In a row

In London, Stephen Taylor Architects have designed 3.50-meter-wide terraced houses that exemplify what affordable and architecturally sophisticated housing can look like.
by Alexander Russ | 12/20/2021

Affordable housing in London sounds rather improbable – especially if it is also to be a mixture of owner-occupied and social housing with a high architectural standard. That it can nevertheless succeed is proven by a housing development in Hackney, where Stephen Taylor Architects was able to realize several terraced houses, each 3.50 meters wide, as part of a tendering process. The Aikin Terrace project is part of a housing development program in which Hackney Council plans to build around 2,000 new homes. More than half of these are to be built for social rent or as shared ownership. The project will be financed through the sale of the remaining apartments, in order to have full control over the construction process and generally to prevent housing from becoming an object of speculation.

The row houses of Aikin Terrace are convincing not only because of their social approach, but also because of their urban and spatial fit. The project is located on a corner lot and replaces the so-called Aikin Court, a 1950s apartment building whose redevelopment was no longer profitable. It is surrounded by Victorian row houses with brick facades, so it was particularly important to the architects to create a new street frontage that would blend harmoniously with the existing buildings. Accordingly, Aikin Terrace mediates between old and new, while cleverly alternating between urban repair and subtle expressiveness. The base, for example, is shaped as a sculptural band clad in brown tiles. They enclose the characteristic bay windows, from which the subdivision of the terraced houses can be clearly seen. For the floors above, the architects chose a red brick that picks up the materiality of the surrounding buildings. In addition, there are precast concrete elements for the window sills, the entrance areas or the attica. A prominent element is the corner tower in the southwest, which was also clad with brown tiles. It cantilevers on the first and second floors and belongs to the corner row house, which is a special type. With an expressive gesture, it opens up to the surrounding development and ensures that Aikin Terrace is anchored in the urban space.

With their front gardens, the bay windows represent a typological alienation despite their traditional appearance, as Stephen Taylor Architects reversed the classic room layout of the surrounding row houses by placing the kitchen directly at the bay window on the street side. The living room now no longer faces the street, but is instead located at the rear. It is open to the adjacent garden via a generous glass façade, the end of which is formed by a small garden shed. Consequently, the front garden on the street now no longer serves as a distance area to allow more privacy, but instead becomes a kind of transition zone that mediates between urban and private space – an approach that is further emphasized by a bench made of precast concrete elements in the garden wall. The concept of neighborly linkage is also continued in the kitchen, where a seating area positioned directly on the bay window opens up to the street as in a café, becoming part of urban life.

Despite the row houses' narrow width of only 3.50 meters, the architects have succeeded in creating floor plans that are both efficient and spacious. The centerpiece is a compact two-flight staircase in the middle of the house, to which the bathroom and the four bedrooms dock. On the top floor, there is even room for a small, south-facing roof terrace, which results from a setback on the building. Stephen Taylor Architects were particularly clever in solving the entrance area, which is visually connected to the directly adjacent kitchen and front garden thanks to several sliding glass doors. The resulting layers of space make both the kitchen and the entry area appear much larger than they actually are. The brick floor in the entrance area also continues the materiality of the façade and the garden wall inside, subtly contributing to an interlocking of street, front garden and residential building.

Since the London boroughs had to completely stop building during the Thatcher era, Aikin Terrace is the first social housing development in Hackney since the early 1980s. In the meantime, however, other boroughs are also dedicating themselves to this task: one example is Ely Court, a typologically and socially mixed housing development located between Camden and Brent. Designed by Alison Brooks Architects, the complex, which offers terraced houses, maisonettes and multi-storey apartments, was shortlisted for the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2017, after all. Like the Aikin Terrace, it is an example of how affordable and architecturally sophisticated residential buildings can be realized in principle – if the political will is there.