Imagine an architectural style that could banish the wave of glass and steel sweeping through London. A distinctly London form which could replace those oddly shaped trophy buildings that shout across the skyline. High density housing without the high-rise.
This is no purist’s pipe dream, it’s the New London Vernacular: The most influential modern British housing style you’ve almost certainly never heard of. The NLV has been so well received that it even contributed to a national brick shortage in the U.K. at one point.
The format sprang from London Mayor Boris Johnson’s housing guidance, first published in 2009. It set out his aspirations for developments that no longer “sacrifice space and quality to unit numbers,” with an emphasis on light, privacy and a diversity of buildings that can adapt to households of all shapes and sizes. A spokesman for Mr. Johnson insists that “the mayor’s approach does not propose a single style,” but that is by and large what has transpired.
The vernacular takes its inspiration from refined Georgian terraces, with apartment blocks that embrace the street, rather than tower blocks that turn their backs on it. It’s a stark difference from the ideas of modernists like Le Corbusier, whose “streets in the skies” influenced many architects who built high rises in London after World War II. That kind of architecture preferred to ignore the ground floor altogether as seen in buildings like Trellick Tower and Heygate Estate. Now, London is going in the opposite direction.
The Mayor has not had his name attached to what may prove to be one of his most enduring contributions to the city.
“Placing entrances and windows on street frontages and around public spaces,” Mr. Johnson’s guide argues, “brings activity which increases neighborliness and security by passive surveillance. To those inside looking out, it also gives an important sense of belonging to the wider world.” Furthermore, maintenance charges for lobbies and hallways are reduced by giving as many homes as possible their own entrances from the sidewalk.
NLV buildings are also characterized by durable brick cladding. Windows tend to be portrait-shaped, mimicking Georgian sashes. And, typically, balconies are recessed rather than protruding, (giving access to outdoor space with optimal privacy.
You’d assume then that Mr. Johnson would be shouting from the Georgian-style parapet rooftops about the trend—especially as he is keen to shore up his legacy before leaving office on May 5. Yet you could count on one hand the number of times it has been mentioned in a British newspaper. Strangely, Boris has been uncharacteristically modest—as understated as the NLV’s pared-back forms, even. The same man who christened the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London’s Olympic Park as the “Colossus of Stratford”, a “supersized mutant trombone” and the “shisha pipe” could at least have given the wonkish New London Vernacular a catchier name.
And while the bicycles of London’s hire scheme have become universally known as “Boris bikes”, the new Routemasters, “Boris buses” and the proposed Garden Bridge across the River Thames, the “Boris bridge”, the mayor has not had his name attached to what may prove to be one of his most enduring contributions to the city.
The style is fundamentally democratic, often with a subtle blend of owner and renter-occupied affordable housing. David Birkbeck, CEO of research body Design for Homes, explains that a key feature is the placing of rented housing on the ground floor. This offers larger families the benefit of a front door and more room, ensuring “their kids are not playing games in the lifts.” Usually maisonettes, these homes provide an “imposing” plinth for smaller apartments above.
It also avoids what Birkbeck describes as the “embarrassing” option of giving social tenants “a separate block and having the whole ‘poor door’ policy that we’ve had such a row about,” with one entrance for the haves and another for the have-nots. As a paper he co-wrote points out: “It is hard to tell which houses in Islington’s new Georgian squares belong to the council and which to the bankers. Moreover, houses, flats and even ‘bedsitters’ present to the street in exactly the same way, the only clue being the number of bells to the front door.”
By being brick-heavy, the NLV employs the key building block of traditional British architecture recognized around the world—the cornerstone of Georgian garden squares, Victorian terraces, dockside warehouses and mansion blocks.
Birkbeck says the emphasis on bricks was critical. “The style sent a signal—at a time of recession— that you’re not buying a pig in a poke, it’s not going to go out of fashion, you could sell it to somewhere like China and they’d recognize that that’s a bit of London.” He continues: “Forty percent of the units at Barratt’s St. Andrews development in Bromley-by-Bow, east London, are large family homes. I’ve never seen a tower that does that. They’ve achieved very high density and also very large accommodation. It’s a real three-card trick.”
Cristina Haraba, who owns a two-bedroom flat in Catalyst’s Portobello Square development in Notting Hill, in the west of the city, says the architectural style “was the main thing we found attractive about it. We liked the fact that it didn’t look like a cold, heartless steel-and-glass block.” She adds, “We liked the bricks and that the buildings are not very high. They’re modern, but they have a soul to them.”
“These kinds of buildings aren’t usually for the likes of us. That’s why I feel privileged. I do feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Susan Pill and her husband Francis have lived for a year in Darbishire Place, a social housing block in Whitechapel built by housing association Peabody. The former nurse, now full-time carer, had never heard of the NLV. But she certainly appreciates its key features. “I think it’s lovely to live in a building that looks like a London building,” she says. “Everyone’s very neighborly and I like that only 13 apartments share an entrance and lobby.”
Pill adds, “I’ve lived in a high-rise block with really long corridors and you didn’t know who you were living amongst. The whole block became a bit run down because you had so many people living in one high-rise. Now, in a smaller block, I think it’s going to be better looked-after because there are fewer people living in each section.” Her favorite part of the one-bedroom flat is her recessed balcony: “I can sit on my patio and watch my four grandchildren play in the park.”
Of the development making the shortlist for the 2015 Stirling Prize—the U.K.’s most prestigious architecture award—Mrs. Pill adds: “These kinds of buildings aren’t usually for the likes of us. That’s why I feel privileged. I do feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, praises the “well-designed background architecture emerging from this current house-building boom.” He is particularly fond of the sash-shape windows: “It is a proportion of window-to-wall which feels traditional in its form but also is quite good for energy conservation, a percentage of solid fabric which makes them more efficient,” he says. “The disadvantage is that once you start having too much of it, it gets really very tedious, which is why the Victorians knocked down big chunks of the Georgian city. It can get very dull.”
As far as housing is concerned, Mr. Johnson’s eight-year tenure will be thought of by many Londoners as a period in which the city experienced rising inequality and the erosion of council estates, resulting in an increasingly unaffordable stock of homes. More generally, the rise of countless flamboyant trophy buildings have come to be associated with Johnson’s ambitions for the city, with one design magazine damning him for choosing to “feed the reckless and opportunistic high-rise scrum.” Yet Murray is still convinced the NLV will become the mayor’s “chief legacy to the capital.”
Forget Boris’s bridge, buses or even his bikes. In a century’s time, Mayor Johnson may be best remembered for his Boris buildings.