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Peter Barber: 100 Mile City and Other Stories

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Donnybrook Quarter (2005) in Hackney. Photo by Peter Barber Architects.

In the institutionally conservative world of architecture, Peter Barber is an outlier. Rather than building shiny gewgaws in the City of London or luxury flats for the super rich, he creates beautiful and thoughtfully-designed homes for social housing tenants. The work of his practice, Peter Barber Architects, embodies Berthold Lubetkin's dictum that "nothing is too good for ordinary people".

In response to the housing crisis Barber recently proposed the '100 Mile City', a ribbon of new urban housing that would encircle London just inside the green belt. This extraordinary concept, as well as the practice's built projects, are now the subject of an exhibition for Sheffield Modern, 'Peter Barber: 100 Mile City and Other Stories'. Ahead of his free talk on 5 December, we caught up with Barber from his unassuming office in King's Cross to talk about a radical vision for the future of housing.

Tell us a bit about your work for readers who are unfamiliar with it.

In a short answer, it's urban housing. Our approach to making urban housing, what sets us apart actually, is that it's street-based housing. A lot of the housing that gets built at the moment is big blocks of flats behind a fence, or surrounded by grass or concrete. Our stuff is a modern version of terraced housing, which you'll be very familiar with in Sheffield.

Lots of our stuff is reworking quite old-fashioned ideas about terraced housing

It's relatively high density, but not tower blocks. There's a statistic that I often bang on about which is that 70% of all the buildings in a city like London are houses or housing. So when we design a housing project it's a bit like designing a piece of the city.

Do most of your commissions come from the public sector rather than private?

It's a mix. I really enjoy working for local authorities who aren't answerable to shareholders. In the best local authority clients is the residue of a welfare state idealism, which can be very refreshing. You'll see when you go to the exhibition that there's a homeless hostel project we did, which I think can give people a bit of optimism and hope.

What was the inspiration behind the design of the Holmes Road homeless hostel in Camden?

Lots of our stuff is reworking quite old-fashioned ideas about terraced housing. Holmes Road is a bit like almshouses. Since the medieval period, the care of elderly and vulnerable people by individual parishes often adopted a courtyard typology, which is what Holmes Road does. So in a way it's reworking an old fashioned idea, rather than being a conventional hostel with rooms off a corridor. People come out of their front door into a garden, which might be a better experience for them.

Most people haven't been in a homeless hostel, but the majority of them are organised around corridors. Very often they're converted buildings or buildings that have been changed piecemeal over time, so those corridors can be quite windy and dark. By giving people those individual spaces, with a kitchenette and a shower room and a bedroom, they do have a little bit more independence, and it does help to de-institutionalise the atmosphere. The Holmes Road project was financed and built by Camden Council, and I suppose its evidence of an idea about civic responsibility.

Camden Council built the Alexandra Road Estate of course.

Yes, the architect Neave Brown is a bit of a hero of mine. He's an interesting bloke because that project was built in the late sixties, early seventies when a lot of people were designing tower blocks. Despite the fact that [Alexandra Road is] incredibly heroic and experimental, he like me was championing the idea of the street, albeit quite an unconventional street, as opposed to the high rise. He was seeing the social benefits of organising a city like that.

Both you and Brown champion low-rise but high-density, which is unusual.

That's exactly right. And that importance of the street as a place that brings people together. If you think of a hundred homes organised 50/50 either side of the street, I think the likelihood of positive relationships emerging on that street are better than in any lift, deck or corridor.

What inspired the 100 Mile City?

In London there are currently 7,000 street homeless, and 150,000 people living in insecure or unstable situations who are categorised as homeless. And so you start to speculate about what might be done about that from a political perspective. I've got three things which I think could happen: a major social housing programme like we had after the second world war, ending right-to-buy, and introducing private sector rent controls. I think if you did those three things it would take care of a great deal of the problem.

The aim needs to be for us to rethink of housing as a basic need

But where are we going to put those homes that we need to build? What's happening in London at the moment is that quite well-established central London buildings and streets are being demolished, in some instances not for a great deal of benefit. So 100 Mile City is saying: what about densifying suburbia? What about looking in parts of the city where there aren't an awful lot of people living?

And it has a suspended monorail, like the one in Wuppertal.

It's just a superb way of getting around isn't it? It works really well in Wuppertal - it's a hundred years old and thousands of people use it all the time. The more serious structural issue is that London has a really good radial transport system if you want to get to the centre from the outer city, but the big issue is getting from one part of suburbia to another. That's why this circle line right at the edge of London seemed like a proposal that might help reduce car use.

We made a film for the exhibition, which was shot by me and a director friend going around the route of the 100 Mile City on our bicycles. The suburban dream of people having their own cottage - there's pockets of that, but what dominates the whole experience of being on a bicycle there is traffic. The monorail might alleviate that.

What changes need to be made to get the country building more social housing?

The aim needs to be for us to rethink of housing as a basic need. It's not viewed that way at the moment. Even our own homes - to an extent they're an investment vehicle, a commodity. There are 20,000 empty homes in London at the moment. Those three policy ideas - building social housing, ending right-to-buy and rent controls - are all attempts to make housing less attractive as an investment.

'Peter Barber: 100 Mile City and Other Stories' runs until 20 December at the Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery. Entry is free. Barber will give a talk at the exhibition on 5 December. Tickets are free.

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