Sivill House

Overview

Heritage Category:
Listed Building
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1469965
Date first listed:
04-Jun-2020
Statutory Address:
Sivill House, Columbia Road, London, E2 7PH

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
Sivill House, Columbia Road, London, E2 7PH

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County:
Greater London Authority
District:
Tower Hamlets (London Borough)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ3382382846

Summary

Twenty-storey residential point block built to designs by Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin, 1964-1966.

Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the interiors of the flats, boiler rooms, plant rooms and stores are not of special architectural or historic interest, however any works which have the potential to affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest may still require LBC and this is a matter for the LPA to determine.

Reasons for Designation

Sivill House of 1964-1966, a 20 storey residential point block by Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin for Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest: * for its sophisticated elevational treatment, creating a sense of movement across the facade with a meticulously detailed pattern of contrasting materials; * for its skilful handling of form, mass and detail, mediating the differential in scale between the building and the human experience of it; * in its compact, efficient planning, providing high quality communal space and generously laid-out flats; * for the sculptural treatment of the entrance arrangement and stair, which bring rich formal interest to the communal spaces.

Historic interest: * as a late work by Berthold Lubetkin, known best as a major exponent of the modern movement in Britain but who committed his post-war career to public housing; * as a building which applies themes found throughout Lubetkin’s work to exemplary effect on an important post-war building type.

History

Sivill House was built to designs by the practice Skinner Bailey and Lubetkin as the last phase of Bethnal Green’s Dorset Estate. Its design went through several iterations before securing approval from Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council in 1961 and it was finally completed in 1966. A twenty-storey residential point block, it was named after JD and AM Sivill, husband and wife councillors in Bethnal Green.

Bethnal Green’s post-war housing programme was a progressive one, committed to building for its many residents within its borough boundaries. But with few large areas of bomb damage it was reliant on gap sites and slum clearance areas to release land for new development. The largest of the clearance sites identified was Arline Street, which became the first phase of the Dorset Estate.

A young councillor, Alderman Peter JH Benenson, later to found Amnesty International and already a friend of Berthold Lubetkin, took a special interest in the work of the Housing Committee, though not himself a member. He persuaded it to visit four recently completed estates commended by the Ministry of Local Government and Planning and the RIBA, including Lubetkin’s Spa Green in Finsbury. He then proposed the selection of a panel of architects – a procedure already adopted by other boroughs and the London County Council (LCC) – to deal specifically with the difficult sites. Bethnal Green interviewed a range of practices with a specialism in housing, including Skinner Bailey and Lubetkin (SBL). In 1951 the practice was appointed to the panel and commissioned to draw up proposals for the Arline Street site.

SBL produced a comprehensive scheme for the whole four-acre Arline Street site, situated to the north of Baroness Road. The approved designs comprised two 11-storey Y-shaped blocks and four four-storey blocks of larger maisonettes. A circular library and community hall, with basement boiler house, were later additions. Work began in October 1953 and was completed in March 1958.

Meanwhile, the Housing Committee turned its attention to the south side of Baroness Road, first to the site of Lewis Vulliamy’s St Thomas’s Church (1848-1850), a substantial building damaged in the war, and then to Columbia Square, the pioneering scheme of social housing built by Baroness Burdett-Coutts in 1860-1862 but now deemed substandard. These sites became subsequent phases of the Dorset Estate. By January 1957 the SBL scheme for the church site comprised three four-storey blocks, and a curved 11-storey block with four flats on each of the upper floors, referred to as block J. Only two of the lower blocks went ahead however, leaving block J deferred until Columbia Square was acquired in 1959.

Block J became a 16-storey tower at the centre of the new Columbia Square site, to be flanked by low blocks of flats and garages. Following the LCC’s advice in 1960 block J reached its final form as a 20-storey tower, without the lower housing. The final scheme, comprising 76 one- and two-bedroom flats on 19 floors raised over a ground-floor entrance hall and launderette, secured approval from the council in January 1961, although minor revisions continued to be made as late as November 1962. The Bethnal Green Housing Committee Minutes explained, ‘Mr Bailey said he had never envisaged that the block should mirror the Dorset Estate. It would be a new theme breaking away in materials and design, largely in brick and artificial stone dressings to windows.’ (vol 30, 29 March 1961). Work began in June 1964, and in January 1965 the tower was named Sivill House. The building was finally completed in 1966, after Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough had become one of three components of the new London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) was born in Tbilisi / Tiflis, the son of a Jewish engineer, but grew up in Moscow and St Petersburg. He studied architecture in Berlin in 1922-1923 and Warsaw in 1924-1925 before in settling in Paris in 1925, having arrived to assist in the erection of the Soviet Pavilion at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Lubetkin seems to have initially come to Britain to design a house in Hampstead, which was never realised, and on recognising that the Soviet Union under Stalin could no longer support radicalism in architecture and politics he chose to stay.

From 1932 Lubetkin built a small practice, known as Tecton, around a group of young graduates from the Architectural Association. One of these was Francis Skinner and they were later joined by Denys Lasdun and the émigré architects Peter Moro and Carl Ludwig Franck. Lubetkin was a turbulent, strong-willed but inspiring figurehead, and the buildings he designed in the 1930s – including the Gorilla House and Penguin Pool at London Zoo, buildings at Whipsnade and Dudley Zoos, the private blocks of flats Highpoint I and Highpoint II in Highgate, and the Finsbury Health Centre, are amongst the greatest examples of the Modern Movement in Britain and most are listed at Grade II* or I.

Lubetkin’s great desire to design public housing, driven by his strong socialist principles, was not realised until after the Second World War, first for Finsbury Metropolitan Borough and then for Paddington. In 1947 he accepted a full-time post as architect-planner responsible for designing a progressive miners’ community, a new town, at Peterlee in County Durham. The project was not a success however, with a number of forceful characters in conflict with one another, Lubetkin allowed his consultancy to lapse in early 1950.

On leaving Peterlee Lubetkin formed a new partnership with original Tecton partner, Francis Skinner (1908-1998) and Douglas Bailey (1915-1977), his deputy at Peterlee. The order of names in the firm’s title gave greater prominence to the younger partners who managed the day to day business of the practice, but Lubetkin remained professionally active and closely involved in the key design elements of projects. Lubetkin went into semi-retirement in around 1960 but continued to be involved in the design process. Drawings for block J, the building later named Sivill House, appear in Lubetkin’s personal collection now held at the RIBA.

In all, Lubetkin had a principal role in eight public housing projects in London. Each has their own character, but share common threads, some of which go back to his more acclaimed pre-war work. In particular, Highpoint II, a luxury block of private maisonettes built in 1936-1938 at Highgate (Grade I) has the patterned elevations, box-framed construction, ramp accesses and internal circular stairs (though only within the maisonettes) that he and his team then revised for his low-cost public housing for the inner-London boroughs. Lubetkin's work for Bethnal Green came at the end of his career and saw the introduction of a new typology into his oeuvre - the residential point block. Sivill House shows Lubetkin's personal architectural expression successfully addressing the challenges presented by the building type. The exterior is characterised by a masterful handling of scale, mass and detail, while the compact, naturally-lit communal spaces, elegant stair and generously-planned flats mark the humanity of the building's interior.

Details

Twenty-storey residential point block built to designs by Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin, 1964-1966.

MATERIALS: reinforced concrete clad in ‘Primrose’ Himley golden russet bricks and concrete. Windows are aluminium-framed, brown for the windows and bright yellow for the glazed screens which give access to balconies; these all date from a scheme of replacement in the 1980s. The glazing pattern is almost the same as the original, with transoms aligning with balcony rails, but the frames are heavier.

PLAN: the tower is sunk into the natural platform of the site, creating a semi-basement and slightly elevated ground floor, entered from the south. The flats are arranged in two parallel stacks linked by a circular stair tower. The stacks are cranked along their centre line, forming shallow arrow-heads pointing south. The southern stack is wider than that to the north and contains two two-bedroom flats with south-facing balconies, and the lift shaft, at each floor. The north stack contains two one-bedroom flats at each floor, with balconies facing east and west.

EXTERIOR: the basement and ground floor are set in from the face of the building, creating an undercroft, or loggia, sheltering the elevated main entrance which is reached by a sculptural stair and ramp with steel and concrete balustrades. Within the undercroft the building is faced in engineering brick and tiles, the latter not part of the SBL scheme. Carrying the outer edge of the undercroft are piloti, rooting the building’s footprint to the ground.

The south elevation of the tower exhibits a complex pattern of brick and concrete cladding, framed at the outer edges by inset balconies with concrete and glass balustrades. The pattern is formed of vertical bands of brick running down the building, interrupted by rows of wide, square, concrete ‘C’s facing forwards or backwards and framing three sides of each window. The pattern is interrupted by a regular row of narrow windows set in brick every fifth floor. The arrangement interlinks storeys above and below, breaking down the typical horizontal monotony of floors stacked on floors and creating a sense of movement across the facade. The elevation is meticulously detailed, the alignment of components in contrasting materials creating an almost woven texture.

The other elevations are much more regularly ordered, brick-faced and broken vertically by strips of windows or inset balconies and horizontally by concrete storey bands, those every fifth floor being more heavily expressed. The east and west elevations are notable for the formal interest of the circular stair tower, deeply set between the two cranked stacks. The stair tower is lit by windows at every level, but every fifth floor is fully glazed.

The building is topped by a concrete ‘crown’ - a band of flat concrete which projects out over the face of the building, held by cranked concrete arms mounted on the roof, punctuating the top of the building like a cornice.

INTERIOR: the key feature of the interior is the stair, which sinuously winds up from the entrance lobby, with a solid cast balustrade to the outer string, and a steel balustrade on the inner string. A single column clad in yellow mosaic tiles stands at the base of the stair; in the floors above the load is carried by a solid stairwell wall enclosing the outer string. The dark grey terrazzo of the entrance lobby floor is original, while the tile cladding of the walls is not. Throughout the rest of the building some original flush panel front doors and glazed steel stair lobby doors survive. The flats are conventionally planned on a single level, with separate kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedrooms.

Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the interiors of the flats, boiler rooms, plant rooms and stores are not of special architectural or historic interest, however any works which have the potential to affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest may still require LBC and this is a matter for the LPA to determine.

Sources

Books and journals
Allan, J, Berthold Lubetkin Architecture and the Tradition of Progress, (2012)
'Rediscovering Lubetkin' in Twentieth Century Architecture, , Vol. 8, (November 2007), pp 89-104

Legal

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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