“In contrast tot the widely held impression that country house building in Britain ceased in 1939, John Martin Robinson proves that the tradition is not only alive but has continued to flourish since the Second World War. He shows that in the last thirty years at least two hundred houses have been built which conform tot he country house style of architecture and way of life.”
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Tales of Hoffman Square
A classical conversion enriches a former almshouse. Keith Miller reports
College look: built around a courtyard, Hoffman Square has the air of an Oxford college. The refurbishment has filled it with apartments that developers Copthorn Homes called 'lofts'
By Keith Miller12:00AM BST 08 May 2002
SHORTLY after the corkscrew-haired savant Peter York hit paydirt with The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook in the early 1980s, some of his chums at Harpers & Queen published a slightly more obscure piece of popular social anthropology. This time the tribe under discussion was labelled "The New Georgians": middle-class urbanites moving into dilapidated terraces and doing them up in an archaeologically correct manner. Anachronistic features - rhododendrons, radiators and so on - were out, while obelisks, candlelight, baths with feet and oil-based paints that rubbed off on your jacket were deliciously in.
By and large, the New Georgians have been consigned to the dustbin of history, best remembered as an eccentric rump of the postwar Reconquista which saw the middle classes renounce the suburbs to which their parents had moved and install themselves back in less cosy, more stimulating inner-city areas. Certainly the more passionate and scholarly aspects of 1980s conservationism have given way to something more twee and theatrical. NG commando Dan Cruikshank is now a sort of panto entertainer in the BBC2 heritage slot - and you wouldn't catch Laurence Llewelyn Bowen skimping on the gch. But it was a moment during which strong feelings about architecture were wedded to a passionate, if inevitably rather paternalistic, belief in social engagement: you appreciated the diversity outside your doorstep, and saw yourself as contributing to it.
One of the more ambitious claims made in The New Georgian Handbook was that the fledgling soap EastEnders showed how "the People have survived the modernist experiment". Or, in other words: you knew it was a "real" community because nobody lived in a tower block (it is still the case in the soap that modernist housing is a place where bad and unpredictable things happen, as in the Mel/Dan hostage imbroglio or Steve's Oedipal encounter with his dying mother).
Fast forward 10 years to the mid-1990s, and similarly crunchy neighbourhoods began increasingly to bristle with the latest big idea in urban housing, loft conversions and loft-style developments. These started life as a thrifty option for artists needing a lot of space with no frills - light industrial buildings with exposed steel joists and unplastered internal walls, good for parties and enormous furniture, not so good for fostering traditional domestic feelings of enclosure and protection.
Developers soon realised that such spaces not only enabled them to cut down on their overheads - no need for that early Victorian dado rail - they also held a flattering mirror up to the new breed of young professional. Conspicuous consumption - domestic properties were often priced by the square foot rather than the number of bedrooms - could go hand-in-hand with a sense of modernity and informality, as well as a blurred line between work and play, crucial since the freelance revolution which came in the wake of the early 1990s recession. The market's appetite for loft developments, especially since the onset of the latest price boom, inevitably led to a law of diminishing returns, as the word "loft" began to seem like a means of adding value in itself: one man's loft is another man's bedsit.
Which brings us, finally, to the Hoffman building in Hoxton, joint winner of the Britannia National HomeBuilder Design Award for Best Restoration and Conversion. Built as almshouses by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers in 1825-27, and designed in a proud Greek Revival style by D R Roper, the building has undergone several enlargements and modifications since. For a century or so it functioned as a furniture design college, a role for which it was ideally situated; the furniture manufacturers in nearby Shoreditch needed a trained workforce, and the notorious slums of Hoxton, Bethnal Green and the Jago were full of youngsters thirsty for education, education and education.
Indeed, with the establishment of Ashbee's Guild and School of Handicraft just around the corner in 1888, the area was a crucible for the aesthetic and political ideas of the Arts & Crafts movement. Its members tended to see craft skills as the way to improve the lot of the deserving poor, much as boxing, football or winning a reality TV show are perceived to be today.
A spicy funk of historical associations hangs over the area. There is some terrific architecture nearby: a church up the road by a pupil of Sir John Soane, a pleasantly ruinous music-hall, several buildings by followers of Norman Shaw, a Passmore Edwards library (now used by ENO) and, just across Kingsland Road, a school by Erno Goldfinger and the Geffrye Museum, once an almshouse itself, now graced by Nigel Coates's nifty brick annexe. A Regency terrace on Buttesland Street to the north was used as a location for the TV movie of the Brinks-Mat robbery, gangland being another rich seam in the district's folklore (although the purist may prefer to buy into the Krays' alma mater, Repton Boys' Club, similarly converted in Bethnal Green a mile or so to the east).
Into this dense architectural and social matrix comes Hoffman Square, a gated bourgeois enclave named after a distinguished Haberdasher of the 19th century, but conveniently also evocative of Josef Hoffman, a founder of the Vienna Secession and a big fan of British designers such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh (and so, maybe, Ashbee). Developers Copthorn Homes and their architects Hunter & Partners have done a beautiful job, restoring the building's classical facade and some of the Arts & Crafts details on the later additions, sensitively incorporating new materials here and there, making any big interventions such as ramps and garages consistent with the existing fabric.
Interiors are clear and lucid, with lots of double-height rooms and galleries, and low partition walls letting plenty of light in from above. Detailing is spare and neutral, with only the ghost of a chimney-breast giving a "period" feel to some of the rooms. Space is used thriftily but not meanly: one virtue made of necessity is a crafty hinged bathroom portal which must make residents think they're scrubbing up on a submarine, but which stops ensuite bathrooms from gobbling up space.The word Copthorn used when selling these apartments was, needless to say, "lofts". It worked: they've all gone. But that isn't really what they are, even if lots of the spaces are high or open-plan, and the odd girder can be seen inside. The structure reeks of history: a noble facade in a modest neighbourhood, something to do with monasticism (many almshouses were directly modelled on Carthusian monasteries), something to do with a vanished social contract. Solemn and introspective, built round courtyards, it is rather like a tiny Oxbridge college. Certainly it has an ambivalent relationship with its distinctly ungentrified surroundings. One hopes that at least the residents will get on with each other. It might even make a good location for a soap opera.