In a backlash against Brookside-style housing, Stock Woolstencroft has designed a model high-density apartment scheme with a splash of colour that also regenerates a historic area of north London suburbia.

How's this for an executive box?
How's this for an executive box?

As you walk up the high street, your eye is caught by a portly, self-confident “Wrenaissance” mansion with newly burnished red-brick walls and arched windows. Your gaze is then quickly diverted by another building just beyond it. With no less swagger, this one is as fresh and modern as you can get, with flat rectilinear panels and clear-glass curtain walls. Most striking of all, a vivid orange wall rises up a full three storeys in height next to the main entrance.

Built 101 years apart, the two buildings now belong to the same new development. And as they vary in form, style and materials yet are a similar size, they complement each other nicely.

The teaser comes in guessing what functions the two buildings perform. The red-brick mansion has a grand civic air, yet now serves a more civic role than was the case originally. It was built as a water-pumping station and set behind forbiddingly high railings. It now stands in an open lawn and inside, its two elegant, light-filled halls lined in white-glazed brick have been converted into a public restaurant and art gallery.

The modern six-storey block rises sheer out of the access road and is shielded by the narrowest sliver of shrubbery, giving it a distinctly urban feel. It has the look of a smart new city academy, technical college or high-tech corporate headquarters. In fact, it is the first in a group of seven elongated blocks containing 629 flats that stretches out over a 5.4 ha site. But this is no high-density, infill housing development squeezed between office buildings and converted warehouses in a city centre. The canalside site, quaintly called the New River Village, is close to Alexandra Park in the Victorian suburb of Hornsey, north London, where traditional-spec housing holds sway. If anything, the residential scheme is a spirited reaction to all those toe-curling Brookside cliches that typify suburban settings: there are no two-storey mini-villas set in poky gardens on curly cul-de-sacs, and no pitched roofs, brick walls and dinky entrance porches.

Just such a scheme, by Bellway Homes, initially won planning permission for the site. Bellway’s development was part of a joint venture that included a Sainsbury’s supermarket, but the scheme fell apart after Sainsbury’s got cold feet. It was then that St James Homes, a subsidiary of the Berkeley Group that specialises in joint ventures with the site owner Thames Water, stepped in.

The site, which includes an unprepossessing group of redundant filter beds, holds great urban significance. For a start, it includes a stretch of the historic New River, which was artificially created in 1613 as London’s first supply of fresh, unpolluted water, predating the transport canal era by nearly 200 years. It also lies within the conservation area of Hornsey. On top of that, it forms part of Haringey Heartlands, one of 12 “areas of intensification” identified in the development strategy of the Greater London Authority known as the London Plan. These areas have been targeted to provide “sustainable high-density, mixed-use development for housing, leisure, retail, employment and open space”.

For its New River scheme designs, St James had enough grasp of urban regeneration to go to architect Stock Woolstencroft, which had masterplanned Haringey Heartlands for the council in 2000. After long negotiations with Haringey council and GLA planners, they produced a scheme that more than met the GLA’s area-of-intensification brief. The housing density is 412 habitable rooms per hectare, double that laid down in Haringey’s unified development plan of 1998 and in Bellway’s aborted scheme. Moreover, about 37% of the flats are affordable and these should be virtually indistinguishable from the other apartments.

In addition to the housing, St James is landscaping both sides of the New River. This will be handed over to Haringey council as a linear park that will link Hornsey High Street to Alexandra Park. Other planning gains provided by St James include the conversion of the pumping station into the Pumphouse Gallery, and a doctor’s surgery, public crèche and juice bar will be included in the second phase. The whole development is being liberally sprinkled with public art, starting with a sculpture of a large ball of rusting coiled steel. All together, in a scheme costing some £70m to build, St James has invested £13.7m in planning gain for the benefit of the wider community.

Owen O’Carroll, director of Stock Woolstencroft, says: “Our approach has been to fit into Hornsey town centre to the south and Alexandra Park to the north.”

As a result of this combination of design influences, the seven blocks are like a flotilla of elongated slabs floating in parkland alongside the New River. There are no private gardens and next-to-no cars to mess up the expansive, communal parkland setting.

The blocks themselves are sleek and modern in the heroic modernist tradition of the Greater London Council’s Roehampton Estate, inspired by Le Corbusier, and Berthold Lubetkin’s Highpoint in nearby Highgate. With vivid splashes of orange render and yellow glass balustrading, the buildings are bold enough to hold their own in this open setting, yet intricate, delicate and light enough not to appear too bulky and brutal.

The lightness and intricacy comes partly from the arrangement of flat panels in render and glass and perforated louvres in stainless steel. It is enhanced by an outer veil that envelopes the blocks: a slender white-coated steel trellis that stands guard over glass balcony panels and, at the prow of the first block, steel louvres, which can be swivelled to vary the degree of seclusion in the private terraces beyond. The first building is slightly cranked at its mid-point, as if two slabs had collided, to provide extra dynamism.

Cars are all but eradicated as there is only one narrow access road. With decent bus, train and underground services passing nearby, car parking is provided at just 0.65 spaces per flat. And all this is neatly hidden in two layers of basement parking below the flats and within the 8 m slope down from the river.

Instead of private gardens encircling the blocks, ground-floor and semi-basement flats come with minimal private outside areas. Private gardens have been dispensed with because they are not deemed to be at the top of the wishlists of first-time buyers and young City professionals – the target market for the £170,000-250,000 one and two-bedroom flats.

Aside from such architectural and landscaping attractions, New River Village comes with a lifestyle bonus in the shape of a communal gym and sauna that has been stylishly inserted below and alongside the Pumphouse Gallery. The scheme’s commercial success has already been shown in the first phase, all 166 dwellings of which were sold off plan, many of them to buy-to-let investors on the strength of a demountable marketing suite erected at the front of the site.

Perhaps the scheme’s real test will come in the second phase, in which an entire block will be devoted to affordable, predominantly family housing. You can’t help but wonder how, with no private gardens to absorb their energies, young children will take to this urban parkland with its yuppie atmosphere.

The odd niggle aside, the bold, open-minded, imaginative approach of the developer, architect and landscape architects has achieved a notable double: in the architectural merit and high density of the housing itself, and in the provision of a range of community facilities and a public park combining fresh air, trees, sculptures, benches and running water.

By these means, New River Village sets an inspired new model for housing for sale that also meets a wider urban regeneration agenda. Within months of the first residents moving in, Stuart Cook of Haringey’s planning department observed: “It is already having a large regenerative effect on Hornsey High Street. Eventually the whole area will receive a boost.” A fresh lease of life, then, for the old New River.

Project team

St James Homes
Stock Woolstencroft
landscape architects
The Landscape Workshop, Whitelaw Turkington Landscape Architects
Pumphouse Gallery and gym
Johnson Naylor
planning consultant
Sellwood Planning
structural engineer
services engineer
Kehr & Tucker
design-and-build architect
Scurr and Partners
design-and-build contractor
Laing O’Rourke