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Neighbour from Hell. For 40 years, Valerie Grove has lived opposite a modernist horror – and now it’s spawned an extension

Blog | By Valerie Grove | Jul 10, 2023

Mr Collins was a Victorian spec builder, responsible for thousands of redbrick villas in north London’s Metroland. One of them, since 1981, is ours.

The Mr Pooters of the 1890s were proud of their vernacular features: lofty, corniced ceilings, pillared porticos, stained glass, marble fireplaces, Puginesque tiled floors.

Having a large family, we needed the space. After stripping the hall wallpaper, we found the pencilled draft of a notice: ‘This House can be completed in 10 days. Decorations to suit Owner or Tenant. Apply J Collins, Athenaeum Court, Muswell Hill, N.’

We chose our Cole & Son wallpapers according to the precise date: 1896.

Sadly, no such respect had been accorded the detached houses that had stood across the road until 1969. They had been replaced – pre-‘conservation area’ label – by a high-rise block, Eleanor Rathbone House: flats for 62 elderly Jewish refugees.

Miss Eleanor Rathbone, Independent Labour MP from Liverpool, championed Holocaust survivors. In her name, this chimney-like, monolithic, flat-roofed tower of pre-cast concrete panels had risen while residents watched aghast. Storey piled on storey: 12 in all, obliterating sunlight.

Visitors to our house would say, ‘Nice house – ghastly building opposite!’

Then, one day in 1987, I heard that its architect was still alive: Walter H Marmorek, aged 75, from Vienna. He agreed to an interview for my Sunday Times column – àpropos the Prince of Wales’s ‘monstrous carbuncle’ views.

He was absolutely charming and so was his historic office in Gray’s Inn Square, its date etched in stone on the lintel over his door: 1667. But above his desk was a framed image of his monstrosity, photographed from the south: pristine white, gleaming in sun, amidst trees. Nothing like our rear vision of its damp-stained, grey concrete lift shaft, a blot on our landscape, visible for miles.

Dr Marmorek had never been back to see his handiwork.

‘This was how we built in 1969,’ he shrugged. ‘High, and economically.’ It came in within budget (£270, 487).

‘Did it please you as much as the 17th-century buildings around you now?’ I asked.

He laughed and said that was a leading question. He even said, ‘Architects have a disadvantage, compared with doctors. We cannot bury our mistakes.’

Quite. Reinforced concrete and galvanised steel in inappropriate places can’t be forgiven, like a passing, ugly fashion: they are unavoidably visible, for all time. Architects’ names should be prominently displayed on every building. ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice,’ says Christopher Wren’s epitaph (‘If you seek a monument, look around you’).

Today, we ask desperately, ‘Quis fecit?’ – ‘Who did it?’

Dr Marmorek sent me a Christmas card every year thereafter. The first residents of his building have all gone, as has he – aged 100, in 2013. He was childless but his legacy lingers.

Last year, the current owners, a property firm, started rebuilding the low-rise annexe to his original tower. Our objections to their planning application were fruitless. In came the bulldozers, diggers, scaffolders and flapping plastic sheets – a year of noise and disruption.

Two storeys are now five. So we watch as another featureless slab blights our life and blocks our view.

I hear the writer Robert Byron’s words: ‘Of all the arts, architecture is the nearest to the most people, affects their happiness most closely, obtrudes on their sight most often…’