words Kieran Long
A generation of emerging London architects has turned its back on the sensationalist form-making of the starchitects and is making buildings that are often very quiet, and deliberately ordinary.
The work comes out of a sensitivity to the history and character of the city – concerns that have not much troubled the British architectural mainstream for decades. We spoke to five young practices who we think have something new to say about building in one of the world’s great metropolises:
Lynch Architects has London in its DNA. The practice’s buildings can be seen as investigations into the public and private face of the capital, attempting to reclaim notions of architectural character from the nuances in the city’s historic fabric.
Lynch’s work tries to deal with what has been lost in the march of modernism. His analysis is based on the fabric of London, in particular the dominant typology of the terraced house and the leftover sites of the Victorian city.
The East London Black Women’s Organisation (ELBWO) was Lynch’s first completed public building. Tragically, a matter of weeks after its completion, it was burned to the ground by suspected arsonists. Lynch is still feeling the effect of this loss. Despite the five-year process, the tiny budget and the sometimes truculent client body, the building created a spectrum of inhabitable spaces – from walled garden and verandah to private classrooms – on a hinterland suburban site with seemingly little potential.
Two private houses – on Greenwood Road in Dalston and Cazenove Road in Stoke Newington – are perhaps the best evidence so far of this search for a meaningful public face to the contemporary house.
Lynch says: “I’m interested in character in architecture rather than function. Instead, I want to think about character as related to place and personae: ie the possibility of a house having an ambivalent character – a public face and a specifically private face.” Both the private houses deal with end-of-terrace plots in Victorian neighbourhoods, and Lynch has tried to re-instate the typological while trying to create a symbolic order that can be seen as public.
Lynch feels that the Victorians began the process of removing symbolic character from the city: “The modernising tendency to ignore decorum and ornamental character is already present within the 19th-century suburban villa terrace type. So, our corner plot house projects are in fact re-instating the original character of the Georgian terrace, that is, public decorum; thus creating, in a modest sense, a public realm.”
So, on their public sides, the buildings have balconies that face the street, giving a public gesture to the parlour-like rooms behind them (living spaces are on the first floor of both houses). “The balcony marks the end of terrace but also makes the room able to be public,” says Lynch.
The back facades of both buildings are about allowing light to change the character of the spaces within at different times of the day, and are completely separate from the public gesture of the fronts of the buildings. The Cazenove Road house deforms and arranges itself around a courtyard at the back, which will be shaded by a single tree. In Greenwood Road, issues about overlooking neighbours means that there are no views to the back, but generous etched glass panels allow light in. There are no windows in the flank walls, which is consistent with the Victorian terrace type.
Unlike Lynch’s Janus-faced houses, ELBWO laminates the site, starting from the street, past a wooden fence that shields a garden, onto a verandah and finally into a timber-frame new-build hall that adjoins a converted church.
This building (which I was lucky enough to see before it was razed) was set in a difficult site in a brutal part of east London. Lynch’s approach was to build the site first, retaining a line of trees that defines the edge of the verandah and creates a volume within the fence, and then to build layers of public, semi-public and private space that can be used for the centre’s many aspects – as a crèche, a place of worship, for coffee mornings, and as a support centre for abused women.
Lynch’s urge to create iconography in architecture is also expressed here, from the almost Venturi-esque stenciling of the acronym across the glazed part of the facade (look closely and an abstracted ELBWO can be seen on the glass doors), to the evocation of the verandah as a place of social exchange and defensible publicness in West Indian culture. Lynch’s buildings are always rich with implied inhabitation.
Andrew Houlton developed many of the concerns that his architecture addresses while refurbishing the interior of his own house. “It’s very nice to just quietly make decisions,” he says. The labour of making interventions in his own Victorian house in south London demonstrates Houlton’s slow and deliberate method of understanding a space before intervening. Avoiding showy form-making, his work is generated from an awareness of the power that room-like volumes have in the city – be they external or internal spaces.
In collaboration with Greenhill Jenner Architects, Houlton has recently completed a music building at a school in Sydenham. Inevitably this is a somewhat introverted building, to save the ears of the neighbours, but it demonstrates a literate and self-effacing empathy with its context. Houlton describes the building in modest terms, but says that its main moves are in its section. “The job was about replacing a Portakabin [that was already on the site] with a similar proportion, but kicking it up [at the front], modestly giving the building grandeur.”
