Homes with history: Six Pillars

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Time Out takes a look round Six Pillars, a modernist dream home hidden away in a quiet Sydenham street

  • Homes with history: Six Pillars

    The Six Pillars 30s styling

  • A stroll along Crescent Wood Road in Sydenham will take you past all the buildings you would expect to find lining a street in an opulent suburb: double-fronted Victorian detached houses, a smattering of 1950s family semis, smart period converted flats. Then, as you round a bend halfway along, you happen upon a building that is dramatic, arresting and totally different.

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    Rear terrace

    With a concrete white-painted exterior, a shape that’s a geometric concatenation of curves and rectangles, and its six eponymous supporting pillars that free the interior from restrictive internal walls, the Six Pillars house is one of the best examples of residential modernist architecture in London.

    Dramatic though Six Pillars is, it has an anonymous air about it. If it wasn’t located in the midst of suburbia, you could be forgiven for mistaking the Grade II * house for a warehouse, albeit an extremely elegant one.

    ‘People do often ask if it’s always been a house – but then they’re usually the sort of people who think it was built last year,’ comments owner and journalist Roger Trapp, 47, who lived here for seven years with his wife and three children.

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    The entrance with its eponymous pillars

    Standing on the front drive looking at the unobtrusive entrance slapped next to the garage doors, you can see their point. It’s as though you’ve arrived at the back door, not the front. But as Trapp points out, this is a house where all the action is at the rear.

    One of the first buildings to be built by Tecton, Berthold Lubetkin’s architectural practice , Six Pillars was commissioned in 1932 by Jack Leakey, headmaster of the nearby Dulwich College Preparatory School, and completed in 1934 for him and his wife.

    A Russian émigré, Lubetkin came to London in 1931. He was a passionate modernist and believed that architecture was a tool for social progress: well-designed homes could improve inhabitants’ outlook and quality of life. During the 1930s and ’40s Tecton (adapted from ‘architectron’ – the Greek word for architecture) worked on housing commissions and public works, including Lubetkin’s famous Penguin Pool at London Zoo.

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    Mezzanine balcony

    Though Lubetkin oversaw the plans, it was a young architect called Valentine Harding who designed much of the layout of Six Pillars. Between them they created a modernist dream home.

    The house’s true personality slides into view once inside. Standing in the double-height hallway in the centre of the house, the beauty of the architecture is most apparent. A mullioned window runs from ceiling to floor and saturates the house in light, while the landing that overlooks this references Le Corbusier with its ocean liner-like balcony. A spiral staircase leading up to it and a second floor beyond completes the glamour.

    The asymmetric proportions of the living room, built with a concave wall, add quirkiness. The minimalism of the room, evident in the simple polished wood fireplace and pale parquet flooring, suits the Trapps’ 1930s Alvar Aalto furniture. ‘We didn’t want to fill the house with heavy furniture,’ says Trapp. Left of centre, a seventh pillar supports the ceiling. ‘I think it was an architectural joke,’ says Trapp, ‘based on the seven pillars of learning.’

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