Out and About in London

Highpoint, Highgate

DOMENIC COLE discovers an extensive but resolutely old-fashioned Clarence Elliott garden in a modernist setting in Highgate

Two blocks of flats in North Road, Highgate, sit on the Highgate Ridge at one of the highest points in north London. They command stunning views across the city and are considered a highly desirable address.

The architect, Bertholid Lubetkin, chose to build six storeys in a setting that was virtually rural. Rather than conform to a maximum of three storeys to fit in with the adjacent brick-and-slate houses, Highpoint makes a truly bold modernist statement.

The buildings appear simple but there are some brilliant devices that elevate them to genius status. Arrival and progression, the transfer from outside to inside, is handled with elegance and wit. The cantilevered concrete canopies, pillars and arrangement of the front doors suggest the raciness of an imagined trip on the Corniche. The detailing conjures up the glamour that we might have seen in Hollywood movie sets but never imagined to see in a grey and rain-drenched London.

Lubetkin appears to have had a clear understanding of budget and the need to keep to sensible proposals - the 'expensive detailing' is mostly in the public and shared parts - otherwise he relied on his skill in handling spaces and the 'new' material, concrete, to create apartments of great elegance.

Sleek and Chic

Highpoint One was built in 1933-1935 and Highpoint Two in 1936-1938. Arrival is best by car to achieve the full sense of how Lubetkin conceived the arrival sequence - preferably a sleek vintage Bentley with a running board. The driveways are one car width and very much part of the approach. Surfacing and kerbs are concrete that has been extruded, moulded and exposed so that we see its versatility.

The caryatids at Highpoint
The caryatids at Highpoint are decorative rather than structural features at Highpoint

It is said that the Caryatids on Highpoint Two were added to the design by Lubetkin although they are not necessary structurally, since the cantilevers are self-supporting; however, the planners were unconvinced that the whole edifice would not collapse. In a witty response, Lubetkin added two Caryatids but did not actually attach the canopy to them, i.e. when first installed there was a nearly invisible gap between the two.

The gardens are extensive. The road frontage retains some trees from an earlier house, The Cedars, including cedars, holm oak and lime. Otherwise it is strictly modern with Lubetkin pared-down details.

To the rear the gardens spread out on a downward slope overlooked by the flats, the tea room and sun terrace and, originally, a rooftop promenade stepping down the garages that border one side of the site.

Traditional Elements

The actual gardens, in total contrast, are resolutely old-fashioned and contain features that would have been found in any large suburban garden up and down the country - a pergola with roses, stepped rockeries in brown sandstone and planted borders. The gardens were designed by Clarence Elliott, who founded Six Hills Nursery at Stevenage in 1907. (Six Hills being named after six ancient burial mounds.)

Elliott had trained with Rivers of Sawbridgeworth and Backhouse of York. He made plant collecting trips to Corsica and the Falkland Islands which he found to be "a little further away than 1 had imagined".

Other plant-collecting journeys were made to gardens in the English countryside that had become derelict as a result of the loss of labour to the First World War. Gardens were becoming smaller and the professional folk, who were interested amateur gardeners, often combined law or medicine with rock-climbing. Elliott was a founder Member of the Alpine Garden Society and competed professionally with Will Ingwersen.

The garden layout at Highpoint is competent but it is as though a line was drawn between the garden and buildings - neither acknowledging the other. It is odd that Lubetkin did not make contact with nearly the only landscape architect who was expressly interested in modernism - Christopher Tunnard. Tunnard became disillusioned with the UK's lack of interest and emigrated to the United States of America in 1939.