Sale of the unexpected

There was outrage when John Pawson first introduced minimalism to Notting Hill but, as Cheryl Markosky reports, his detractors are a dwindling band
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The Independent Online

You probably would not expect the esteemed minimalist John Pawson, best known for rigorous and austere architecture, to get into bed with a property developer. For someone used to exploring the barest fundamentals - space, light and materials - it is hard to imagine him on the same planet as those guys who, after all, are out to sell houses and make a tidy profit.

You probably would not expect the esteemed minimalist John Pawson, best known for rigorous and austere architecture, to get into bed with a property developer. For someone used to exploring the barest fundamentals - space, light and materials - it is hard to imagine him on the same planet as those guys who, after all, are out to sell houses and make a tidy profit.

But then Octagon is no ordinary developer. Responsible for the likes of grand new mansions in St George's Hill, Surrey, a recent conversion of a Nash Terrace in London's Regents Park and a new block in Bryanston Square, it seems fitting that Pawson would choose to work on his first residential project with this top end firm.

The scheme of five luxury apartments at 18 Lansdowne Crescent in trendy Notting Hill - which start at £2.35 million and go up to £3.25 million for the penthouse - has slid seamlessly into what used to be a 1950s block for married police officers on the corner of pretty curved Lansdowne Crescent and grittier Ladbroke Grove. But this has not been an easy ride.

First, the locals - a scary mix of the great and the good - complained bitterly about Pawson's minimalist ideas, although he's a local too, living only a couple of streets away from the project. "I didn't want to do a pastiche - a stuccoed Georgian or Victorian building - and could find little historical evidence of what would have been there," says Pawson. "So I thought a modern bookend made from beautiful and expensive materials that would fit in and not shout would work well." Pawson has designed a clean-lined five-storey building fashioned in Portland stone, with six-metre-high floor-to-ceiling windows across one whole wall of roomy reception rooms in five lateral apartments that each occupies an entire floor, where you can see the reflection of "those gingerbread things" from across the street.

The good news is that there are fewer detractors now that the building has gone up. "I got a lot of stick about producing something modern, but several people have come up and said they like it," says Pawson. "I think things are changing and people can see that modern buildings can be sympathetic."

Let's hope that Pawson is right and that the neighbours are on side, because Octagon is aiming its marketing of its sumptuous three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments primarily at people nearby who happen to want to "down-shift". Employing Ashton Taylor Smith, a former theatrical set designer, George III rococo armchairs and Chippendale mahogany bureaux sit cheekily next to the latest faux-suede Italian sofas and leather-covered bar stools. There is even a mixed message plasma-screen TV with gilded frame. This way, the moneyed population downsizing from their £3m-£4m homes on the genteel crescents and communal gardens can see that Granny's old dining table, the grand piano and four-poster bed will fit happily into Pawson's outré cutting-edge plan.

"There is an absolute lack of anything similar in the area," points out Jonathan Wyatt from Octagon. "Large lateral apartments are very rare." As well as gaining what Pawson describes as "five terraced houses done the other way up", the new owners will have the best pads on the block. Here are five-figure Boffi kitchens with basalt worktops and the obligatory Miele coffee machines; a plate warmer drawer (the modern take on the hostess trolley); 2.2m wenge oversize doors; shadow gap details instead of period cornicing illuminated by Lutron lighting and under-floor heating in the apartments and communal areas.

Already, the owner of a record company has approached Octagon, wanting to buy the penthouse to use as his office. But Wyatt says they said no - "we want the building to remain residential." It is easy to see why someone would want to use this top-of-the-world contemporary area as a work space, with its great cityscapes from the terraces of Goldfinger's infamous Trellick Tower, Wembley, Harrow-on-the-Hill and even the Norman Foster's newly designed "Gherkin" on a clear day. The penthouse also has a glass and steel staircase that looks like a Brancusi sculpture from the latest show at the Tate Modern.

But the prices aren't insignificant. Even if you are lucky enough to be a local resident selling up your £3 million family home to shift down into an apartment costing around £2.5 million, there isn't much left over. And for younger professionals wanting to move into the area, you do need to have had rather a lot of rather large bonuses accrue or to have an inheritance from Granny.

Pawson feels that he has, of late, broadened his own horizons what with working on Marks & Spencer's first Lifestore in Gateshead. The high street retailer opened the first of its new chain of furniture stores just outside Newcastle, hoping to change the way its 10 million customers think about how they can deck out their homes. Now after his first successful foray into residential housing, perhaps Pawson will consider carrying on doing work for Octagon and other developers. "I do what I think is right and trust someone will like it. There is a lot of resistance in architecture. You can buy a BMW car and just drive off in it. But in architecture, there has to be so much trust," Pawson says.

The irony is that Pawson, who lives in a semi-detached Victorian house where he has opened up spaces as best he could within the confines of the building, would love to live at 18 Lansdowne Crescent but, like many of us, is constrained instead to living with his family in a more modest home where you have to run up and down stairs.

"I would like more lateral space," he admits, adding that his wife vets his designs. "She examines all the practicalities, asking how can she carry the shopping in, where does the laundry go and how do you put the rubbish out?"

Those who think minimalist architecture is all about whimsical aesthetics, rather than getting down to how you actually will manage to live in your home, might want to think again. Pawson, assisted by his wife and the rest of his design team, have come up with a scheme that is good to look at and good to live in. You can't ask for more than that.

Octagon Developments' 18 Lansdowne Crescent is for sale through FPDSavills (020-7535 3300; www.fpdsavills.co.uk)

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