The Modern House was set up in 2005 by Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill as a design-led estate agency selling Britain’s modernist houses. It has represented properties built by some of history’s greatest architects, including High & Over, designed by Amyas Connell, and apartments in Berthold Lubetkin’s Highpoint, among many others. It also offers holiday lets, has drawn up a comprehensive directory of architects working in Britain and publishes its own journal, while its website remains one of the most viewed modernist design references in the country. To celebrate its tenth anniversary in December 2015, the Modern House published its first book. Tank visited its Islington office to talk to Gibberd and Hill about preservation, Span estates and housing developers.
Portrait: Gabby Laurent
Tank In the context of a rapacious housing market, the Modern House’s art-historical, conservationist approach to commercial property is really interesting.
Albert Hill I would love to claim it was an original idea, but I went out to America, probably about 15 years ago, to Sarasota, Florida. There’s this group called the Sarasota School of Architecture – Paul Rudolph being probably the most famous member – and when they were young they built lots of small, very modest houses. There was a bit of a scene there in the 1950s and 1960s and of course land was cheap, so these little things popped up. But more recently they have all started to be demolished to make way for McMansions, completely ludicrous big things. Then along came this woman who decided that the best way to preserve the original houses was to sell them to New Yorkers who wanted a holiday home. So I went out to see her and that’s where the idea came from: that the best way to preserve a house is to have someone in it who loves it.
Matt Gibberd I think what we do is a reflection of our backgrounds. We’re coming at it obliquely; Albert was working at Wallpaper* and I was working at World of Interiors. One of our agency’s key strengths is the history section we have within the sales particulars. In some senses, it’s more of an art-market auction approach, giving it a provenance. And why shouldn’t we talk about the provenance of a house in the same way we do with an art object? In the estate-agency world these houses were neglected; agents looked at them and thought they would be difficult to sell. It’s inherently harder to sell something that doesn’t have 200 years of history to back it up in the marketplace. If you’re buying a Georgian or early Victorian house, you know that there’s an established marketplace for that. If you’re buying a genuinely one-off house, then you are trusting your own aesthetic judgement and no one else’s. We sold the only house in the UK designed by Marcel Breuer and it was in a very sorry state. The guy who bought it works in fashion and he understands aesthetics, who Breuer is and that there is a value in having that name behind it.
Tank Presumably you began just as there was an increase in interest in buildings from this period. Do you think you’ve created a place for people who are interested in these types of buildings?
AH We’ve been lucky to have our company grow alongside the wide-scale use of the internet, so that previously niche markets have really strengthened. What were once disparate followers of this type of thing can all convene and get excited about it. Ten years ago there were a lot of developers who wanted to build interesting houses, but they went for the safe option and built a mock Georgian or Victorian house because they know it sells, even though actually they would love to do something more interesting. One of the things I am most pleased about what the company achieved is that because we have established a marketplace for interesting design, now those developers, ten years down the line, are saying, “Now I’m going to built this interesting house rather than the kind of mock traditional house.” That is really great.
Tank Are you purists in how you consider architecture? What do you make of these re-conceptions of modernist housing?
MG The question that we get asked a huge amount, as you can imagine, is how do you decide what you take on? We do discriminate in terms of the quality of designs, but not in terms of the price or location – unless it’s very far-flung. We take on stuff throughout the UK and we need to serve a broad cross-section of people – from modernist-estate enthusiasts in London to people looking for amazing one-off houses in the country to someone who wants a new product, bought off plan. I would say that we have hopefully educated ourselves enough that we can make the right judgements.
AH We are particularly passionate about modernism, but no, we’re not purists and a lot of houses are not done by architects, but maybe by artists or someone who has had a really interesting idea of what to do with their house. Just because they aren’t registered architects doesn’t make the house less interesting.
MG It’s about doing something with heart.
Tank Does your taste for the modern period reveal a disappointment with the way things are currently being built?
MG The key thing there is that as soon as the large-scale developers see that there is value in design then they will increasingly adopt it; it’s a commercial decision. We sold some Tom Dixon-designed flats on the Greenwich Peninsula and that was our first foray into mass new homes. What was great about that was that we proved there is a value to those flats over and above what they had been selling for in terms of the price per square foot on that same area of land. Our marketplace and our buyers were buying into what Tom Dixon had designed. So that’s a really, really powerful message and we’ve taken that message to other London developers and said, if you can create a limited edition within your big development that is a cut above the rest in design terms then that may attract a different audience. What I think is unquantifiable is that we don’t sell units of square footage, we sell a drama of volume and space that you can’t quantify.
Tank Do you see the current interest in modern or mid-century design growing exponentially?
MG We have to be careful because it is a section of our market, but we both strongly feel that it’s not all of our market. And actually, for example, Albert is a huge fan of postmodernism. At the moment brutalism is having a moment in the sun, which is not going to go on forever. The great thing is that we are representing things that have been built since the late 1920s and early 1930s all the way up to the present day, as well as conversions and extensions, so there will always be something having its day.
