The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Belsize Park Gardens: a strong case for listing

The Society has been fighting to save a pair of unique steel-framed houses in Camden, designed by Robin Spence and Robin Webster for their families. 2C and 2D Belsize Park Gardens have been the subject of an application to demolish since February 2009. After objecting to the scheme, which proposed the construction of two five-storey houses on the site, the Society’s Casework Committee decided that the houses should go forward to English Heritage for listing,and we proposed a recommendation of Grade II*.

Our listing letter was supported by both the architects of the building, Professor Neil Jackson and many other architects and by a huge number of local people—some of whom made the local paper, the Ham and High, by protesting with placards outside the houses. The case raised a number of interesting issues regarding the protection of modern architecture in conservation areas that were designated some time ago to protect the rather earlier character of the area, in this case, the large, Victorian houses that dominate the street on either side.

Spence and Webster designed 2C and 2D to preserve and enhance the character and appearance of the Belsize Conservation Area with its brick and stucco mansions, and achieve private indoor and outdoor space in a dense urban setting. The houses are virtually invisible from the road, allowing the space and light of the site, which had been a small park, to remain intact for the benefit of the residents—a clever and subtle piece of planning and urban design.

As Neil Jackson has indicated, however, this is far from the only reason that these houses are special and warrant protection.

Fundamentally, they represent rare UK examples of domestic buildings constructed to follow Miesian principles for courtyard housing, where the outer wall of the site also forms at least one elevation of the building. Flanked on either side by the aforementioned mansions and shaded in front and to the rear by large trees, the identical houses (in both plan and structure, though not internal arrangement), face each other across a communal paved courtyard.

Access is through a passageway that connects this private courtyard to the front gate and gives both houses a huge amount of privacy. The central honey locust tree was planted by the architects to give the courtyard some shade, and this contributes to the character of the conservation area together with the other mature trees on the site.

Spence confirms that ‘the house was built to cover all eventualities’. Primarily arranged for families and with no corridors, each house had a partial basement level and a small back garden. The interior of each of the two dwellings is open to the sky by double glazed roof lighting, whereas the central courtyard traps the sunlight, reflecting the light off the glazing. The original plans consisted of about 240m2 of floor space, divided at the back between a living area and a bedroom, in the middle between a kitchen and a family area, whereas the front could be used as another self-contained flat, several children’s bedrooms, or a working space.

Both living rooms look into their own part of the backyard garden, while Venetian blinds ensure privacy at the front and in the rooms surrounding the central courtyard. The flexibility of the inner partitions of the system also allowed a variety of functions.

When Spence decided to convert the front part of the house he rented as a flat to a tenant into an office space, it did not take more than five hours to complete the remodelling.

Alas, the listing decision went against us and the Society has just submitted its documentation refuting the findings of English Heritage. DCMS will now carry out a review of the case and we hope that the previous decision will be overturned and the houses listed. In the meantime, Camden seem to be pushing ahead with trying to make a decision on the application—something no local authority should do ahead of a listing decision. The Society remains hopeful that these elegant examples of steel-framed housing can be saved by listing.

Jon Wright