What London’s Iconic Home Design Says About the City’s Evolution

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris.

Spend time in any historic European city and you’ll start to see a trend emerge: The same housing designs occur and again and again. Seen from the outside, buildings may vary greatly from street to street, but behind their facades, similarly configured units are reproduced much more uniformly than you might expect. But these iconic floor plans vary tremendously from city to city, and have played a key role in their host city’s attitudes to housing. How did these housing standards come to be? And how did certain types of buildings shape citizens’ expectations about what is and isn’t a real home?

Local specifics matter if you want to understand what makes a place. Many Amsterdam residents would balk at living in a tiny apartment that a Parisian might see as completely normal. Likewise, a Berliner accustomed to living on one floor might see a duplex apartment as decidedly fancy, even though in London, multi-floor homes are common (and sometimes even poky) across social classes.

We can’t do justice to the full variety of Europe’s urban homes, but we can outline some of the key types that have helped shape their host cities. In this edition: the classic floor plan of London.

The London ‘two-up, two-down’

From the outside, London’s row houses have an eclectic variety of ornament, and they range in scale from palatial to boxy. But inside, they are pretty much all configured the same way. That’s because from the late 17th century up until the First World War, most residential buildings here cleaved very close to a model found across English cities: the terraced house, known in its most condensed, emblematic form as the “two-up, two-down.”

Configured in rows (known as terraces in Britain and Ireland) that were usually built by the same developer, two-up, two-downs are laid out exactly as their name suggests. On the ground floor are a living room and a kitchen: two (rooms) down. Upstairs are two bedrooms, plus a bathroom, usually a later addition. (Originally, occupants would have made do with a privy outside.)

(Josh Kramer/CityLab)

And … that’s it.

For a city that’s long been the repository of vast commercial, imperial, and industrial wealth, this might seem a very modest template. However, it is one that can be easily scaled up, points out Edward Denison, associate professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture and author of The Life of the British Home: An Architectural History.

“What’s extraordinary, in London in particular, is that you can find very grand houses in places such as Carlton House Terrace, with vast rooms and very high ceilings, that are still essentially two-up, two-downs with extra floors added,” says Denison. “Then you go to working-class terraced housing in places like Greenwich, and find a very different scale and quality of fittings, but essentially the same configuration.”

While the most basic two-ups, two-downs are flat-fronted and square, houses for more well-to-do occupants have a front bow window and a kitchen extending into the backyard, creating a more L-shaped footprint. You can add extra floors and mezzanine rooms above the kitchen until you end up, in the grandest districts, with six stories and a dizzying amount of stairs.

Late Victorian/early Edwardian terraces in East London. Note that the houses in the foreground are built along more generous lines than those at the back, with bow windows on both floors and an extra room built above the projecting ground-floor kitchen. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

London and other English cities adhered to this low-density template, it has often been noted, because for centuries, developers were not constrained by the physical restrictions of other cities such as fortifications (as in Paris and Vienna) or difficult topography (as in craggy, lake-bound Edinburgh, where apartments were the rule). And indeed, when newer construction technology made it possible to build towering tenements, the state intervened to place height restrictions with the London Building Act of 1894.

These six-story houses in Wilton Crescent, West London, may be grand, but they still adhere to the classic two-rooms-per-floor layout. (Olivia Harris/Reuters)

Although their density is not ideal for contemporary London, the various up-scalings of the two-up, two-down have some tangible advantages. For a start, Denison points out, they have been built and remodeled successfully over centuries. Tinkering with the staircase can convert the larger ones easily enough into apartments, while their attics can be squared off to become roomier. Nowadays, knocking through the ground-floor wall to form a single living/dining room is becoming almost ubiquitous, too, at least among wealthier homeowners who no longer desire the smaller spaces and strictly segregated uses of the Victorian home.

These homes, built at Golden Lane in the still war-ravaged London of 1950, are configured with classic two-up, two-down layouts despite their Modernist appearance. (Amanda Vincent-Rous/Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time, the influence of the two-up, two-down even on Modernist homes in Britain is strong. Intending to create “streets in the sky” that preserved the conviviality of the working-class street, just without the fumes and dirt, many London housing projects are in fact just stacks of two-up, two-downs. These bi-level units (called maisonettes in Britain) stick to the same model of kitchen and lounge below and bedrooms above.

Looking up at some windswept walls of concrete balconies, it’s striking to think that the people inside are using a home layout already developed by the 18th century. London may be growing ever higher and denser, but the city may never shake the idea that a true home, however modest, is a house.

That’s partly because, for most Britons, it is. Only 14 percent of British people currently live in apartments (compared to 57 percent in Germany). And although the proportion of flat-dwellers is much higher in London (at 43 percent), more than a quarter of the city’s residents still live in attached houses.

In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at the mid-rise tenements of Berlin.

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Inside the Controversy Over Rebuilding an Iconic Berlin Store

For city-watchers, there’s something very familiar about the current development debate going on around Berlin’s Hermannplatz. The square, a busy shopping and transit hub in a fast-gentrifying working-class neighborhood, has caught the eye of developers. The Austrian real-estate group Signa Holdings—which also co-bought New York’s Chrysler Building earlier this year—wants to expand a long-established department store it owns there into a shopping mall, creating the usual burst of jobs and economic activity. Many locals are skeptical about the project, fearing it will increase already-rocketing residential rents nearby and cause congestion.

These conditions may ring a bell from other development fights, but the one currently taking place in Hermannplatz has a unique twist. The mall would not be, strictly speaking, an entirely new building. It would in fact be a recreation of a lost building—a Modernist icon of interwar Berlin, last seen intact in 1945.

That lost building was a branch of the (still-trading) Karstadt department-store chain. One of the most unusual and striking retail buildings constructed in early-20th-century Europe, the store might now be resurrected to a new design by David Chipperfield Architects that very closely resembles the original.

Berlin is no stranger to major historic-reconstruction projects. Right now, it is midway through a rebuilding of its vast, war-damaged City Palace, the former seat of Germany’s Kaisers. Karstadt Hermannplatz nonetheless stands out because it is not some old baroque pile, but a less-than-100-year-old work of Modernism. An ostentatious, unapologetically commercial Modernism at that.

Currently, the plan is in deadlock, albeit far from dead. The local  borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, controlled by a left-leaning coalition headed by the Green Party, has said no to the initial proposal, but the developer is going on a charm offensive, promising to adapt the project to better suit official advice and to deliver not just the usual retail chains, but a genuine mixed-use space with local social assets. And with millions of euros to invest, Signa may ultimately prove difficult for the borough to resist. But is the plan a good idea?

Aesthetically, the building would certainly be a reminder of the forward-looking glamour of Weimar-era Berlin, a period that features heavily in the city’s self-mythology but whose landmarks were largely swept away by the war. Completed in 1929 to a design by Philipp Schaefer, the original Karstadt Hermannplatz was a wonderfully ornate building. Capped by stepped, bunny-ear towers and grooved with proportion-stretching vertical limestone ribs, the store was less reminiscent of Bauhaus influence than of the glossy American Art Deco stylings of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Uniquely for Berlin at the time, the store had a direct entry from the subway (something the current building on the site retains), plus 21 escalators and 20 elevators to whisk customers up to its panoramic roof garden.

Looming above an area of grimy proletarian tenements, this condensed skyscraper must have seemed dazzling, almost hallucinatory, when it first appeared. When the SS dynamited the building’s cellar in April 1945, to prevent its supplies falling to the swiftly approaching Red Army, Berlin lost something unique. After this destruction, just one façade of the gutted hulk remained. It was substantially rebuilt on fewer floors, but still as a Karstadt store, in the 1950s and 1970s, and became essentially unrecognizable.

If someone is to resurrect this old monument, then Britain’s David Chipperfield might be the best person to do so. His practice has made a specialty out of the skillful rethinking of historic landmarks, including the new James Simon Gallery, which provides an austerely beautiful entrance for Berlin’s neoclassical Museum Island without any hint of architectural cosplay. Sure enough, Chipperfield’s preliminary renderings of the new Karstadt Hermannplatz look both faithful to the original and rather delightful.

There is, however, a major “but.” The new store’s site isn’t just anywhere in Berlin. It is in the neighborhood at the heart of the most intense gentrification spurt in the city, whose influence has spread to pretty much everything. Lying on the boundary of the boroughs of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Hermannplatz’s backyard is an ultra-dense district of pre-World War One tenements that was a former stronghold of Berlin’s working class. Now highly desirable, its rents have been galloping ever higher, making it the site of numerous public fights over displacement, both of people and of businesses.

How Karstadt Hermannplatz’s roof terrace might appear after construction. (Courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects)

Much of the pushback has come from the borough itself (Berlin is divided into 12 boroughs). To maintain some level of affordability in the area, the borough is employing discretionary powers to cool the market down and keep existing residents in place, buying up buildings at risk of steep rent increases to become public housing and making new landlords sign no-rent-hike agreements on many other tenements.

This backdrop is relevant to the Karstadt project because the borough worries it will spur further displacement. This is, after all, the same neighborhood where Google withdrew plans for a campus after a local backlash. In an area heavily marketed to international real-estate investors, any major plans are eyed with justified suspicion.

The Chipperfield-designed building might be spectacular, but since renovation costs would be high, the rents for the commercial units inside would be as well, fear borough leaders. Not only does that imply the development would be of limited use to lower-income locals, it also risks making the building a honeypot for businesses catering to wealthy incomers. This would perhaps give them more reason than before to move to the area, adding pressure to rents the borough is striving to keep under control. Add to that the added congestion caused by a retail cluster the size of which the area hasn’t seen for over 75 years, and some of the shine comes off it.

Given the project’s support from Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, and the developer’s promises to be flexible, the reconstruction may well see the light of day in some altered form. Turning down this level of investment might seem insane when viewed from the outside, but the borough may be right to block the plan now, if only to get something with more obvious social utility. Cities aren’t just backdrops for arresting architectural set pieces. They are living, breathing organisms whose balance needs to be maintained if residents’ needs are going to be met. For now, it’s understandable that the borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg doesn’t see this magnificent but potentially disbalancing development as the kind of oxygen its citizens need.

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