Picture a building from the 1960s or 1970s, and you may conjure up acres of concrete and cold, windswept walkways in an unfavourable location. Modernist architecture has always had British traditionalists wincing at the very mention of the term, and while the movement peaked in Europe between the two world wars, our own architects and developers were still busy erecting street upon street of mock-Tudor suburban semis. It was not until the late 1940s that British architects finally got to have a stab at modernism.
Highly visionary and in keeping with the postwar era’s leftist social policy, many of their projects were nevertheless doomed to fail. Think of the much-maligned “new towns” such as Bracknell or the Thamesmead estate, designed to house 100,000 south Londoners but most famous as the backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal of youth alienation in the film A Clockwork Orange. Or picture to yourself the infamous, 32-storey Red Road tower blocks in Glasgow, whose asbestos-lined walls remain a danger to the public.
Despite the bad press, our interest in modernist architecture and style is increasing. Landmarks such as Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in Bow attract queues around the block during the annual Open House London event in September and, at a recent Midcentury Modern design show in Dulwich College’s distinctly modernist Christison dining hall, thousands of cool, young homemakers swooned and haggled over space-age desk lights, beech wood stacking chairs and rare 1950s curtain fabrics. Here, you can buy a coffee mug depicting Trellick Tower, Highpoint or the Barbican Centre. Perfect for the vintage Eero Saarinen coffee table.
But what underlines the fact that this movement, loosely termed mid-century modern, has finally come of age, is the existence of The Modern House, its own estate agency. “British attitudes to modernist architecture are definitely changing,” says The Modern House’s Matt Gibberd, who with his partner Albert Hill has been selling contemporary, architect-designed property since 2004. “Our buyers have traditionally been creative people with young families but there has increasingly been more interest from city types, lawyers and quite a lot of overseas customers.”
Unlike your average estate agency, The Modern House is not on the high street, nor does it have teams of sales people driving logo-splashed Minis. At any one time, it will have around 40 properties for sale, with virtually no lettings.
What it does offer is a “level of expertise and understanding” with a background based more on architecture and journalism than estate agency. “We give as much information about a property as we can, whether that’s historical context, archive material or background to the architectural firm,” says Gibberd, who has developed a database of every modern architect-designed house in the country.
Another difference is that the typical estate agent’s mantra of “location, location, location” can be tricky when dealing with postwar, modern houses.
“It can be difficult to sell in a poor location,” admits Gibberd, who is the grandson of the late modernist architect Sir Frederick Gibberd. “But there are some outstanding properties out there. Buyers are aspirational in their tastes and they’re buying with their heart when they come to us.”
On the market with The Modern House is Restronguet Point in Cornwall, priced at £3m. The building was designed in 1971 by local architect John Crowther in the style of Mies van der Rohe.
Another of its properties, Farnley Hey in West Yorkshire, priced at £749,000, was designed by Peter Womersley in 1954 and was one of the first postwar buildings to be Grade II-listed.
Britain has certainly had its moments with quality modernist builds, notably the much-sought-after Barbican Centre housing development and the much-praised Span estates which were built by Eric Lyons in the European style.
Span Developments built more than 70 projects between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s and it is still lauded for its well-designed, shared spaces, use of the surrounding landscape and strong sense of community spirit.
However, these examples aside, British architects have not produced contemporary-style homes in the quantity or with the consistency that can be found elsewhere. In the US for example, buyers can choose from dozens of exciting, 20th-century, architecturally designed properties, including the influential Case Study Program houses which were built mainly on the west coast from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Europe too, is a happy hunting ground for modernism fans, as is Thailand where “they have a contemporary style of their own”, says John Hagelin of Modern Homes Worldwide, a boutique real estate company.
However, one area in the UK that appears to have more than a fair share of quality, modernist homes is Hampstead, north London. Apart from the iconic Highpoint and Isokon apartment blocks built in the 1930s, where the Bauhaus’s Walter Gropius and László Maholy-Nagy lived, there are good examples of postwar architect houses in Swains Lane, Fitzroy Park and Bacon’s Lane.
In London NW3, Savills is selling a house built by the late architect Ted Levy of Levy Benjamin and Partners, for £1.9m. Just 200 metres from Hampstead High Street and with five bedrooms over three floors, it would make a great home for a contemporary-minded family.
“It’s a trademark split-level house with a galleried living room and that needs some updating,” says Simon Edwards, a Hampstead agent.
While accepting that this style of architecture is significantly more fashionable than it once was, Edwards says that most of his clients are still looking for traditional Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian town houses. “Savills does not have a specialist department for modern houses and it would be hard to make money out of it [if it did].
“The difficulty with some of these properties is that you are stuck with the architect’s original room sizes. Often they are open-plan, which not everyone likes, and there are stairs everywhere. A really good example of a particular architectural style can sell it, of course, but most people still want a traditional family home,” he says.
Whether or not to invest in a 40-year-old architect-designed house is purely down to individual taste.
But there is no doubt that these once bold and sometimes flawed experiments in modern living are as much a part of our property heritage as the Victorian terraced house or the 1930s semi.
● The cachet of owning an architect-designed home
● They are often designed to make maximum use of natural light
● The interior and exterior often work together in harmony
● Being restricted by the architect’s original design
● Those big glass windows look great but can be an assault on privacy
● Flat roofs are expensive to maintain and have a natural lifespan of only 25 years
What you can buy for …
£100,000: not a lot, although £170,000 will buy you a two-bedroom flat in listed Balfron Tower, London E14, designed in the brutalist style by Ernö Goldfinger
£1m: stump up £1,545,000 and a five-bedroom lakeside home near Esher, Surrey is yours. The property was designed by Royston Summers in 1975 and comes with a double garage and many original features
● The Modern House tel: 08456 344 068,
● Modern Homes Worldwide, tel: +44 (0)20 7095 8701, www.modernhomesworldwide.com
● Savills Hampstead, tel: +44 (0)20 7472 5000,
● Midcentury Modern design show, www.modernshows.com
● Open House London, www.londonopenhouse.org