Blackheath's modernist masterpiece: inside the spectacular low-rise, eco-home built on a garden plot

Their landmark Georgian home was an empty nest, so Philip and Caroline Cooper decided to sell-up and keep a plot of land in their garden to build their dream home...

When architect Philip Cooper and his interior designer wife Caroline hired their son, Sam — also an architect — to build them a modernist-inspired house in south London, the brief was simply a list of their favourite modern houses worldwide.

Sam created The Pavilion, one of London’s most desirable modern homes. It’s stylish, glassy and glittering with sunlight, but also comfortable and thoughtful. And it meets such high eco-standards that its energy costs are half those of a much smaller house.

Today, the borough of Lewisham is justly proud of it. Yet had the council’s planners had their way in 2007-8, the house wouldn’t exist.

As housing ideas become more ingenious, back gardens come under scrutiny as possible sites. However, great care needs to be taken to maintain wildlife and water drainage. The Coopers, then in their fifties, had a 100-yard back garden that sloped steeply down to a road. But there was a problem.

Their house was a Grade II*-listed Georgian Chinoiserie pavilion with a stunning, curved “Chinese” roof embellished with copper horns, probably designed by William Chambers who designed both the Pagoda in Kew Gardens and Somerset House in the Strand, and was architecture tutor to George III. Extended in the 19th century, it was a revered local landmark.


The couple met in 1966, in Liverpool, as penniless students at Freshers Week. “He pushed straight past me to get to my best friend,” smiles Caroline, now with a successful career. Nevertheless, they got together in 1967 and, via rented flats, then a little house in Woolwich, in 1991 bought The Pagoda in Blackheath.

Run as a children’s home, it had been unused as a family house since the Second World War. The 6,000sq ft property needed work when the Coopers bought it from the council. With their three children, Sam, now 41, Jess, 35, and Will, 32, they did it up and loved it.

A tale of two eras: sitting in what was the back garden of the Georgian Pagoda, The Pavilion, designed by the Coopers’ architect son, Sam, makes a fabulous contrast (Alex James)

But by 2007, says Caroline, “the children had gone, it was too big, we’d always wanted a modern house, so it was now or never.”

They were determined to stay in Blackheath, but couldn’t find a plot. Then one day, architect Chris Wilkinson visited. “But you’ve got a plot,” he said, pointing at the garden.

Two years of negotiations followed, as they tried to persuade planners to let them build. Philip had set up Portland Homes, a niche developer, in 1983 and is a planning wizard. He knew that all access during and after the build would have to be from the lower road.

The Highways Agency told him that if the couple funded extra parking spaces, it wouldn’t obstruct an application. Having done that, it took a further six months to get permission to remove an old, diseased horse chestnut tree from the middle of the site.

Philip then asked Sam, who by then was running his own architecture practice, to design their new house. “I wanted to give him the greatest architectural gift I could.”

Home’s heart: the Coopers' modern home in the shadow of 18th-century architect William Chambers' Chinese-style horned roof (Alex James)

Sam’s high-spec butterfly-plan design uses the steep site brilliantly. The ground floor is tucked into the slope against a thick concrete retaining wall, with access via a sunny south-facing courtyard. It has three bedrooms and several bathrooms, each with a strong colour-scheme: “I use loads of colour,” says Caroline.

Above, via glass-sided stairs, is the open-plan living space, with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that lead out to the stylish garden. There’s a snug at one end, all deep grey and vibrant reds, and at the other end, the sensational master bedroom has purple polished plaster walls that run right into the shower, and an egg bath.

At the heart of this dazzling living space, the bespoke kitchen island is Corian with a concrete slab cast slantwise on top. “The builder practised casting by making his dog a bath,” says Philip. Two amazing double “cupboards” slide open to show bright yellow washing-up and food-preparation areas, one with a window. After use they tuck away behind sleek, white doors. Fabulous.

There’s also space to put in a lift, should the couple ever need one. On the eco-front, Sam left no stone unturned. There’s rainwater harvesting, sedum roofs, a heat-exchange unit, super-thick insulated walls and laminated windows. One clever trick among many is that the ceramic floor slabs in the kitchen continue outside, but ungrouted, so that rain drains into the harvesting tank below.

A shoo-in with the planners, you might think. But no, for even though English Heritage and The Georgian Group supported the proposal, there were scores of objections and the planners rejected it. The couple appealed and were turned down.

A new council was elected, so they resubmitted their plan, only for it to be rejected again. Undaunted, they appealed a second time and at that hearing, the inspector was an architect.

A main objection was that the new house would obscure Chambers’ masterpiece, but when the inspector noted that tall Leylandii were already in the way and the view would in fact be improved, permission was granted.

That was a long haul, but building took longer. The first builder didn’t work out, meaning extra costs and delay.

Having begun in autumn 2011, work ended at the end of June 2014. To add insult to injury, no one wanted to buy the old house while there was a building site down the garden. But at last the old place sold, and the Coopers moved into their modernist dream home.

“We had lived and breathed it for so long that it was exactly how we imagined it,” says Caroline. Would they do it all again? At this, Philip gets a gleam in his eye — though it could be just a trick of the light.

What it cost

The Pagoda: sold for £3 million (minus the building plot)

Cost of building The Pavilion: £1.6 million

Value of The Pavilion now: an estimated £4.5 million

Get the look

Photographs: David Butler and Alex James

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