at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, to send a political message. “We could end the housing crisis overnight, if we wanted to,” he says. “We should introduce private sector rent controls, halt the selling of council houses under right to buy, and build 150,000 council homes a year funded by direct taxation.”

Tenement style … Barber’s mansion block in Peckham, London.
Tenement style … Barber’s mansion block in Peckham, London. Photograph: Morley von Sternberg

When I interviewed Barber in 2018, on the eve of an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, he was concocting a conceptual plan for a Hundred Mile City. It was a provocative idea for a “dense, intense” strip of land around the suburban edge of London, that could fit a million homes. How does he feel about this now?

“I’ve completely changed my view,” he says, looking out over Edgewood Mews from one of the balconies. “There is no housing shortage. There are over 400,000 empty homes in the UK, and about 200,000 homeless people. The vast majority of empty homes are in parts of the country which have become depopulated because of economic decline – in the Midlands, the north, and coastal cities. So the solution to the housing crisis isn’t building tons of homes. It’s about reviving the economy in those places, launching a massive retrofit campaign, and bringing people back.”

He has named his latest speculative vision “8,000 Mile Island”. It imagines a “maritime industrial revolution”, in the form of a ribbon of tidal barrages, offshore wind farms, giant floating tidal turbines, and deep-sea fish and seaweed farms, tracing the coastline from the Orkney Islands to the Isle of Wight and back. Such a project, Barber posits, would bring renewed prosperity to our decaying, depopulated coastal towns and cities, while offering food and energy self-sufficiency, and an end to the housing crisis.

Eye-catching arches … personalised front door area at another Barber project.
Eye-catching arches … personalised front door area at another Barber project. Photograph: Peter Barber Architects

His plan would employ the infrastructure already existing in the UK’s declining offshore oil and shipbuilding industries in Hull, Inverness and on the Clyde, and create thousands of new jobs in such places as Blackpool, Margate, St Leonards, Southend-on-Sea and Newhaven. “Think of the housing industry redeployed away from the south-east and charged with saving and restoring hundreds of thousands of empty homes,” he says. “Whole streets and neighbourhoods currently abandoned, in decay, buzzing with new life, activity and prosperity from the incoming workforce.”

Barber speaks with the passion and conviction of a radical campaigner, the kind that makes you believe an alternative, optimistic, fairer vision of Britain is eminently possible. His ambitious ideas would require a fundamental governmental shift, far beyond the reach of any architect. So might a political career be beckoning?

“I don’t think I’d last a minute in politics,” he laughs. “I just say what I think too much.”


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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