If you like mid-century architecture, chances are that at some point you’ll have found yourself idly browsing (if not virtually stalking) the properties sold by The Modern House. As the business celebrates its tenth anniversary, we spoke to Albert Hill, co-owner and founder, to find out more about what the last decade has taught them about modern British architecture.
High & Over, Buckinghamshire. Photograph courtesy of The Modern House
How did the idea for The Modern House come about?
I was working as a journalist writing about architecture and design. I was sent to the US by Wallpaper* magazine to do a case study on what they call a realtor (i.e. an estate agent) that specialised in great Modern houses in Sarasota, Florida. I had always wanted to start my own business and this seemed a model that could work in the UK. I saw it as a good opportunity to still be involved with architecture and design, but also do something a little more commercial than journalism.
There was also just the frustration of seeing some fantastic properties being so badly misrepresented by the generic agents that I wanted to do something about it. In a way, I wanted to raise awareness amongst buyers of these gems that were out there. I also wanted to prove that there was a market for good Modern British architecture in an industry that is obsessed with so-called ‘period property’. To some extent that has now been done and we are beginning to see both small and large scale developers building new and interesting houses designed by great architects rather than just going for lowest common denominator mock-traditional designs.
I’ve always collected old architecture books from the 1930s to the present day and I set about the very enjoyable task of scouring these books and various online sources to compile what is a continually growing database of the good Modern houses and apartment blocks in the UK.
Laslett House, Cambridge. Photograph courtesy of The Modern House
How does Britain’s modern heritage differ from what might be expected?
When we started, people always said to us that the UK didn’t have enough good Modern residential architecture to sustain the business but this hasn’t been the case at all. Just today, for instance, I have been to the historic village of Jordans in Buckinghamshire, which is well known as the centre of Quakerism and the home of the Mayflower Barn, a building supposedly made of the timbers from the famous ship of the same name. But among all this historicism there are a number of houses in the village by a great, but little known, architect called Gresham Dodd built in the 1950s and ’60s.
Do you think you’ve helped raise awareness of domestic modern British architecture?
We hope so. Our website reached 1 million annual visits for the first time in 2014, and the audience continues to grow by more than 20% a year so there is clearly a growing interest in this area. The thing is that, compared to say the US or Australia, the UK’s history of architecture stretches back so far and is so rich that it has taken a while for us in this country to recognise our Modern heritage.
We have now started to do work with new-build developers, largely due to the fact that thankfully (some of!) these developers have really woken up to the fact that great design means they can produce developments that they can be proud of, get good value out of and create a great legacy with. We also have widened our parameters to embrace properties that embody a Modern way of living but might not be by a named architect.
Farnley Hey, West Yorkshire. Photograph courtesy of The Modern House
What do you love best about running The Modern House?
Getting to deal with some of the most interesting and inventive architecture of the past century on daily basis is great. Also, our clients tend to also be equally interesting people so it is a pleasure to deal with them. Usually the things we are selling are people’s primary asset and they are understandably very emotionally attached to them. It is a real privilege for me and our team to be entrusted with handling such a precious part of their lives!
What is slightly frustrating in a commercial sense, but at the same time pleasing, for us is that people who buy properties through us tend to love them and live in them for years and so we don’t get as many re-sales as we would like!
Barbican Estate, London EC2. Photograph courtesy of The Modern House
Have you noticed any trends over the last ten years?
We are certainly seeing a less sceptical attitude towards Modern architecture – what was once labelled as just wacky is now gaining wider scale appreciation. Whereas once our buyers tended to come almost exclusively from the creative industries, we are now dealing with people in all walks of life. At the moment we are seeing a real interest in Brutalism, which was not so apparent ten years ago when people were more into the ’50s style of architecture. People are still suspicious of ‘80s stuff but I’m sure its time will come!
You’ve put together a book marking your ten years – how did that come about?
We were just aware that we were sitting on a great archive of images, so thought it would be good to produce a book. Since both Matt and my backgrounds are in magazines it also seemed a natural thing to do. We tried to leave in all the places that looked good and had an interesting story. We also tried to express the diversity of design that we come across.
Stratton Park, Hampshire. Photograph courtesy of The Modern House
What are your favourite properties in your book?
My favourite photo is the one of the Augustus John studio. The picture was taken in the ’30s on film and there is a really beautiful tonal quality to the picture of what is a beautiful house designed by Christopher Nicholson, the younger brother of the artist Ben. The picture of the glass structure by Stephen Gardiner beside the classical structure is really great too (look out for the little parrot as well!)
What would be your dream property, either to live in or to sell?
I’ve actually dealt with two of my dream properties already! The only Marcel Breuer house in the UK, Sea Lane House, and the house that Richard Rogers designed for his parents. If you told me a decade ago that we would have handled either of these, I would have been thrilled. In terms of anything else, there is an early Future Systems house in Islington that I’ve always liked (and whilst we’re on that subject there is Project 222 in Wales as well). I have a soft spot for postmodernism as well so the Charles Jencks house in west London would be fascinating.
Doctor Rogers’ House, London SW19. Photograph courtesy of The Modern House
Where do you like looking for property inspiration?
As well as old copies of architecture magazines such as the AJ and vintage books such as An Anthology of Houses by Monica Pidgeon and Theo Crosby. I also like reading the architectural review and AA files as I like to see what’s going on in the world of architecture right now. Something Concrete and Modern and Pink Frequency are inspiring blogs.
Look at some of the current properties available at The Modern House
See inside one of the properties sold by The Modern House, Leslie Gooday’s Long Wall
Pick up a copy of The Modern House book at the RIBA bookshop
Discover more stunning mid-century properties in our architecture archives