Camden Constitutional


This week the London Studio enjoyed a welcome sunny walk around Camden, visiting past projects from two decades of work in the Borough.

First stop: Liddell Road, West Hampstead, a pioneering mixed-use masterplan and a trailblazer for the Borough’s entrepreneurial Community Investment Programme. Ten years ago, the site was home to a scattering of single-storey light-industrial units occupying a site wholly owned by the council. Whilst the value of workspace was recognised, at the time the borough was in critical need of more school places and the council was seeking sites which could be developed for this purpose. The brief for the masterplan (won by ML through open tender) was to retain or enhance the area of workspace on the site whilst delivering a new four-form-entry infant school, all of which was to be funded by development of homes for sale on the same site. The first phase of the scheme was the delivery of the RIBA-National-Award-winning Kingsgate School, which has now been in operation for six years. The workspace and residential elements that complete the scheme are in their final stages of construction and the key moves of the masterplan are finally coming to fruition. We are accustomed to briefs which squeeze a lot out of sites, but what is striking about Liddell Road is how discreetly it sits in the established neighbourhood, thanks mainly to the careful thought invested in the overarching masterplan. Retained trees, minimal roadways, sensitive massing and connectivity to a neighbouring park come together to create a place which feels complete and offers much more than the sum of its parts. It was a particular pleasure to hear from teaching staff of the joy that the school has brought to pupils and staff alike.

Next stop: St John’s Wood Park. St John’s Wood is an atypical enclave of central London; Its wide streets and suburban qualities lacking the Georgian and Victorian rigour of much of the city or the ambition and scale of twentieth century social housing schemes. Here palatial homes of two storeys sit side-by-side with late twentieth century point blocks, 1980s townhouses and art deco mansion blocks. The theme of the area is perhaps the difference of the buildings, tied only by a sprinkling of classicism. In response, our scheme for 1A St John’s Wood Park – replacing a row of single storey garages – implements a scale and substance that befits the wide leafy avenues. Appearing as a remnant of a grand terrace that may have been, 1A presents two blank gables to the north and south, which have been treated with a deceptively simple brick pattern that brings an illusion of depth and texture to an otherwise flat elevation and was key in securing buy-in from the planners.

Final stop: A private house in Belsize Park and one of the practice’s earliest UK projects. What appears to be a complete new build house was in fact our first retrofit scheme, retaining all the original structure of a building now approaching 50 years in age. The driver at the time for this light-touch approach was its setting over a covered railway; avoiding structural changes below ground also avoided a drawn out and potentially expensive to-and-fro with Network Rail. Twenty years later, with our lenses recalibrated to embodied carbon, it is interesting to consider how many tonnes of carbon were saved by that decision. The house has aged remarkably well, the street elevation received a new skin of unifying brickwork, bespoke timber windows and distinctive stainless steel coping; the simplicity of the palette and quality of materials successfully belies the scheme’s true age. Internally, the house was reconfigured to offer a generous open plan ground floor and simple stacked first and second floor plans in a masterclass of space planning. A walled courtyard garden to the front of the house has been planted to form an urban oasis with green walls sucking up the heat of the first sunny day of the year and welcome respite after our four-hour tour of Camden.

The day provided a great chance to explore a broad range of typologies and scales: schools, workspace, apartment buildings and individual homes. All share a dedication to craft and deep consideration of how they serve their users and the contribution they make to the neighbourhoods in which they sit. To see these buildings alive with life (and still used by the original clients) is a welcome validation of the thought and effort that has gone into their design and construction. We look forward to the next journey through the archives in the summer.