High life: how London’s penthouses became status symbols

Words by
Zoe Dare Hall

4th January 2017

Penthouse properties in the capital are now recognised a mark of the super rich, who expect a five-star-hotel experience from the comfort of their own home

Those travelling along the Thames by boat may have trouble keeping pace with the glossy monoliths emerging from each bank. Nonetheless, a journey down the river offers a glimpse of the penthouse wars that are taking place in London’s prime locations. Penthouses  —  in their number and scale — hold a mirror to the city’s economic fortunes. In boom times, they proliferate and parade the height of designer decadence; in downturns, they lay low. While London’s property prices sit at unprecedented highs, so do its penthouses — along with the ambitions of the designers behind them, for whom these trophy properties are the ultimate blank canvases.

Some have locations to lust after. Others, thanks to their huge expanses of glazing, offer a glimpse of expensive interior design. But there is surely nothing that can rival the pentuplex — the five-storey penthouse — that will grace the top of One Blackfriars and pierce the central London skyline like a vast, sparkling diamond.

The pentuplex on top of One Blackfriars will offer the ultimate in high-rise living

The pentuplex on top of One Blackfriars will offer the ultimate in high-rise living

Currently, it is nothing but thin air. The skinny glass tower to the south of Blackfriars Bridge — the design of which was inspired by a 1950s vase by the late Finnish designer s — will reach its glittering pinnacle over the next two years. Its developers, Berkeley St George, won’t even reveal the price of their prized trophy, which will span floors 45 to 50. Suffice to say it will considerably exceed the price of the lower apartments, which range from £1.2m to £23m. It is all part of the mystique to keep wealthy buyers on their toes and in the game.

Penthouses, after all, are about kudos and have always been the bricks-and-mortar statements of success. “Penthouses in high-end developments denote ‘I bought the best’ in super-rich circles,” says Simon Barnes of property buying agency H Barnes & Co, which is marketing the £12m Foster+Partners-designed penthouse at Albion Riverside, overlooking Albert and Battersea Bridges. “Owning a penthouse in a landmark building is a visible way of saying you are top of the tree. You own the best views, the most generous floor plate and you have no one above you.”

There is still something about being able to say you live in a penthouse. It still caries that cachet

Many of London’s newest power penthouses command magnificent views of the city’s iconic landmarks. Berkeley Homes’ One Tower Bridge  — where the duplex Prospero penthouse is priced at £13.25m — is surely tipped for a top prize, with the gold-topped bridge that features on a million postcards only a cocktail stick’s throw from its 302 square metres of wraparound balconies and rooftop terrace. Taking shape on the opposite bank is a new rival — Barratt London’s Landmark Place. This £10m penthouse offers similar, but south-facing, Tower Bridge views from across the river. It also peers down on the Tower of London.

“For so long, the wealthy favoured single-structure mansions, but there is now a methodical connection between wanting to be suspended above the hustle and bustle of the city and the sense of being able to observe the horizon and take in fresh air,” says Jacob Sullivan, head of sales and marketing at Berkeley Homes.

Winding staircase in the penthouse at One Tower Bridge

Winding staircase in the penthouse at One Tower Bridge

Several other properties are vying for pole position with their skyline views, from Neo Bankside’s £15m penthouse, the all-glazed living space of which sits on the South Bank with views across St Paul’s cathedral, to The Tower penthouse at Berkeley St George’s Chelsea Creek, a £17m duplex from where you can tick off every bridge and architectural icon when you gaze downriver.

As you sit back in the winter garden at Satin House, the £5m cherry on the cake at Goodman’s Fields, a Berkeley Homes development on the “City fringe” in Aldgate, there is a captivating view of the Cheesegrater, the Walkie Talkie and the Gherkin. 

Or there is The Heron, a Heron International development in the centre of the City, where views that take in all of London are best soaked up from its two 35th-floor penthouses. Each one is on sale for £13.5m and boasts three six-metre-high walls of glass in the living room.

“Exceptional views are fundamental to the most sought-after penthouses, and it is a developer’s responsibility to curate those views,” says Piers Clanford, managing director of Berkeley for north-east London. “The Goodman penthouse [Satin House] enjoys a protected-view corridor that captures the capital’s skyline from St Paul’s to the City to Canary Wharf.”