The facade onto the playground keeps to the proportions of the original Portakabin but creates a sheltered and inhabitable edge to the building. It has a subtle relationship with the ephemera that inhabit the playground itself, such as the perimeter fence, goalposts and basketball hoops, setting up a syncopated rhythm through a galvanised steel colonnade. This infrastructural feel is accentuated by the marine ply soffit and oversized gutter that forms the fascia. Behind what Houlton describes as the “strident module” of the galvanised columns, the windows slip irregularly along the facade.
Inside is where the joy of this project is to be found. The beautifully resolved architraving and enfilade between the entrance and the main music room demonstrates another type of infrastructural pleasure – of beautifully resolved detail that is ambiguous – institutional but of resolved clarity.
Houlton is now working with Greenhill Jenner on a further addition to the school, a room on the roof that exploits an existing concrete feature. Houlton considers his work as sympathetic with the school’s conscientious modernism, rather than demonstrating clearly the break between old and new. “I think of it as giving the original building a bit of help,” says Houlton. “The windows are generous [in the existing school], so I make the new ones over-generous.” Despite this sympathy, Houlton adds: “It’s a lightweight construction and has the quality of a recent arrival.”
After the circumspect approach to the school, Houlton adopted a different tone when he came to design his entry for a new building at the entrance to Peckham Square in south London, which also contains Will Alsop’s Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library. He says he knew it was a long shot. “When they first invited me, I thought ‘Oh, no’, but then I thought ‘bloody right I’ll do it’. Rather than just me moaning [about the object-making that has gone on in Peckham courtesy of Alsop and others], I thought I’d see if there was a way to do something.”
The form here is made with great conviction, despite the aim of mediating the torn fabric of its surroundings. Its blackness seems to attempt the very opposite of Alsop’s library. Houlton was not successful in the competition, but the exercise bodes well for future work: “It was done very quickly, and it gives me a sense of relief to know I’m not someone who just ponders and ponders.”
Through his work in the Thames Gateway, mostly in the Rainham Village area in east London, Taylor is experimenting with prototypical housing types on sites that will soon be in high demand from developers.
A combination of stick [stricter planning control on density and aesthetics] and carrot [higher returns from better designed homes] is being used on conservative housing developers to try to encourage quality. And Taylor’s work, beset though it is by compromise and negotiation, is beginning to have influence. Persuading Tesco to move one of its supermarkets was a particular triumph, and will release a site along the creekside for a tight-grain, three-storey housing development.
Taylor was appointed to Rainham by the Greater London Assembly, and he has used this backing to come up with a new way of thinking about masterplans. Although he was only commissioned to provide planning guidance, Taylor says: “The GLA wanted something as spatially specific as possible – it became very close to being a masterplan.”
The strategy defines several plates in the landscape that will be built above the area’s low water table, and that are available for development. These will be set into a landscape of water courses, uncovering historic culverts and creeks. This approach is highly influenced by London-based German architect Florian Beigel’s landscape infrastructure approach, creating new grounds for buildings, but retaining a green floodable landscape.
As a result of this strategic work, Taylor was commissioned to look at individual housing developments, such as one for Taylor Woodrow that involved a detailed analysis of terraced house types that can accommodate car parking. Taylor says: “It’s a fantastic type of work – very ordinary stuff in a way. But it’s about finding the best examples and trying to come up with rules.” Another project for Wimpey [undertaken in collaboration with Stanton Williams Architects] attempted a spectacular alternative to its usual semi-detached villas, with a dense apartment block occupying a site near a transport node and public space. Wimpey backed the plan, but it was refused planning permission.
Taylor’s smaller projects have the same interest in housing types and density. His Craddock Cottages project in Gomshall in Surrey consists of four houses on a tight site, which intensify the village and react to what Taylor calls the “fantastic density” of rural villages in general. This finer, more bespoke project demonstrates Taylor’s powerful understanding of the relationship between site and typology.
