Let the sun shine in

Architect Ivor Berresford was sold on minimalism long before it became trendy. As his home takes part in London Open House, he talks to Penny Jackson about staying true to the Sixties

Wednesday 17 September 2003 00:00 BST

All those people who are congratulating themselves on having been bold enough to remove doors and windows, replacing them with walls of glass that merge seamlessly with their gardens, should make a trip to Bromley in Kent this weekend. In leafy surroundings, they will find a house in a familiar mould with flanks of sliding doors, wooden decking and a simple, uncluttered interior, albeit with one crucial difference - it was built in 1958. This original of post-war modernism, virtually unchanged in 45 years, is one of the 500 buildings opening its doors to the public this weekend during London Open House in celebration of the capital's architecture.

In Bromley, the low-profile, flat-roofed, "glass box" was regarded as an oddity by its neighbours, unused to the idea of a living room on the first floor and the lack of ornament. Even stranger, it was open-plan with hard floors and natural finishes, and its furniture, all curves and spindly legs, seemed as outlandish as the building itself.

Ivor Berresford, the architect and owner still, was a newly married 27-year-old when he designed the house for the family he and his wife Nanette, a ceramicist, hoped to have. "American architects were the real inspiration to me, but while they had rich clients we had to struggle with a shortage of building materials. Our whole attitude was so different then too. When I took out a £2,500 mortgage we thought we would never be able to go on holiday again."

His timber-frame building on two storeys, cut into a sloping site, was quick to construct. The top part, which is clad in cedar wood, took "just a couple of days", recalls Berresford. "And it has never been touched since." His plans for an extensive use of timber were rescued by contacts in the business, but in common with most projects at this time, having to eke out the limited resources, the rooms were smaller than he would have liked. "It still had the same qualities that I admired - pure and disciplined - and in particular the relationship between inside and out. The garden is not plant-orientated, but natural, so that through the glass the trees appear almost like a wall of the house."

In the main entrance, with its black-tiled flooring and unplastered walls, an open-tread staircase with hardwood handrail rises past the garage on the left to the open-plan first floor. The house has all its original furnishings and is a gem of Sixties minimalism, from the taps and candlewick bedspreads to the paper globe lampshades.

The utilitarian furniture that the Berresfords chose as a wedding gift are the now-familiar designs of Eames and Robin Day. "I didn't want colour, just white paint and natural materials like the terrazzo floor. For a long time we didn't have curtains at all," he says. As a testament to its minimalist credentials, he recalls the occasion when a policeman turned up after a burglary and said, "My God, they've taken everything!"

Inevitably, a few changes have been made, including an extension. A few carpets crept in - pale grey - and a fireplace was removed. A purple ceiling appeared in the bathroom in the brief time one of the their daughters, herself an architect, owned the house before passing it back to her parents.

In a magazine article in the Sixties, the adaptability of the house was praised with its objective of "open-planning for the main living areas but at the same time sufficient privacy to keep everyone harmonious". The sliding doors divide the dining area, opening on to the deck as well as running down a complete wall of the main bedroom concealing all the storage space - a technique found in many a contemporary design.

Ivor Berresford, whose work includes the World Trade Centre in St Katharine's Dock and St George's Hospital, says that it was a chance remark from a friend of his father's that led him to build his own house. "I was going to buy a Span house in Blackheath but instead went looking for a plot. There were drawers full of every size and we paid £800 for a quarter of an acre." The house itself cost around £3,500 to build.

During the years in which Sixties architecture received a bad press, many of the houses have been changed out of all recognition. But like the listed house of the late architect Peter Moro, whose work includes the Royal Festival Hall, the Berresfords' home is clearly a design ahead of its time.

While technological advances would improve on such things as the underfloor heating - innovative at the time - and the lighting, the quality of the space and light and the way it works as a whole holds lessons for today.

Not only was it a one-off and, according to Ivor Berresford, "the first decent house he had done", but it could be said to mark the beginning of the social revolution of the Sixties. Less formal family life and entertaining were here to stay.

The Berresford house is open on Sunday from 10am-5pm. To pre-book, e-mail loh1@londonopenhouse.org. For details, visit www.londonopenhouse.org or call 09001 600 061 (premium line)

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