Using colour, mirrors and warm materials such as timber and brass, architect Ben Allen has changed an early brutalist maisonette in Bethnal Green into a homely sanctuary
Keeling House is one of Bethnal Green’s architectural landmarks, a 16-storey residential block designed as council housing by architect Denys Lasdun in the mid-1950s, arranged as four wings around a central service block. Since Tower Hamlets closed the building in 1992, it’s had a renaissance that’s entirely predictable for its E2 postcode: listed in 1993, then sold to a private developer and reimagined as luxury apartments at the turn of the millennium, it is now a magnet for fans of early brutalist buildings.
Architect Ben Allen is one such fan. He’s lived in one of the maisonettes here with his wife Frances since 2016, but it wasn’t until they decided to tackle one unfortunate by-product of living in a 1950s listed building with large single-glazed windows – the cold – that they decided to undertake a comprehensive renovation. The flat needed insulating internally and new underfloor heating laid to replace the inefficient electric radiators, a level of disruption that meant it made sense to re-think the place as a whole.
Those Crittall windows, painted white, were really bright, and I wanted to introduce a bit of warmth
In addition, the renovated flats may have been structurally sound but they were pretty bland, and Allen wanted to stamp more of his mark on the place. “There aren’t any photographs of what the original interiors looked like, but minimalism wasn’t a thing then – not that I was trying to recreate what it would have looked like in the fifties,” he says, “but those Crittall windows, painted white, were really bright, and I wanted to introduce a bit of warmth.”
A further motivation was finding a way to display his collection of objects, including architectural models, prototypes, found objects and a series of artworks gifted to Allen by artist Olafur Eliasson during several years working at Eliasson’s Berlin studio. As an architect, Allen says that he usually spends his time designing homes where knocked-down walls and ceilings create new and dramatic spaces, but as that wasn’t possible here, those elements of delight and spacial drama had to come from somewhere else, and the Eliasson pieces provided the clue.
“A lot of them are mirrors – they are sort of mini-installations, like little optical tricks. And I’m also a bit obsessed with the Soane Museum, and the way Soane used mirrors to make ceilings look like they continue, or to see round corners,” he says. So, mirrored surfaces have ended up supplying that sense of playfulness, manipulating our perception space, with Allen designing several pieces that chime in with the reflected geometry of his Eliasson collection. These include floating shelves beside the beds with an oval-shaped wall plate and brass shelves, a vanity unit in a similar style and two pairs of semi-circular mirrors in the bathroom that give the effect of two floating spheres.
Too many brain-melting illusionistic tricks would be less than soothing, but this home has plenty more substance. While Lasdun’s original layout had a separate galley kitchen and living area, the developer had created a single open-plan space: Allen has reinstated some of the previous intimacy by installing a large bespoke open shelving unit, its trellis-like form providing a backdrop for some tumbling houseplants. “It follows on from what we’ve done in workplace schemes, where we’ve tried this idea of a ‘room in a room’ or tried to get a sense of protection and division without actually putting a physical wall up,” he explains. A fold-down-desk on one side of the unit was intended as an intermittent work space, but ended up being Allen’s permanent desk during the first coronavirus lockdown.
The base of the shelving unit is made from blue Valchromat, a through-colour particleboard that’s like a more robust version of MDF; the same material is used for the large sliding door opposite, which leads upstairs. Allen, like many contemporary architects, has mastered the art of using detailing and craftsmanship to elevate fairly simple materials, and in this case the blue door’s giant semicircular brass handle gives it a more opulent look.
The green concrete kitchen worktop was a freebie from their contractor, who was keen for the opportunity to experiment. “It’s a bit warts-and-all,” says Allen of the result, “it’s not treated with sealant so it does stain quite a lot, but if you need to you can just grind the top off.” He has a similar affection for the patina on the brass shower and taps in the bathroom, where the uncoated brass will tarnish over time. It sounds effortless but the opposite is true: in order to have a natural brass finish on the taps, he had to send off chrome-plated ones to be stripped, while the pipe-like shower came from a company than bends brass pipes – Allen gave them a call to ask what the biggest pipe he could get was, then a spot-welder attached the wallplates to it.
Allen dubbed his home a “cabinet of experiments” because of its speculative approach, which has paid off in terms of showing people what his practice is capable of: one client has recently opted for a bathroom in wall-to-wall green concrete, with uncoated brass for the taps similar to his. None of this took shape in the manner it might have done if he had been working with a client, where a detailed plan is agreed before the work is carried out: instead, this was a learn-as-you-go process. “I was my own worst client,” Allen confides. “Our poor builder was around for about a year and a half, while we just kept on putting more things in.”