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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