London Apartment

An Ex-(traordinary)-Local Authority London Flat


Living Room

This is an Ex-local Authority Flat. Dingy, rough, and if banks would never dream of lending on anything above the 10th floor of a Council Block, this was on the 23rd.

Despite being in the heart of trendy Clerkenwell, this was struggling to sell, never mind costing a third less than a private flat in the same area, never mind that is has views to rival the Shard, the stigma was just too much.

The agent called me on the phone, he knew that I had a thing for modernist brutalism, the real, unglamorous, non-Barbican kind. It was Michael Cliffe House, the most notorious in Finsbury Estate. It is said that on average, 1 person throws himself off the building every year, one car gets burnt every month, and at least one lift breaks down every day. When I finally met the top floor flat, I made an offer the very same day.

Before its completion in 1968, The architects Emberton, Franck & Tardrew worked with engineers Felix J. Samuely & Partners to refine a structural type, later to be known as the Finsbury Method. In this, towers had load bearing end walls and perimeter columns, rather than the typical cross bracing walls, allowing for internal layouts to be altered or walls removed. Michael Cliffe House was one of the first to sport this structural frame, the elegant pilotis on the ground floor testament to this innovation.

This structural system was exploited, and those flexible partition walls were promptly smashed, exposing the grand open plan spaces that the once tiny rooms concealed. ‘In all my years working at the Council, I have never seen anything like this’ exclaimed Kemi, from Housing Services, as well as Mark from Building control, of the scale of this refurbishment. Everyone knew that this was not going to be a typical project, for the next 6 weeks, Flat 185 became notorious among all the residents.

As with all council flats built in the 1950’s, ceilings were low, and parapets high. The challenge was to maximise the sense of space and capitalise on the light and views. At the same time, due to housing shortages in the capital, there should not be any reduction of rooms. This was to remain a two bedroom flat.

To create a living room twice the size, without losing any bedrooms, a radical shift of layout was made. The small kitchen was moved into the small living room as an open plan diner, and the small living kitchen was then connected to the small bedroom, creating a large, horizontal, open plan living hall. The former kitchen became that replacement bedroom, with fabulous views over St Pauls and Big Ben. The new open plan living dining now had two banks of windows, creating a ribbon of light, offering true panoramas of the City of London and Canary Wharf.

The colour palette is of modest, light, earthy tones, while core walls were painted in a contrastingly deep muted blue, adding an element of richness and depth to the otherwise straightforward layout. Chalky wood floors add warmth to the brutal textures that still frame every window, while a mixture of gloss and matte paint emphasises the burnished patina of the building.

Original furnishings by Eileen Gray, Merrow Associates, and Castelli Ferrieri, form a mid century assemblage in line with the apartment’s era, while adding a sophisticated elegance of their own.  Two sweeping Monte Carlo Sofas, one salvaged from Brick Lane, and the other, from a disused office building in Waterloo – still with paint splatters on its leather, form the centrepiece of the living room with their graceful curves. A set of Dr Sonderbar Chairs, painstakingly collected from various dealers around Europe, matched with a table by Merrow Associates form the dining area. The usual suspects, Eames and Noguchi, balanced by a Stautette Chair by Lloyd Schwan further soften the rigid angles of the apartment.

The main bedroom is the only part of the apartment that is retained as it was before, yet, an imposing set of Lips by Edra Bocca form a striking centrepiece to the room, with original paintings adding further colour to the space, a break from the formal nature of the living.

The study, decked out simply with understated furnishings lead the eye outwards, while providing respite from the admittedly excessive style in the other rooms.

The corridor, once housing a store, now contains a study niche, with an oversized Zeppelin Chandelier looming over an upturned smoky glass coffee table.

The greatest challenge, however, was to in an almost oxymoronic way, not be too luxurious. The flat was never intended to shut itself from the rest of the estate, but live alongside the aspirations of the original tower. Like the rest of the building, the finishes were thoughtful, yet modest in finesse. Wardrobes and bookshelves were painted MDF boards, and standard architraves and beading used to trim. Apart from the sometimes eccentric furnishings, the apartment on its own was decked out simply, as it would have been 50 years ago. A careful choice of colours and standard fittings would be where value was added to an otherwise standard contracting job.

After all, one does not want to forget that this is truly still a piece of living, breathing London, in all its brutality.