words Kieran Long
Why do we make houses out of bricks? Traditionally, it’s because they are small enough to be made, carried and laid by hand. Thus a brick wall is inscribed with the energy and skill of its builders.
Since modernism and the wider use of concrete and steel-framing construction methods, using brick has also become the contextual gesture par excellence, and constructionally they have become a cladding material like any other. Panels of brick, render, timber or indeed anything else can fill in the gaps on the faceless facades of developer-built housing.
This is east-London architect Caruso St John’s most significant project since the Walsall Art Gallery in 2000, the building for which they are best known. This building, a family house in Westbourne Grove in west London, extols the material in its title, the Brick House. It is overwhelmingly dominated by approaches to building with the house brick, and how an architect deals with other components in relation to that material – how brick surfaces meet surfaces of glass and concrete, for example. Here, brick works hard and it lazes around, it supports and it overflows, it looks sometimes domestic and sometimes positively monastic. Bricks are structure, cladding, decoration and pattern, sometimes used in very precise ways, and sometimes less so.
You enter the house from the end of a quiet cul-de-sac north of busy Westbourne Grove. A long, broad ramp starts at pavement level and rises nearly half a storey, bringing you into the main living space.
The bottom of the ramp is the first episode of the journey from street to living room. You walk five paces in from the street and meet the front door, a timber screen that blocks the large opening in the Georgian end-of-terrace facade. You knock and wait for your hosts to answer. When they do, you find that the ramp contimues another 10m or so. Just as the small talk is running out, you reach the top, where the ramp turns into the main living room – which occupies almost the entire upper floor. The walls and floor are all brick, but it is the faceted concrete ceiling that catches your eye, a folding plane that allows shafts of light to play across the room through triangular skylights. You walk towards the window at the north end of the room. You pass the kitchen worktop on your right and then the ceiling dips suddenly over what will be the dining area.
The only window in the room looks out across the picturesque back gardens of surrounding terraces. It feels a very long way from the noise of Westbourne Grove. This upper floor is very much the public part of the house, a kind of cross between a piano nobile and a venue for warehouse parties. There are only two other rooms on this floor, a small study/television room through a small brick passageway and an even smaller bathroom tucked behind the stairs. Unlike a warehouse, where zones of inhabitation are defined by their proximity to or distance from glazing and services, it is the ceiling plane that attempts to define zones here. The low portion of the concrete soffit will be where the custom-designed dining table will sit. The small skylights are decorative – casting moving shafts of light that cross the room as time passes.
Apart from this ceiling, the bricks dominate. They are joined by lime mortar, obviating the need for expansion joints, and creating a continuous surface. This unvariegated brick surface is also revealed in different thicknesses, from a half-brick wall that flanks the stairway, to structural brick walls that hold up the concrete ceiling. “There are clear references to Sixties modernism here,” says Adam Caruso, “but there is no structural expression. It is more related to the baroque than it is to neo-Brutalism – we’re really adamant about that.”
There is a real pleasure in the manipulation of the brick and mortar surface – all the fittings for water and electricity emerge from the walls, not from removable panels. “This is a luxurious way to build,” says Caruso, with obvious delight. “The construction gives it a character – the brick feels heavy and you feel insulated. You really feel like you’re somewhere else.”
The site is a leftover backlands plot created from a collision of the backs of three Georgian terraces north of Westbourne Grove, and the end of a mews which is at the end of the cul-de-sac of Hatherley Grove. It is a typical but now rare site in London.
The house feels like two places at once. It is seemingly made of two brick linings, one inside the other. The outer lining is the site boundary, which defines the outline of the plan. The plan creates courtyards in the three corners of the site, also lined in the ubiquitous brick, and these are the only places to look out on. The views provide necessary moments of relief from the brick and concrete interior. The northern window looks out over the back gardens of the Georgian terraces, while the southern courtyard extends the realm of the master bedroom into a rather austere and contemplative garden. The eastern courtyard feels like one of the small canyons in front of the basement floors of terraced houses. It has a stairway to street level and feels like somewhere to store bicycles or wash football boots, rather than to contemplate one’s existence.
From inside the house, the minimally detailed windows recede into the brickwork. Thus, each of the rooms that face a courtyard (none of which are particularly big) are understood as continuous with the outdoor spaces, and the site boundary is coherently expressed as the limit of the house’s reach. But the internal walls sit within the site boundary as an extra skin, insulating and reinforcing the sanctuary-like atmosphere.
Although the building has no street facade, by creating courtyards within the site the architects have given the house something of a public face. These expansive windows have an implicit relationship with the neighbouring buildings, particularly the mews to the east. Even though you can’t walk past the house, the way the lines of these windows relate to the mews and the terrace gardens to the north connects the house to its surroundings in spite of it being hidden away.
The Brick House also oscillates between two very differently characteristic types of home. The wealthy clients live in New York and London and infinitely preferred their loft-living New York lifestyle to that of the cellular arrangements of their Georgian house here. This led them to ask for the biggest possible floor space for entertaining and living. However, the house is for a family with two daughters, and the desire for openness was tempered by the concurrent requirement for privacy and intimacy.
The two floors achieve this: the upper one is large and playful, the lower cellular, more calm and rather serious, but with small changes of scale. The bedrooms are very modest in size, but are given a certain grandeur through the glass walls and courtyards, and through the ceilings, which are slightly higher than those in the hallways. The lower floor is an intimate, almost secret world, and, as a visitor, you might never see it.
Caruso describes the method of construction as “archaic”, but there is nothing ancient about the effect. From the pictures it may look more like art than a place to live, but it combines the very important functions, both public and private, of a grand townhouse. These pictures show the interior at its most stark, but it is still awaiting the velvet curtains, linen rugs, Aalto armchairs and Jasper Morrison sofas that will make up the decor.
But although this building is the most formally acrobatic of Caruso St John’s work so far, it is made of something utterly banal: the simple house brick. The Brick House could be seen as demonstrating a virtuosic and old-school attitude to the management of brick construction, but Caruso St John don’t cut bricks, a detail they have learned from the Swedish master Sigurd Lewerentz. They have relied on the system of proportion that a whole brick suggests – in other words, an opening is so many bricks wide and high, a wall so many deep. The brick has a human scale in and of itself. And as the brick is to the house, the house is to the city. This house is like the beautifully cut piece of stone that fills the last remaining hole in a newly paved square.