Flexible Furniture Makes Room for One More in This London Landmark

Kate Reggev

London, storied city of history, culture, and fashion, is also home to one of the most celebrated Brutalist buildings: the Barbican Estate, a housing complex in central London completed between the 1960s and the 1970s. With concrete towers and elevated gardens, the buildings were celebrated as a utopian vision for city life—and have continued to function that way for one growing family that was in search of a way to remain in their one-bedroom apartment with a young child.

One of the largest examples of Brutalist architecture, the Barbican Estate was designed by the architecture firm of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, and completed between 1965 and 1976.

With that idea in mind, flat owners Joe and Jennifer Reeves sought out London-based Studio Ben Allen to eke out extra space from within the existing square footage of the apartment. The brief, says Ben Allen, outlined three main asks: a space for a child’s bedroom, a workspace to enable working from home, and additional storage space.

The flexible furniture makes the space easily adaptable for the family of three.

If that sounds ambitious, add to the program the client’s request that the intervention “relate to the architecture of the Barbican,” adds Ben, noting that the complex is a Grade II Listed building, meaning that the building is a protected structure that cannot be demolished or altered without special permission from the local planning authority.

Architect Ben Allen explains that “key features such as the desk, bed, and seat are picked out with subdued primary colors.”

Ben’s solution? Taking the existing dining room and converting it into a multiuse space. He goes even further, doing this by way of a single, visually unified aesthetic through the construction of an all-in-one structure installed along two walls to create an L-shape with distinct uses: a storage unit, workspace, seating, dividing partition, and sleeping area. What’s more, Ben designed the piece so that it has minimal impact on the Listed structure and could be easily disassembled.

The oversized unit houses a drop-down desk, home office storage, a child’s desk, a seating area, a bed, and a living room storage unit through a series of fold-down and convertible or operable elements. Indeed, to support so many different uses, Ben points out that his design was “intended to provide a high degree of flexibility,” or what he describes as “playful adaptability.”

The unit acts as storage and as a wall partition, with a sliding door that is the only element that directly touches the Grade II Listed building’s exterior.

To do so, he relies on the idea of nonsimultaneous use: that the client’s child cannot sleep and sit at the desk at the same time. For example, some components like the desk fold away when not in use; others, like the lower steps for the bunk bed, ingeniously retract to provide a small children’s desk.

Because many elements are freestanding, Ben points out, “the upholstered seat can be positioned under the bed or elsewhere in the room, freeing up the space under the bed for play and to access the additional storage located there.”
The retractable stairs create additional storage space underneath, and act as steps to reach the lofted child’s bed.

The arches and inverted arches of the desk niche and bed harken back to the vaulted arches that crest the roof of the lower portions of the Barbican complex, while the estate’s connected circular pools, sunken gardens, and integrated seating provided the inspiration for details in the apartment like the form of the door and cabinet handles.

The arched rooftops of the complex’s so-called terrace blocks, or lower buildings, served as the recurring theme for the arched openings and niches.

Although the entire unit was installed on-site in just two days, the materials were selected because of their robust and functional nature: painted plywood in toned-down primary colors that strike the right balance between sophisticated and lively, wood fiberboard, and brass.

The custom cabinetry features handles that were routed out and inspired by the shapes of seating in the sunken gardens found throughout the Barbican. The design team, who also included Marco Nicastro and Massine Yalaoui, worked with Top Notch Joinery to fabricate the dream unit.

The result is a dynamic piece of furniture that thoughtfully invigorates the whole apartment—even without physically expanding its footprint.

The movable furniture can be pulled out into the bedroom, which is partitioned off from the living area by a sliding door. Talk about ingenious.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest