Apartment Living: Born-again Bloomsbury
David Robinson bought a shabby ex-council flat next to the British Museum. Now it's a minimalist masterpiece.
Saturday 26 September 1998
Of course, there are urban pockets where mansion flats exist, catering to a dwindling demographic of dowagers and poodles. There are lofts, which don't amount to much nationally. Then there is the world of social housing and council flats, some attractive but often held in such low esteem that it can be difficult to get a mortgage. Indeed, it could well be residual snobbery towards the "council flat" that is responsible for the British antipathy towards apartment living, which is valued far higher on the continent.
As an Australian who is now resident in the UK, David Robinson will have grown up without such negative attitudes, although before he bought his ex-council flat in Bloomsbury he had looked in Chelsea for conversions. "I was looking for a large one-bedroom flat, but finding a conversion that gave me everything I wanted was difficult." Since finding his home he has become an advocate of the dedicated flat. "Houses can be too much work," he says. "Flats are lower maintenance."
Therefore, when Robinson came across this flat in a beaux-arts mansion block in Bloomsbury - 1893 vintage with a delightful frontage of polychromatic brickwork, carved bosses, and window boxes - it made sense, particularly as he is already the happy owner of an original art deco flat in Sydney. Much excitement stemmed from its location, facing the British Museum. It is also an area of high tourist traffic: an open- topped tourist bus drives by each day and Robinson always hears the same refrain tailing away - "In 1872, the museum ... " But as the tourist curfew starts at 5pm, he is not unduly bothered.
Most of the building is owned by Camden Council, but Robinson bought his flat from a right-to-buy tenant in 1996. It wasn't a bargain, though - "more than I wanted to pay". But the location was central, and as the new head of marketing for ITN, he can walk to the office in nearby Clerkenwell. He doesn't own, or need, a car.
Robinson has enjoyed discovering his new home area. "I didn't know a lot about Bloomsbury but it's such an interesting area with a wonderful mix of architecture." He has been surprised at how many residents there are, even in this central zone. And he is delighted that he is so close to the British Museum, which he views a room at a time.
Since January he has converted from a four- to a two-bedroom flat. "It was very plain and slightly rundown," he says, although he was happy to live in it until he got the design work done. This was executed by Robinson's friend, Peter Leonard, a designer known for restaurants such as Scotts in Mayfair, and who specialises in a warm, neo-classical style. "I had to spend a bit more than I thought, but the investment has been worthwhile," he says.
Nevertheless, Robinson has been careful "not to over-capitalise. I didn't have masses to spend." Nor did he want to spend more than the flat's potential worth. He consequently put in kitchen units from IKEA, and tailored them with granite tops and more expensive handles. The floor tiles were bought in a sale, as were the big marble slabs in the bathroom.
Not all fixtures and fittings could be kept cheap. The oak parquet floor, as it was built in individual pieces, was another necessary expense. And power showers were essential - "Australians like their showers hot and strong." But he seems reasonably happy with the balance sheet, and the flat is certainly covetable. "I am always being asked if there are any others for sale."
Robinson's tastes "incline to the minimalist". Pendant lights have been replaced with inset halogens; the paint throughout the flat is graduated shades of what he calls "mushroom", and hefty "Parliament" hinges have been put on the doors, enabling them to be folded right back, preserving the wall plane. Splashes of colour are provided by paintings and flowers, and there is one aubergine wall in the kitchen. The effect is peaceful rather than severe. "I find it a very calming place," he says.
The main living space consists of the old living room knocked through into one of the previous bedrooms. Touches of late Victorian eclecticism remain from the original building: a cast-iron Adam-style fireplace, an oval moulding on the ceiling and the room's most compelling feature: a small sentry-like bay window. "Visitors always go straight for it, look out at the view of the British Museum opposite and go `wow'," he says.
There are other delights of flat-life, such as the view on to the light- well beyond the frosted rear windows, which recalls those secretive urban spaces that lurk behind Parisian apartments. The communal parts were once elegant, with flunkies and open fires, but sadly have been "improved" in a fireproofing effort. But even the municipal veneer, complete with council-issue silver bullet lift, cannot disguise the block's elegance. As such, it is tempting to call it an apartment because, in this instance, the word "flat" sounds far too, well, flat
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