One Electric Chain
“Oh no.” I awoke, my throat throbbing ever so slightly. “Not now.” I seem to always get some sort of sick in Europe — without fail, every single time. It’s been blocked sinuses while wandering the French countryside, a fever in Iceland… and now a sore throat in London. “Get over it,” I muttered to myself as I tipped two B-vitamin tablets into a tall glass of ice-cold water. The bright white façades of the townhomes across the street shone through our windows — the detailed columns and fastidious corbels in sharp opposition to our stark and minimalist confines. Sore throat be damned, we pressed on with the morning — I was determined to squeeze every minute out of the day ahead. We sat in bed after getting ready, eating takeaway Waitrose sandwiches on top of the crisp white linens and watching the doom emanate from the BBC morning newscast.
“Today, President Trump…”
“Ugh, let’s get out of here before we find out what stupid thing he’s done now.”
TV safely off, we headed out onto Queensway towards the tube — with a small detour for an oat-milk latte before descending onto the platform. Our destination was Hampstead, for a home-brewed (and extensively over-researched) tour of modernist residential architecture.
Our first stop appeared through the trees as we approached from behind. We’d arrived at the Belsize Park tube station, then made our way through an early-90s housing estate — the inhabitants seemed genuinely curious at the sight of us. Two obvious tourists in head-to-toe black wandering through the brick streets, looking for a trail through a park. We found that trail, and the Isokon building loomed like a white giant through the dense tree cover. We popped out of the park onto Lawn Road, and into a large group of people crowded around a man waving a clipboard about.
“Well, the one thing to know is that pretty much everyone was gay and a communist…”
He wasn’t entirely off the mark. The Isokon building was built in 1934 as a sort of glimmering modernist communal living experiment. It was so incredibly ahead of its time — the tall, stark white lines and curves radiate against the standard low brick structures around it. For a period of time, it was haven to a veritable who’s-who of global intelligentsia — Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy, Agatha Christie. The Isobar (formerly the communal kitchen, and converted by Breuer) was a favorite of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson… It’s also infamous for hosting a fair share of the UK’s resident Soviet-backed spies behind its flat, crisp white walls. It was abandoned in the 90s after being purchased by the Camden council, and renovated soon after, and now it hosts a ground-floor gallery in place of the Isobar — although don’t you sort of wish the bar was still there? I couldn’t help but think of the drunken conversations that echoed around in there on any given night. Art critiques, marble carving techniques, who’s sleeping with whom…
We laughed alongside the tour guide for a moment before sneaking some photos and wandering towards the next stop. Up Fleet Road, onto Keats Grove (named for the poet himself, a resident of the street), and finally onto Downshire Hill. Immaculate Georgian mansions peeked out from behind perfectly-trimmed hedgerows and jet-black iron fences. The sun was out, and it filtered through the giant plane trees, casting rare dappled shadows on the pavement and the hoods of the luxury cars lining the road.
The Hopkins House is a stunner — and a quiet one, too. It’s a little glass box, wedged between two giant classic homes. The site is incredibly steep, so the architects designed a steel drawbridge to bring visitors off of the street and into the second story, over a dense fern-covered slope. The land was bought and the house was built for the seemingly tiny sum of £50,000 (£862,760.83 today, however) in 1967 by Michael and Patty Hopkins, a husband-and-wife architect duo. It’s a true icon of the High-Tech movement in architecture, as it’s largely constructed of pre-fabricated and industrial materials — and the Hopkins’ still live there, to this day. I couldn’t stop taking photos, as the details are so beautifully resolved. The mailbox, the drawbridge and matching gates, the impossibly tiny profile of the sliding doors, the sheen of the glass walls against the ancient brick of the neighbors… I loved it all.
Back up Downshire Hill towards the Heath, to 1-3 Willow Road — designed in 1939 by Ernő Goldfinger. The construction of this modernist row house required demolition of several tiny cottages, which caused a local uproar. The leader of said uproar? None other than James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming — who then, in an act of indignation, stole Goldfinger’s last name and repurposed it into that of a Bond villain. The house is a beautiful example of early modernism — easily obtained materials used in different ways. A striking concrete frame, visible from the exterior, allowed wide-open Raumplan-style floor plans inspired by Adolf Loos — and the ever-English red brick helped it blend a little into the surrounding context (but maybe not enough to Mr. Fleming’s liking). Of course, our timing was impeccable — closed for the winter. So we milled about out front, trying to catch a glimpse of the incredible modern art collection, or the Arup-designed spiral stair in No. 2, Goldfinger's personal residence. No such luck, unfortunately — so into the Heath we went.
I’d heard of Hampstead Heath over the years in a tangential way — through British television and books. It was always some sort of abstract thing — a big void in the city, dense and green. It was always mysterious or dangerous or out of the way — but I found that to be all just a myth.
I was entranced, immediately. It’s just so green. So green, so lush, so striking. We made our way through the lower edge of the Heath, cutting through footpaths instead of walking through the streets. We passed families on their Sunday stroll, complete with luxury strollers and muddy dogs. Laughter and birdsong swirled about in the calm breeze overhead. We passed between two ponds, and through a tiny brick passageway between two stately homes onto a perfectly groomed street — and visible just down the block were the solid modern silhouettes of 80-90 South Hill Park and their neighbor, the Housden House.
A V2 bomb hit this edge of South Hill Park during the Second World War — destroying a number of the Victorian homes that had been built in the late 1800s. Two newly-graduated Cambridge-educated architects, Bill Howell and Stanley Amis, bought most of the abandoned land in the early 1950s with four other friends, and designed a terrace of six houses — each slightly modified to best fit the family that owned it. Each home is only twelve feet wide, and every inch is planned — no internal load-bearing walls, no unnecessary furniture, simplified heating and cooling systems. The front garages, demanded by the City of London planners, were quickly reclaimed as living space. The entirety of the project was designed according to Le Corbusier’s Le Modulor system — a way of creating human-scaled spaces to innately fit every occupant naturally. The six families lived in the houses for decades — creating families and community, gardening in the back yards, throwing legendary parties.
Just next door, a young architect named Brian Housden acquired the rest of the bombed-out site in 1958 and set out to build a family home, inspired by European modernist architecture — specifically the Rietveld-Schroder house in Utrecht, the Amsterdam Orphanage by Aldo van Eyck, and the Maison de Verre in Paris by Pierre Chareau. These languages — the de Stijl rectilinear planes of the Rietveld-Schroder house, the child-focused design and integrated furniture of the Orphanage by van Eyck and the utilitarian, industrial Modernism of the Maison de Verre — melded into Housden’s own unique vision for a house. It is jarringly different from its surroundings, but not disrespectful. The house was gradually finished over the years — it was a bit spartan in the beginning, and there’s a story that says the builders felt sorry for Mrs. Housden and the kids, and thus built the kitchen sinks for free to alleviate some of the stress of living in a building site.
We stood in the street, silent and in awe of these two buildings — so important to each other and independently, and both crafted by young visionaries for their families and friends. You could almost hear the laughter of siblings, the squeals of newborns, the clinking of glasses in the garden — all of the sounds of humanity at home. These buildings embody a sort of architecture that I am innately attracted to — a cozy, warm, familiar architecture. Architecture for real people, in real spaces, in real context.
Then we began a slow meander around the curve of South Hill Park, through another tiny passageway, onto Parliament Hill Road and back into the Heath.
We walked up to the top of Parliament Hill, surrounded by people all clamoring for the perfect spot. Coming from Colorado, the land of true mountains, I figured it was just a nice spot to rest after the steep incline — but boy, was I wrong. The clouds parted, rays of sunshine danced on the lawn and the blue skies stretched forever — the patchwork of skyscrapers cleaving sky from earth in a jagged line.
Everyone silently took it all in — this massive, ancient city glinting before us all.
We almost skipped down the hill — enlightened and ecstatic, grounded in a true sense of place. We passed a pair of French bulldogs, their feet covered in mud and their owners gossiping behind them.
“It’s us, Mark.”
We made our way past the Parliament Hill Lido and onto Highgate Road — and straight into the foliage-bedecked front doors of The Bull & Last.
I fell in love the moment we made our way through those massive oak portals. A fireplace crackled, festooned with flowers. An ancient map of the City hung on weathered wooden paneling, above robins-egg blue wainscoting. Donna Summer shone through the stereo. The clientele was a perfect mix of good old boys with hunting caps and beagles with their afternoon pints, and stunning young people gathered with friends.
We ordered Sunday roast, as required, and a pint of craft ale. We ate almost in silence, the disco and laughter enveloping us a bit more with each bite. As we began to finish, Mark noticed a small notice up on a corner of the bar.
Rent our upstairs for your wedding!
He pointed and smiled, “How about here, then?” I almost started crying. It was perfect. Within ten minutes, it was settled.
We finished up, thanked our server for one of the best meals we’d had, period — and then back out onto the streets.
The second-to-last stop on the impromptu architecture tour was perhaps the one I was most looking forward to — Winscombe Street, by Neave Brown. A perfect row of minimalist grey row homes, tucked into a cul-de-sac off a main street. They are a perfect example of humanistic architecture — every inch planned, every moment considered. The main floor is the kitchen — now a standard feature in most modern homes, but then a bit of a novelty. Below on the garden level are two children’s rooms with access straight into the garden, and above on the first floor is the master suite and a large living room — all a somewhat radical departure from “normal.” The result is magical, yet humble — and now ultra-desirable. A matte-black Porsche sat out front of the end unit, next to an annex/studio building.
We sighed, not wanting to part with such a place — and yet again, back out onto the street.
We walked up Chester Road, past the rows and rows of identical terrace houses, their grey brick and white windows blending with the darkening skies behind them. We stopped and milled around a brand-new mixed-use project with apartments above — we admired the quality of the brickwork on something so new. We mentally moved in — our vintage fiberglass couch up against the crisp new white walls, our fat dogs lounging on the terrace. We spent a moment in silence in the courtyard, deep in longing — and then we kept walking.
