This top architect designs stunning council houses – and he’s brought his plans to Sheffield

The housing crisis is one of the most fundamental difficulties Britain faces as the decade draws to a close.

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 1:11 pm

According to official statistics, from January to March 2019 70,430 households in the UK were either assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness, 853 of which were in Sheffield alone.

The Government has a goal to build 300,000 houses annually, but the 10-year average stands at 177,000, meaning there is a huge shortfall to cover.

Against this backdrop, acclaimed architect Peter Barber has devoted his career to designing modern social housing that pushes aesthetic boundaries while providing places to live that revive the idea of communities based around streets.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Peter Barber in front of a photograph of Holmes Road Studios, his hostel for homeless people, at the Sheffield Institute of Arts. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Barber worked with Lord Richard Rogers, the man responsible for the Lloyd's building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, before setting up his own practice 30 years ago, and is the subject of an exhibition at Sheffield Hallam University's Institute of Arts featuring photographs, models, drawings and sketchbooks.

"This is a bit of a homecoming for me because I did my degree at Sheffield," he says, giving a talk to students. Barber, who learned his craft at the University of Sheffield rather than Hallam, feels the city has changed immensely. "It's almost unrecognisable, actually, but it's lovely to be back, and lovely to think of the work coming back, in the exhibition."

Barber has been described as one of the country's leading urbanists - those who closely follow how people living in towns and cities interact with their built environment. His schemes range from the Donnybrook Quarter in Hackney, a distinctive low-rise complex with a whitewashed, Mediterranean appearance, to Holmes Road Studios, a development of cottages for homeless people in Kentish Town, set around a communal garden and inspired by the old tradition of almshouses for the poor.

"There are 7,000 people living on the streets in London at the moment," he says. "It's a scandal. There's lots of discussions about what to do about it, and what the causes of it are, but in my view it has to do with the commodification of housing and a series of quite disastrous policies from Governments of both complexions. It can be laid at the door of Labour and the Conservatives."

Peter Barber is an architect whose work seeks to address the shortage of homes in Britain. He is the subject of an exhibition at the Sheffield Institute of Arts. Picture: Scott Merrylees

It hasn't always been this way, he points out.

"In 1977, just before I came to Sheffield to study - I was here in the early 80s - nearly half the population of this country enjoyed the benefits of living in social housing. This was built by the post-war generation at a time when this country was broke. There was no money, we'd just fought a war, but we managed to build 150,000 homes a year and at the same time a health service. If we can do it then we can do it now."

Barber puts forward three solutions that would halt the housing crisis 'almost immediately'.

"We need to end the Right To Buy which has resulted in the loss of two million social homes over the last 50 years, we need to build 150,000 or so social homes a year, and we need to introduce private sector rent controls. If those things happened, the housing market would be dead. Housing as a commodity, as an investment vehicle for pension funds and even for individuals - buy to let - would be over as a thing. Housing as a basic requirement, a need for people, would be the principal focus. There are 20,000 empty properties in London at the moment, where people who've got excess capital are just parking their money and waiting for the value to go up."

Peter Barber is an architect whose work seeks to address the shortage of homes in Britain. He is the subject of an exhibition at the Sheffield Institute of Arts. Picture: Scott Merrylees

The power to force change is in everyone's hands, he stresses.

"We blame Government but we actually live in a democracy, we all share responsibility in this. We have the ballot box, a free-ish press, and direct action. It's our choice about what sort of society we live in."

Barber, who turns 60 next year, was born in Guildford and today runs a studio in King's Cross. Donnybrook was 'the first building of any size' his practice worked on, its ziggurat formation packing in more than 40 residential units and impressing the judges of the Innovation in Housing Competition, who awarded the scheme first prize.

"We won, I think, because our focus was on public space," he says.

Peter Barber is an architect whose work seeks to address the shortage of homes in Britain. He is the subject of an exhibition at the Sheffield Institute of Arts. Picture: Scott Merrylees

The street, he feels, is a city's 'basic building block'.

"In the most macro sense, a street is a really good way of finding your way around - you're unlikely to get lost. It's accessible to everybody - old people, young people, people from different social and cultural backgrounds and racial and economic groups are brought together. A street can play its part in creating a better-integrated society."

People are, however, 'slightly careless with language at times', he believes. "They say things like 'We're going to build a community'. My view is, you can't. Communities build themselves. But you can create an environment where it's possible for people to get together. You can't predict it, you can just make it possible."

The first residents are moving into Holmes Road Studios in time for Christmas. Funded by Camden Council, its arrangement - rows of small red-brick houses with colourful front doors and cheerful round windows - is a world away from the bleakness of many homeless hostels, says Barber.

"That's what's possible, where there's a will. There are people moving in there who have been living in the gutter. Camden Council is amazing. There's still the vestiges of a welfare state mentality there."

His survival as an architect relies on his ability to arrive at fresh concepts. "Part of keeping ideas alive is to have a sketchbook and to be able to think 'What if?'"

A photograph of Peter Barber's Beveridge Mews, a row of affordable terraced housing in East London, at the Sheffield Institute of Arts. Picture: Scott Merrylees

To that end, he has proposed the 100 Mile City, a ring of houses, workplaces and other facilities snaking around the circumference of London, all linked by a high-speed orbital monorail inspired by a real-life system in Wuppertal, Germany.

"It started out as a 10-minute sketch and it really did get out of hand," he says. "We made a film - we went for a 100-mile cycle ride. It's meant to annoy people, in a way, and to make people think."

A scale model of the 100 Mile City is on show at the Institute of Arts, the second venue to host the exhibition after London’s Design Museum.

Barber accepts his dream may never become a reality, but argues it has sound principles.

"If we need all these millions of houses in London, where do they go? Are we going to carry on flattening social housing and well-established areas or find somewhere less disruptive? We came up with the idea that the edge of London, where it meets the Green Belt - the last 100 metres or so of suburbia - might be a place, and as well as houses there'd be factories and schools."

Even the monorail is eminently doable, he says. "I can imagine whizzing around on something like that."

Peter Barber: 100 Mile City and Other Stories is at the Sheffield Institute of Arts in Fitzalan Square until December 20. Admission is free.