Combining homes, an office and a gallery, this east London building near Shoreditch High Street revels in setting up rules and then breaking them
I’ve recently been doing some research on Roman fountains during the Baroque period, and it’s a more interesting story than one would imagine. Far from being led by an arcane theoretical or iconographic programme, their construction was driven by technical contingencies and artistic improvisation. For example, a fountain might find itself deprived of three metres’ altitude owing to poor water pressure, and the resulting surplus of dolphins would be cobbled into another fountain down the road. Or 50 years later, Bernini might decide to perch a quartet of bronze turtles, left over from another job, on the basin’s rim.
The whole process was anarchic, pragmatic and rewarding – and it has much in common with the building of this quirky and intricate house by Theis & Khan.
The site is deeply alternative, lying between Shoreditch High Street and the newly refurbished viaduct of the East London Line, and was last occupied by the Victorian premises of the Gedge & Co paint and varnish makers.
What Theis & Khan bought was a small works plus yard. Rights of light were the main point of negotiations with adjoining owners to allow the practice to build over the yard, a requirement if it was to make the scheme financially viable. For this is a thoroughly mixed development – as well as holding a good-sized family house, the building intricately folds in a design office, commercial gallery and three flats.
Everything old in the area is brick and everything new is concrete framed (and often brick-infilled). The bricks are imported Scandinavian, in colour somehow reminiscent of Jacobsen’s work. Yet they are not laid with geometrical precision and are unpointed. The joints are what used to be called “bagged”: the mortar that squeezes out during laying is just rubbed away with a bit of hessian, leaving a flat surface and a rustic look to the joints.
The result is brickwork that stands out as a superior product and at the same time manages a degree of modesty. Ground-storey engineering brickwork again acknowledges the location, though by standing the bricks vertically and deeply raking the joints the effect is a bit frenetic. In fact the whole ground level is given a vertical bias, with bricks, grille bars and door openings contributing. The effect is softened by by the dark colouring, and at a distance the base level appears as deep shadow.
But the freedom given by a concrete frame is brought under control in an entirely unexpected way: by application of tracés régulateurs, and you suddenly realise that the big long window and little roof pavilion are memories of the fifties building directly to the east. Golden sections and the Ideal Villa springing up in the purlieus of Great Eastern Street – it’s the first sign of the idiosyncratic personalities at work in this building. And then, when the facades are done, attention is turns to another aspect of the design: plan and section.
An A-B-A rhythm structures the section, alternate levels having 3m and 2.4m floor-to-ceiling heights. As one might expect, in plan the low floors are the most heavily partitioned: multiple entrances on the ground, bedrooms on the second floor, and bedroom/bathroom on the stepped-back top level. A corner site opens up options for access, but those options close down a bit when you have to get access to all these separate units.
The facade shows four front doors and a garage. Corner access is given to the gallery with its two street frontages and basement. Either side of the gallery are entrances, one for a block of two small flats, one to the design office, both on French Place, and a third in Bateman’s Row, giving access to the main house and a bedsit flat. Lift and stair for upper access are pushed right to the darkest corner of the plan – though the stair gets light from a high window. The alternating floor heights become most telling in the main house, where the bedroom level’s low ceiling pushes the visual interest diagonally across the plan, while the upper level living space, is given vertical emphasis with a wide stair cutout.
Each of the units has its own programme dictating the plan, with the result a collage of patterns, circulatory and static use. Yet it does without the intellectually consistent pattern-making of a Foreign Office or – for older readers – a Bernard Tschumi.
A number of methods are explored and presented as equally valid.
Looking at the plan made me get down my copy of Alfred Roth’s brilliant book, The New Architecture, and sure enough there is a house in Zurich built by Max Haefeli in 1931. The plan is similar, and yes, no doubt there will be others not unlike it in the world. But if the reference seems obscure, the architect who introduced me to the Roth book is the same who tutored Theis at the Royal College of Art – James Gowan.
While the layout is partly spec development and partly pure modern, its development in material terms explores the romance of contingency – the delight in improvisation. The intention was for ceilings and walls throughout to be left as shutter-cast concrete, using boarded shuttering, for that mid-20th-century look. But what was once the common language of concrete work – when Le Corbusier favoured Algerian workmen whose lack of finesse gave an extra rawness and lots of honeycombing to the structures – is now no more.
Now it’s eight-by-four sheets of shuttering ply, and if you want to recreate the old look it becomes a highly skilled and expensive operation, and even then without guarantee of success. Not only are boards more expensive than sheets, but their quality is too good to leave those deep grain patterns. So the attempt was abandoned and a critical estimation was carried out, some of the work was plastered over, some left bare – a historical-archaeological exercise that further diminishes the “purity” of this building.
It’s this readiness to create a rule (“all concrete will be unfinished”) and to modify it in the face of reality, that makes this building so interesting. It refuses to make universal statements, and remains steadfastly a private building, where the collection of disparate objects within it are matched by the disparate theories and rules that have governed its construction.
This is where art comes back into architecture, where, as in Baroque Rome, pressures of patronage and technical reality – in their case, often lack of water pressure – meant improvised changes to predetermined plans. Contingency was the condition of work, and the key to saving the day was not more dogma, but a recognition that an artistic mind is a problem-solving mind, governed by aesthetic sensibility. It takes confidence, and whether Theis & Khan feels it can carry this working method to projects for third party clients remains to be seen.
Architect Theis & Khan, Cost consultant Stephen Cuddy, Structural engineer FJ Samuely & Partners, Lighting design George Sexton Associates, Planning Consultant CMA Planning, Groundwork contractor ECS Groundwork, Main contractor Silver Interiors Design & Build
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