Goodman's Fields has wide-reaching views across London

Goodman's Fields has wide-reaching views across London

A good view isn’t necessarily the same as a prime location, however. If the latter is the priority — as it should be, according to Rachel Thompson, partner at Knight Frank’s buying agency, The Buying Solution  — then you shouldn’t be looking at new developments at all. “New-build schemes are often in secondary locations and some of the high-valued properties stick. The penthouses at The Heron, for example, are struggling to sell, despite being exquisite,” says Thompson. She feels that developers need to rely on “boys’ toys”, including cigar rooms, when a prime location is lacking.

Some of the best newly built penthouses are built on to older buildings and discreetly, such as a pair in Lowndes Square that sold last year, the interiors of which were designed by Natalia Miyar at Helen Green. “One buyer bought both,” she says. “There was another that stretched across three buildings in Belgravia’s Eaton Square. None ever came on to the market.”

The view from Albion Riverside overlooks both Albert and Battersea Bridges

The view from Albion Riverside overlooks both Albert and Battersea Bridges

A different Eaton Square penthouse is now for sale, however. This one, available for £33m through Savills, spans four townhouses and has a 100ft facade overlooking the square. Despite the price, Savills hints that “an incoming purchaser might want to update the accommodation”.

No such problem at The Hempel Collection in Bayswater, a handsome, white stucco building that overlooks the private garden square immortalised in the final scene in the film Notting Hill. The £7m penthouse has been given the designer treatment by Johnson Naylor, inspired by David Hockney’s painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.

Hiring a top-notch designer is one way to set your power penthouse apart from the rest. Alternatively, you could offer it to buyers as a bare shell and invite them to bring in their own designer. The developer CIT offers both options at South Bank Tower (southbanktower.com). The four penthouses are priced at £20m each if you go for bare walls and dangling wires; for a further £5m, you can choose Dara Huang of Design Haus Liberty’s vision for the duplex units or 1508 London’s design for the “lateral” penthouses. Incidentally, the penthouses boast the highest private terraces in London, according to CIT’s head of sales, Chris Richmond. “Alongside the space and views, each penthouse has a dedicated interior design concept created by world-class designers. To offer buyers complete flexibility, they are available in shell and core state or as turnkey residences.” 

Hiring a top-notch designer is one way to set your power penthouse apart from the rest

That easiness needs to permeate the penthouse owner’s enjoyment of the building, too, which includes direct lift access from basement parking to the apartment. “The emphasis is on privacy, security and the sense of ownership, so sharing lifts can be a bit of a no-no,” says Merton Croisdale-Appleby, director at Maskells estate agency. A round-the-clock concierge service is also a must.

“Many developments now rival the best hotels in London. The people who can afford these ‘super penthouses’ wouldn’t be happy if they were told their standard cannot be met by their London home,” says Martin Bikhit, managing director at Kay & Co.

So, who are these power penthouse buyers? Well, they’re busy, well-travelled and young — “typically under 40, working in finance or tech,” says David Lee, head of sales at Pastor Real Estate. “Their penthouse is the ultimate party pad, with outdoor entertaining space, a Jacuzzi, a bar and a games room. And, of course, they need the hottest bars, restaurants and designer shops nearby.”

They like their art, too. “Over about £5m, almost every penthouse buyer will be an art collector and will need wall spaces where their collection can be displayed,” says Rebecca Wakefield, creative director at Banda Property.

Penthouses in South Bank Tower are available in shell and core state or as turnkey residences

Penthouses in South Bank Tower are available in shell and core state or as turnkey residences

They are also, if you hadn’t guessed, likely to be male. “Power penthouses often attract male buyers who, on the whole, like to display their wealth more than women. There is still something about being able to say you live in a penthouse. It still carries that cachet,” says Guy Meacock, director of the buying agency Prime Purchase.

Of course, they may be none of these. Christopher Dezille, founder of Honky interior design practice, designed the £6m triplex penthouse at Telford Homes’ Parliament House in Westminster with a James Bond-meets-Tom-Ford character in mind, down to the designer clothes in the walk-in wardrobe and the huge terrace with a hot tub and a bar. Dezille admits they spent days agonising over what kind of tumblers to put on the cocktail bar. “With a penthouse like this, you start with an empty space and you spend months envisaging every last detail of the potential owner’s lifestyle. Then it often turns out that the person who buys it is absolutely nothing like that at all.”

It’s all part of the fantasy penthouse world that few get to inhabit for real.