Julian Lewis and his two associates, Dann Jessen and Judith Loesing, have an easy manner that belies the scope of their practice, working as they are on a huge tract of south-east London – the bureaucratically named Area 6 Zone for Change masterplan area – that stretches from Charlton riverside in south-east London to Dartford in the east. Their plan includes detailed strategies for areas such as Woolwich Arsenal – an old military installation that East masterplanned with Sergison Bates Architects – and for the environs of the planned new Thames crossing.
Lewis says that their involvement can take a variety of forms. “We are often working on designing things in a way that isn’t really part of the normal RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] stages of works.”
In the case of the Thames crossing, East has placed itself at the heart of processes that had previously been unaffected by design. “The bridge was being realised with a very unlinked-up approach by Transport for London – it was an engineering-based, problem-solving thing.” East set out how to design the buildings by the bridge and its approaches, and has planned landscaped parks on either side of the river – projects that will be paid for by the concessionaire that runs the bridge.
East prides itself on getting results from negotiations between stakeholders but the question is how this democratic apprach might apply to individual buildings. Their project for a new community centre in Lydney, Gloucestershire is a rather self-consciously made form but the basic principle of placing a storey of housing on top of the public facilities came from the residents. This storey, which is level with the tops of the trees, is clad in green.
Lewis says: “We are very critical and tolerant of a way of designing that involves critique. But we are always quite neurotic about whether we think things are beautiful or not.” The result at Lydney is a project that attempts to respond to landscape more than to the character of the town. “Thinking about typologies in urban terms is fine, it’s more or less abstract. But [on a building project] the place and people give you enough clues.”
Hughes Meyer + Sanei Hopkins are, in a sense, an unlikely collaboration. Francesca Hughes is a writer and teacher; her American partner Jonathan Meyer a painter. Amir Sanei and Abigail Hopkins are two ex-Michael Hopkins employees working on domestic jobs and entering competitions. But through a project for a gallery in Camden, north London, they have found common ground that has resulted in a small public project unlike many others you will see. Through simple means, it achieves extraordinary optical effects.
The gallery is for Hughes’ parents. Her father is an art collector and painter who owns a large Victorian house in Camden. When the opportunity arose, they bought the mews workshop at the end of the garden, thus owning an entire slice of the city block, from the house’s facade on Rochester Terrace, all the way through to the facade of the workshop on Rochester Place.
For Hughes, the project was intensely personal. “I grew up looking out of my bedroom window across this garden.” She describes the site as “telescopic” in its effect of looking from house to gallery and vice versa. The extensive use of mirror on the surfaces of the building is a clear reference to this metaphor, while also suggesting other optical instruments and cameras.
The gallery is on two storeys in the shell of the existing workshop (which was stripped out and reconstructed), and a glass extension that is clad internally and externally with mirrors, throwing reflected views of the workshop into the garden, and projecting the garden onto the facade of the building.
Matthew Wells of Techniker engineered the pitched glass roof, and this look-no-hands engineering is perhaps the one part that feels a little excessive for a project where the enjoyment resides in strange and ambiguous visual effects.
The play of the geometry and mirrors is fascinating, especially when viewed from the upper floors of the house (where Hughes’ father has his study). The mirrored roof of the single-storey part of the extension and the 45° angle of the pitched glass roof give the appearance (visible in the photographs) that a rectangular glass box has been placed on the back of the building. Also, at night, the light from within allows views of the artworks from the house through the glass roof. The minimal detailing of the fascias splices the reality of inside and out, creating a heady parallax.
Mirrors are a preoccupation of Sanei Hopkins’ work. On their own house in Dalston (1999), they created a courtyard extension with spare detailing and exposed steelwork. Mirror was used on the roof plane, which is overlooked by the whole street, giving views of the sky. Their shortlisted entry into the Yehudi Menuhin Memorial Hall competition in 2001 was also entirely clad in mirror. Partner Amir Sanei says: “People are always fighting to find new materials. To us, mirror is not a material at all, it is about being contextual.”
Hughes’ motivations seem not to be about making the building disappear, but about the disarming juxtaposition of elements. She says of the gallery: “Spatially there is not that much going on, optically it is much more complex.” The contrasts between these two practices – Hughes Meyer more conceptually driven and Sanei Hopkins more professionally motivated – has resulted in an intriguing and idiosyncratic piece of architecture.