Hampstead is extraordinarily rich in architectural experience, a place that began as a village and has been added to and transformed over many generations. It gives the area an appealingly non-uniform appearance, with a wide range of architectural styles and volumes rubbing up against one another.
Hampstead also has a rich history of residents from a wide variety of creative industries including music, art, and literature. Because of this strong and longstanding link with creative people, it’s little surprise that Hampstead is an absolute delight for fans of architecture.
Having lived in nearby Islington for two decades, I am well acquainted with the rolling hills, twisting streets, and architectural highlights of Hampstead. There are few better days to be out in the whole of London than spending a day here. Here is my guide to Hampstead, from an architect’s perspective.
Technically, this sprawling park has little to do with architecture. However, any guide to Hampstead feels incomplete without mentioning it. It is a little piece of the countryside transported to the middle of the city. The Heath really is at the heart of it all; indeed, many of the area’s most expensive properties back onto the park, such is the desire of residents to be as close to it as possible.
Recently, my practice Dominic McKenzie Architects, was enlisted to renovate and restore Hampstead House, a Victorian townhouse in the area. The brief asked us to restore the house to its former glory while adding a more contemporary dimension to it via 1950s Scandinavian design. This is a great example of what makes Hampstead as brilliant as it is; a wonderful blend of new and old. You can find out more about that project here.
Speaking of the New, (as in ‘The Shock of the New’), any architectural guide to Hampstead would be incomplete without a mention of Hopkins House, a house the architect Michael Hopkins built for himself in the late 1970s. This ultramodern glass and steel design really stands out architecturally among the much older houses of Hampstead, whilst in fact being incredibly modest and hidden in the streetscape. It is the best example of Hi-tech architecture in this incredibly historic part of North London. The house has been there for almost five decades and still looks modern and futuristic to this very day.
78 South Hill Park
This intricate piece of Brutalist architecture is another fascinating example of modern design among the typically conservative architecture in the area. The story goes that architect Brian Housen was working on the plans for a house near Hampstead Heath, but was too afraid to show them to a fellow architect as he feared they weren’t bold enough. His reaction was to tear up his old blueprints and start afresh. In the process, he designed one of North London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture, a structure that was built in the 1960s and still sets itself apart to this day.
This dignified detached house at the top of the hill was built by a merchant in the 17th Century before being passed down for generations and eventually handed to the National Trust in the 1950s. A fine example of Georgian architecture, the house is well worth the admission fee alone, however, perhaps the most interesting feature is the garden which is one of the nicest in London, and surprisingly large given its central Hampstead location.
The history of this house is interesting enough in and of itself, but it is perhaps best well known for its influence on the literary world. Local author P.L. Travers is said to have been inspired by the house, and it formed the basis of the house of Admiral Boom in the novel Mary Poppins. However, the real life history of Admiral’s House is every bit as colourful as fiction. It was supposedly bought by a retired admiral in 1775 who added a quarterdeck on the roof. He was also said to mark British naval victories by firing a cannon off the roof of the house until his death in 1801.
This apartment block – a stunning example of Bauhaus design – has a long and rich history of creative people living in it since it opened in the 1930s. Perhaps its most famous resident was crime author Agatha Christie, and the building quickly became a well-known hub of intellectualism in North London. Fascinatingly, during this time members of the Cambridge Spy Ring also lived in the building, a group of Cambridge educated Marxists who acted as spies for the Soviet Union.
Hampstead Garden suburb
In the early 1900s, plans were unveiled for a new prototype garden city in North London. The creators wanted it to be spacious, with low housing density, wide roads, and a high density of trees. In 2021, plans for such a development in Hampstead would be laughed at before being promptly thrown in the bin by council planning authorities. But in 1906 the plans went ahead, and the result is Hampstead Garden suburb, an extraordinary place, with a truly surreal central square that features two Lutyens churches in different styles facing one another.
Poetry fans should make a beeline for Keats House, the former home of renowned Poet John Keats. He supposedly enjoyed his most productive years here, during which time he wrote the famous ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. This charming white house is a Grade I listed building.
Designed by Erno Goldfinger, the architect of the famous Brutalist tower block Trellick Tower in West London, Goldfinger House courted controversy when it was acquired by the National Trust in the 1990s. It was one of the first Modernist buildings in the organisation’s portfolio, and caused offense among purists. Goldfinger built the houses for himself at the start of his career in the 1930s, and they remain there to this day. A fun fact for James Bond fans too, Ian Fleming is said to have drawn inspiration for the dastardly villain Goldfinger from the Hungarian architect of the same name.
Dominic McKenzie is an award-winning, high-end architect in Islington. His designs are contemporary and concept-led, but are always sensitive to the architectural context in which they are constructed. He has worked on projects throughout the UK, including the Stirling Prize- winning ‘Accordia’ project in Cambridge.