Tank Fashions change, but not that much, especially the particularly extraordinary buildings, like High & Over.
AH High & Over is a really interesting one because that’s from the late 1920s and it’s still striking, it still looks radical and contemporary for something that is so old.
MG And the Luftwaffe used it as a navigational point because of its distinctive Y-shaped plan.
Tank Do you worry about a certain degree of aesthetic fetishisation of housing estates?
AH People who are fetishising it are people who are appreciating what the original architects intended, the good design, the space. In the 1950s and 1960s, lots of great architects worked for the councils and they created amazing stuff; it was a real golden era. The people who are buying it now are buying it because it’s good design. In theory, the council should be out there building great designs for all, but that’s just government decisions.
Tank With the Span estates, for example, is there not a difference between the kind of people who those houses were designed for and the kind of people who are now buying them?
AH Yes, Span is a good example because it was totally utopian; they spent as much money on the landscaping as they did on the houses. If a developer was given that plot now there is no way there would be that amount of trees, of open space. They would be five times more densely packed, but that’s why people buy on Span estates and that’s why they’re so sought after, because you get these beautiful landscapes and surroundings. That’s just market forces. If developers had gone on to develop more estates like these then people would have more choice. There’s a whole new breed of developers studying Span and I know that they wish they could do it.
Tank And what about the modification of modern houses?
MG A good example of that is the Balfron Tower by Ernö Goldfinger, which is Trellick Tower’s sister. That is being redeveloped in the next couple of years and they are making all those decisions about how faithful one is to the original intentions of the architect while bringing it up to date for modern living.
AH It’s always a line to tread: whether you preserve something and make it a sort of time capsule or whether you try to update it. When you go to some places, and to use Span estates as an example, you go to some in Blackheath and everyone is so reverential towards the original vision and saying, “Oh look, an original mushroom light! All gather round the mushroom light!” Then there are other ones where the properties are less valuable and they get rid of the mushroom lights and it’s mock Georgian plastic doors. But that’s the way it goes.
Tank People talk about how the internet has affected music or magazines, but it’s interesting how it’s impacted on design and also architecture. There’s more engagement now. You must see that a lot with people on your website.
MG What I think is really exciting is that undoubtedly our website has a resonance beyond the fact of selling houses; it’s something that people see as a reference point as much as they do a marketplace. We do care about the built environment and, although it’s not our primary agenda, we care about having a country and city with diverse, high-quality built environments. I hope we contribute to that by educating people a little bit. That’s why we create editorial content around it, which is why we run a journal and we have a directory of architects. We do holiday lets, which means we can engage people from outside of the UK to experience these spaces without buying them. Some people say our website is the homepage on their browser! People are obsessive about it.
AH People enjoy that we are revealing these little spots of modernism in a traditional country. People say, “Oh my God, I didn’t realise there was a modern house in that village where my granny lives.” When we started, a lot of people said it would never work because there aren’t enough modern houses in the UK. That’s one of the joys – discovering all these bits of modern architecture that have never had the sort of exposure as they do on our website; they are hidden behind hedges. It’s fun to have it all brought to life – and there’s always the voyeuristic enjoyment of looking inside a house.
Tank It is absolutely not what people think of Britain – so much of the way we’ve built houses or done the interiors is about chintz, carpets, curtains. And your book is such a wonderful rebuttal.
MG If you showed the book to someone in Japan or Australia or wherever, I’d like to think they would be pleasantly surprised by it. I don’t think Britain is associated with modern architecture and we do have a great legacy. The book is an expression of our excitement and the things that we’ve found hidden away. We are hugely lucky to have visited all these amazing houses. It’s been a unique experience.
Tank Have you had any resells?
AH We have, but this is the annoying thing about the business model: people buy the houses and they love them, so they rarely sell them again.
Tank Are you going to run out of modernist properties?
MG Every single day there are architects, designers and people with a passion for creating outstanding spaces. Long may it continue. It is a self-perpetuating thing but it wouldn’t be if we just kept our selection to a specific time frame, so we encompass current projects. We’re not worried. For example, if we decide to really make inroads into the new-build market, then that’s a massive undertaking and that alone would keep us busy.
Tank In the same way that design became, for a while, the new art, is architecture today the new art?
MG Yes, and I think [the architecture collective] Assemble is a case in point. The boundaries are blurring. And when was the last time you sat around and had a discussion about the Turner Prize before Assemble’s nomination? It’s fantastic publicity. They are doing something with heart and people respond to that.
TR And they sort of share your modernist call.
MG The things they are doing are based on Walter Segal’s method of building, pioneering the self-build system of readymade or shop-bought lengths of timber. Segal came up with a way of building that meant a man on the street could build himself a home. There are a few of these Walter Segal houses down in Lewisham, South London. Assemble has reimagined that Segal method in a contemporary way. §
The Modern House, by Matt Gibberd, Albert Hill and Jonathan Bell is published by Artifice and is out now.