Eye Of The Beholder

A British Architect Shares The Same Aesthetic For Design As His Famous Grandfather
Greg Blee, founding partner of Blee Halligan architecture firm.
Greg Blee
Architect, Co-Founder, Blee Halligan

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as the old adage goes, and the saying couldn't ring more true for architect, Greg Blee. Where others see a building ready for the wrecking ball, Blee looks beyond a rundown façade and finds the beauty hidden within. And the more complex the project, the better.

When Blee’s parents bought a rustic cabin originally built in 1822 in the French countryside, the third-generation architect spent 30 years turning the home into an eco-friendly cottage, creating a modern wonder offsite in his London studio, then transporting his materials, piece-by-piece, to France via the Chunnel in a Renault van.

On another occasion, when tasked with the overhaul of a couple's dated South Wales starter home for the British television series, Ugly House To Lovely House, he transformed the property into a 21st-century showplace, filled with natural light that streamed inside through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Blee turned a couple's outdated dwelling in South Wales into a modern dream home in the television series, Ugly House To Lovely House. Photo by Lee Halligan.
Architectural Ancestry
History Runs Deep

It is perhaps no surprise that Blee has such a gift for architecture: it’s in his blood. His grandfather was Sir Basil Spence, an architectural genius celebrated for his modernist style, and best known for his work rebuilding the Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during a World War II air raid.

Like his grandfather, Blee knows how to distill a project down to its fundamental essence. When drafting a new design, the London-based architect first digs in to discover the best aspects of the existing structure, and works from there to enhance the original charm of the canvas in front of him.

Greg Blee walking near his East London studio.
Design In Detail
Evolving The Landscape

When Blee's firm, Blee Halligan Architects, of which he is a co-founder, was faced with building a house on a rocky outcrop on an island in the British West Indies, his approach was immediately integrative. The villa would be designed in such a way that it would live in harmony among the mountainous, rocky terrain characterizing its surroundings. The challenge was in the detail, creating a building so seamlessly united with its environment that it would be impossible to discern where the cave-like retreat ended and the landscape began.

For Blee, inspiration is everywhere, from the bucolic French countryside, to the city streets of East London.
Joy In Discovery
Leaving An Imprint

The excitement Greg Blee’s process lies in the sense of discovery each project necessitates, whether it's finding the distinct quality of a building that had long been overlooked, or realizing the potential in a plot of barren land. Whatever the outcome, Blee has an elemental rule of thumb that guides all of his projects: that his imprint should serve only to enhance each landscape's original beauty.

Local Recommendations

Scouting London With Greg Blee

When Greg Blee isn’t working, he’s navigating his own glamorous backyard—the city of London. He challenges people to look beyond the beautiful landscapes, shiny attractions and popular hot spots, and appreciate a different side of the city.

French Twist

A Parisian Brasserie Impresses With Alsatian Flair

Bellanger, (9 Islington Green, Islington; +44-20-7226-2555), from London culinary giants Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, is full of old-fashioned charm. The interior looks as if it was plucked out of turn-of-the-century Paris, with wood paneling, brass design details and mirrors placed everywhere. Light fixtures evoke a stunning art nouveau aesthetic.

The menu focuses on eastern French flavors with house specialties like sweet and savory tartes flambées—delicious with a glass of Crémant d’Alsace—and hearty Alsatian choucroute.

Drinks are served in green-stemmed glasses, which adds to Bellanger’s vintage charm, and are part of the attention to minute detail that has made Corbin and King establishments throughout the city so legendary.

Strangely True

An Offbeat Museum Offers Visitors A Dose Of Local History

Tucked into the attic of St. Thomas' Church, a 300-year-old herb garret houses the oldest surviving operating theater in Europe, which dates back to 1822. The Old Operating Theatre Museum (9a St. Thomas St., Southwark; +44-20-7188-2679), gives visitors a look at the outlandish medical practices of the past, before the advent of modern medicine. It wasn't until 1956 when historian Raymond Russell was researching St. Thomas' Hospital and investigated an opening in the attic, that the space was discovered, restored and reopened to the public as a museum in 1962. Part of the macabre draw? A weekly demonstration, staged on an old wooden table, and using original instruments, recreates a 19th-century operating theater, where students would sit in observation stands and witness surgical procedures being performed without anesthetics or antiseptics. Not for the faint of heart.

Drink Up

A Truly British Pub South Of The River

It's one of Greg Blee's dreams to refurbish a pub, and in South London’s Camberwell neighborhood, there are opportunities aplenty. The Camberwell Arms (65 Camberwell Church St.; +44-20-7358- 4364) is the latest addition to the area.

It’s a cozy, welcoming neighborhood spot, with chandeliers and sconce lighting adding a warm glow to the modern gastropub interiors. The menu is hearty and adventurous, as in the spit-roast chicken, chopped rabbit, and barbecued partridge dishes, and there is an ever-changing roster of ales on tap for those looking to explore new suds.

Upstairs, the space is more serene, with an after-dinner digestif list, craft beers, cocktails, and a selection of organic and biodynamic wines, perfect for cozying up on the couch in front of the fireplace.

Hidden Gem

Xinjiang Cuisine At Silk Road Is As Rustic As It Is Enticing

Sometimes it’s the simplest places that are most worth the visit. And so it goes for Silk Road (49 Camberwell Church St., Camberwell; +44-20-7703-4832), a hidden gem specializing in the flavors of northwest China’s Xinjiang province, that has become a go-to for the neighborhood art students and local hipsters. On the menu? An abundance of lamb dishes typical of the Uighur kitchens in Xinjiang, and street food specialties like fried pork dumplings made in-house all the day, and cumin-spiced lamb skewers with a healthy dose of chilis.

Blee recommends the chicken and potatoes simmering in a chili-flavored broth. When you are almost finished with the dish, a waiter dutifully arrives with a heap of thick, house-made noodles to dip into the aromatic broth and to soak up the sauce, creating yet another delicious course.

Cocktails, Elevated

A Pop-Up Bar In A Rather Unlikely Setting

A parking lot isn’t the most obvious place to gather for an after-work cocktail, unless you happen to find yourself at Frank's Café and Campari Bar (95a Rye Lane; Peckham). Then it makes perfect sense.

One of London’s original pop-up restaurants, the space is a muti-sensory celebration of visual art, architecture, music, food, and drink with unmatched views of the city from its rooftop vantage point. Part of the Bold Tendencies sculpture project, which has taken the multi-story car park built in the 1980s and transformed it into an immersive arts space, see the Norman Foster designed Gherkin, the London Eye, and the Shard among the Central London skyline, while sipping one of Frank's Campari cocktails.

Be sure to plan the outing accordingly though. Because of its open-air location, Frank's is only open during the warmer months of the year.