Before he became known for the Brutalist behemoth of London’s National Theatre, on the south bank of the Thames, Denys Lasdun designed the concrete 16-storey Keeling House, in Bethnal Green, in the city’s east end. The architect Ben Allen moved to the Grade II*-listed building in 2016 and has read a lot of interviews with its creator.
“He was like, ‘Oh, in the Sixties, we had no idea what we were doing with concrete. But by the time we built the National Theatre in the Seventies it was really quite sophisticated in the UK,’” says Allen.
Bad news for him. “This isn’t even the 1960s. This was built in the Fifties!”
Although the building has proven robust, and popular, it is, Allen admits, “full of architects”.
He lives here with his wife Frances in a maisonette on the 10th and 11th floors of the building. It was originally built as council housing but after the council proposed that it be demolished in the 1990s it was sold to a private developer and renovated as luxury flats. “Most people had this as just a white box space,” says Allen of the building when he viewed it in 2016. “When we moved in it was white kitchen, white counter and, you know, Eames lounger in the corner.”
It is now a complex space full of artwork — mostly by Olafur Eliasson, with whom Allen worked for 10 years — and optical illusions, inspired by something unlikely: Sir John Soane’s Museum, the former home of the neoclassical architect that opened to the public nearly 200 years ago.
Allen, whose architecture studio is relatively new, having left his role as a designer at Eliasson’s Berlin studio in 2013, saw this not just as an investment, but as an opportunity to develop his ideas. He calls it his “cabinet of experiments”.
As in Soane’s former home, mirrors are used to innovative effect, creating weird illusory corners and niches. The reflections are “a way of playing”, says Allen. “To make it elaborate enough that it feels bigger.”
The west-facing views, although stunning and vast enough for him to see to Hampstead Heath in north London, can be “a bit agoraphobic”, says Allen. So he wanted “warmth and enclosure”. This includes a nod towards the original narrow galley kitchen: a partition of shelving with a neat fold-out desk, which became Allen’s studio during lockdown.
He and Frances had no intention of renovating until the rather prosaic catalyst of the flat being too cold. The high-rise has original single-glazed Crittall windows that hum in the wind and no gas supply, so relies on electric heaters and secondary glazing. Little could be changed due to the listed status and concrete walls.
The couple decided on wall insulation and underfloor heating as a solution. Which was intrusive enough to make them decide that they might as well do over the whole flat.
Frances was quite pragmatic about it. She phoned The Modern House, an estate agency that specialises in selling mid-century and contemporary homes, and asked how much it was worth spending on the property to make its impact on the value worthwhile.
“If you call a normal estate agent they’d have said five grand, but they were actually quite positive about it,” he says. The agents said £40,000 — the Allens have spent £45,000 — “but some of that is stuff we can take with us.” They also “suggested that this is more sought-after than the Barbican”, he says, “because there are so many flats there. Here there are just 60.”
Artworks and models are everywhere, including an Eliasson mould of a concrete column that was intended for the structure of a house. UV filters and automatic blinds protect Allen’s books from bleaching.
There are other experiments. The irrigation system for the plantings on the windswept balcony, designed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, was not tested before installation and does not quite work. Dimmer switches had to be taken apart and redesigned to suit the low-energy (but harsh) LED lighting — they can now be dimmed lower than candlelight without annoying flickering.
And the concrete counter in the kitchen was a freebie from the contractor, who wanted to learn how to make them. It has a couple of marks, but no matter: “It’s a living thing and we don’t want to be too precious,” says Allen. “I just thought it’d be interesting to see what kind of patina it builds up.”
Although he might feel differently about the counter if he had not got it for free: “If you pay lots of money for these things you probably get a bit more jumpy.”
Solid materials that are allowed to age is a repeated theme. The little bathroom is cavelike, full of arches, shadows and mirrored curves. It is also home to a monumental, snake-like brass shower.
“It feels like it’s going to be there for 100 years,” he says, which is the opposite of his experience working mainly with interiors. “It’s depressing, the idea that everything will be in a skip in five years’ time. Hopefully the robustness means that it ages well.”
The bathroom “is the bit where I went to town and decided to have some fun,” says Allen, who describes the view of the vanity mirror as you come up the stairs as a “floating orb effect”.
It is deliberately dark — an “inward space” that he compares to a hammam. (Allen’s architecture work is frequently with office spaces and is concerned with health and wellbeing.) Open-plan spaces cause problems, he says, as do the huge windows in a high-rise. “People need a refuge.”
It took some trial and error to get the fittings right. Most brass taps are actually plated in a gold chrome because manufacturers are worried about tarnishing. So Allen would buy taps and send them to be stripped just to see what was underneath.
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“Once you start you get a bit hooked,” he says. But as this was his own property, he had no deadline and he had the right industry contacts (and he didn’t mind the friendly builder turning up at 9pm to potter around), costs were relatively low. The shower cost him less than £300.
But the constant experimentation is not easily replicable: “I’m not sure a client would have put up with this vagueness.”
After a year of work and “fiddling around”, the flat is complete. Or, at least, “I think it’s complete, just because for our sanity it had to stop.” He was at one point told he was getting a bit carried away with the tiny, elaborate bathroom.
But it has been worth it. Even on a blustery day the window seat, surrounded by shaking ornamental grasses outside, is bright and atmospheric. And, importantly, says Allen, “I enjoy it when Frances enjoys it, because she’s put up with a lot of weird details.”
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