We hugged the edge of Highgate Cemetery, and popped in once we found an open gate. It’s one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen — the ancient moss-encrusted graves mingling with the shiny new ones, poking out of vivid foliage. The Whittington Estate — a not-yet-celebrated Brutalist gem — rose above the green-tinged stone perimeter wall, the contrast of the concrete and the aged stone quite beautiful. We strolled past Karl Marx’s grave with the Little Red Books strewn beneath his massive memorial, his gigantic bronze visage staring at passersby. Patrick Caulfield’s stated the obvious: “DEAD.”
As we waited in line for the toilets on the edge of the cemetery, the very last destination of our tour peeked over the bamboo and the ivy-covered wall that surrounds it: the Winter House, by John Winter.
He designed and built it in 1967 — but it still looks incredibly fresh. A Cor-Ten and glass box, hovering over its archaic surroundings. It’s incredibly difficult to see the entirety of without trespassing — but we poked our heads into the backyard. Piles of rubbish surrounded the overgrown garden, the crumbling wooden fence seemingly supported by magic. A geodesic dome greenhouse poked through the weeds. We sighed yet again, imagining our lives behind the massive glass panes, and made our way to the Archway station — our tour over, our adventure at an end.
We boarded the Northern line towards Bank and Mark’s eyes lit up.
“Let’s take the sky train of the future to Canary Wharf — an entirely different kind of architecture tour!”
The “sky train of the future” is the much-maligned DLR — the Docklands Light Railway. I’d never ridden it before, and in my deep-seated need to experience all of the various forms of transit in London, I eagerly agreed. We disembarked at Bank, and boarded the DLR towards Canary Wharf.
Canary Wharf is a sort of alien place — especially on a Sunday. We got off of the train and found ourselves in the middle of a mall — which we quickly extracted ourselves from and wandered out onto the street. It was decidedly empty — not entirely, but mostly. Just a few people milled about, rushing from elevator bay to elevator bay, likely heading towards their desks high in the towers bedecked with the names of every giant bank in the world.
We wandered to Crossrail Place, a Norman Foster-designed faceted plastic tube adjacent to the old import docks of the West India Company. We meandered around the rooftop garden and kept marveling at the lack of people. We walked across Jubilee Park and the South Quay foot-bridge onto the Isle of Dogs — Mark wanted to look at the progress of a new housing development, the Wardian. We milled about in the construction zone, next to an Eighties office park meant to look like suburban terrace homes and an ancient warehouse-turned-charity office. Cranes bristled against the skyline and giant adverts for housing developments loomed over us.
“Let’s get back into town. It’s weird out here.”
Jubilee line to Bond Street, Central line to Queensway — then a quick change and back out into the city for dinner at our favorite spot, the Palomar.
The Palomar is a shoebox-sized space on Rupert Street, with two completely different experiences housed within. On our last visit, we sat in the tiny back dining room — it’s quiet and dim, with blue paneled walls and perfect, minuscule tables. It’s the sort of place you could lose hours in. The bar up front, however, is entirely divergent. It’s a frenzy as you’re pressed up against the prep kitchen and bar — and that’s where we sat this time. It was exuberant — the modern Israeli food flying off to the tables, or across the bar to us. We ate like kings — kubaneh with tomato and tahini / burnt courgette tzatziki and baba ganoush with perfect, tiny pitas / hot, herby falafel / beef and lamb shakshukit / fattoush with cucumber and sumac / ouzo & pink grapefruit sorbet with pine nut brittle and Maldon salt — the tiny dishes wondrously appearing across the battered prep counter, as the chefs chanted in Hebrew to keep their spirits up and their fingers moving. It’s pure magic.
After we ate and ate, and drank and drank , we decided we needed one more drink — at Bob Bob Ricard, the famous Soho palace of champagne. We descended into the basement bar, every surface dizzyingly resplendent with pattern and color. Brass everywhere, countless colors of marble, pink lightbulbs — it was a scene to say the least. We sat by ourselves at the pink-washed bar, a bit disappointed about the lack of a “Press for Champagne” button (a very well-known feature). We ordered a rhubarb gin and tonic each and silently watched the robotic bartender assemble them methodically before us. His hair was slicked to the side, adhered into one unified mass.“Here you go,” he said, with a smile that belied a slight annoyance. We sipped our vividly pink cocktails quietly and quickly, and settled the tab immediately.
We made our way up the stairs, got our coats and ventured out into the streets of Soho — the air crisp and humid. Our feet ached as we made our way into the tube station, towards Bayswater — having journeyed across the entire city and hundreds of years in just a day, all a part of one electric chain.
Isokon Gallery — Lawn Road — Belsize Park
Hopkins House — 49A Downshire Hill — Belsize Park
2 Willow Road — Hampstead
Housden House— 78 South Hill Park — Hampstead
Winscombe Street— 22-32 Winscombe Street — Archway
Highgate Cemetery — Swain's Lane — Archway