Tonkin Liu creates a little piece of heaven in Marylebone
White interior surfaces of perforated aluminium, bleached oak panels and light linoleum flooring give this penthouse apartment an ethereal beauty
Mansfield Street, Marylebone, London
Pass into the foyer of the 1928 grand beaux-arts style mansion block in London’s Mansfield Street, just off Portland Place, and you enter another era.
Residents are greeted, doors opened and shopping bags carried by porters. Unwanted visitors are screened and politely turned away. Fortunately I’m expected, and allowed to walk unescorted up to the sixth floor penthouse.
The door to the apartment is a rich mahogany making the contrast on walking into the all white apartment all the more intense.
Tonkin Liu has performed a dramatic £1 million remodelling of this former maids’ quarters, (in its heyday there were about 30 maids living in the attic space), which had lain empty since the 1950s.
In spite of the building’s grade II listing, English Heritage approved the gutting of the 265sq m apartment as it considered there wasn’t anything of architectural merit worth keeping, allowing it to be completely transformed.
Three main surfaces dominate the apartment’s walls, ceiling and floor: bleached oak veneered panelling finished in a white oil; white powder-coated perforated aluminium panels; and green/grey linoleum flooring. The whiteness of these materials is offset by carefully placed coloured objects set in the alcoves or doorways like stage sets — though these were removed while the apartment was being photographed.
The six door openings or alcoves in the refectory, gallery and salon feature off-set hinges, allowing the painted timber framed doors to fold back against the slated mansard, providing unhindered views out to the terrace.
The doorways lead out to timber decking which forms a 50m-long terrace encircling the penthouse. The capacious 180sq m terrace provides a respite from the all-encompassing whiteness and offers incredible views of London.
The apartment is arranged in an L-shape, composed of two main wings, the “refectory” and the “salon” each centred on one main timber panelled room. Practice director Mike Tonkin says the objects in each room “signify its primary function”. The refectory has a kitchen island, a dining table and an octagonal study desk all made in white Corian. The shape of each of these objects is echoed above in skylights of the same size and shape to draw in daylight but also, says Tonkin, to “elevate the importance of the domestic rituals they serve.” In the salon, the central object is the fireplace, which is positioned by the entrance to the master bedroom so it can be seen from the bed and bath.
In spite of the penthouse’s spaciousness, it still manages to be crammed with space-saving devices, influenced partly by Tonkin and Anna Liu spending time in Hong Kong where space is at a premium, and is all about concealment and surprise.
Substantial 2.5m-tall x 1.8m-wide oak-veneered sliding doors, running on a track at the top, can be rolled into a pocket making them invisible. They make it possible to create one vast open-plan space or to close off rooms or whole wings.
The oak-veneered panelling conceals cupboards, heating and lighting controls and a boiler, while in the study, a bed folds out from the wall changing it into a spare bedroom. In the salon, automated sliding panels conceal a TV projector, and a screen which slides down at the touch of a button, transforming the living-space into a cinema.
Tonkin says their ambition in the sixth floor conversion was “to have no feeling of being in an attic” and this, they have achieved. My only reservation is the exhaustive use of white and the cleaning ordeal this must present. But then Tonkin says: “Heaven is white”. So what better reason to have your very own slice of heaven as your home.
Perforated Aluminium Panels
Trees are a strong symbol of Tonkin Liu’s work, so it wasn’t a surprise to learn that aluminium panels, used to clad the interior of the skylights and alcoves, had been perforated to form tree- like patterns.
To create the intricate pattern, each tree was drawn by hand, then scanned and the positions of the perforations determined by computer. Mike Tonkin says there was nothing random about either the size of the perforations or where they were placed and when complete, the effect was similar to an Indian Jali screen.
The 3mm-thick, 2.1m tall panels (of varying widths) were then cut in Lincolnshire using a cutting technology, with the holes ranging in diameter from 10mm to 32mm.
In addition to being unusual in appearance, the perforations perform three main functions: they ventilate the apartment; they supply heat and they allow the artificial lighting to shine through.
Being a rooftop apartment, it can be windy, so air into the apartment is controlled by 600mm x 500mm low level flaps or openings cut into the lead-clad door openings and what were formerly dormer windows. These will open or close depending on the temperature of the apartment. The flaps are controlled by sensors connected to a computer behind the perforated aluminium panels. Apertures are also located at the short ends of the three skylights located in the refectory. Again, sensors instruct the apertures to open, and hot air is drawn upwards through natural convection. “The thermal chimney effect is brought into play when the flaps at low level to the doorways are opened to supply cool air to the interior and allows the hot air to be sucked out at the top flaps located in the skylights,” says Tonkin.
The perforated panels also allow heat into the apartment. Flat panel radiators are hidden behind the panels located in the doorways or alcoves. Large holes towards the bottom of the panels are designed to resemble tall grass. So in winter, a cold down draft from the doorway openings supplies cool fresh air that passes through the perforations and in turn is heated by the radiator, the hot air then rises and leaves through the perforated branches of the trees located at a higher level in the aluminium panels. “The whole of the alcove acts as a warm room that through convection warms the room while creating a thermal curtain to the cold doors,” says Tonkin.
The thermostats are all hidden behind the perforated ceiling alcoves, along with smoke detectors and speakers, leaving the ceiling unencumbered.
The perforations in the panels also create a dazzling lighting effect. During the day, the perforations become dark holes on a light background while at night the trees become patterns of light. Strips of LEDs are concealed behind the perforated alcove panels, while dimmable fluorescent tubes and halogen spot lights are hidden behind the perforated skylight panels creating a changing and mesmerising lighting effect.
Magnets keep the aluminium panels fixed in place, so they can be easily opened for access. The panels are powder coated white. Aluminium was chosen for its rigidity, lightness and because it was relatively cheap — the panels cost approximately £800 each.
Oak Veneered Panels
Contrasting with the hardness of the aluminium panels, the oak veneered panels, bleached and finished in white oil, bring warmth to the interior.
Tonkin says they chose oak because the wood made the apartment feel “quite monastic” — an aesthetic they were keen to create.
The architect also sought to create a different mood in the two wings by altering the width and the direction of the wood’s grain. So in the refectory, which is a place used mainly for standing, the panels are 480mm wide, vertically hinged with a vertical grain; while in the salon, the panels are 1.8m wide and horizontal sliding panels are integrated with a horizontal grain as this is a space used for reclining.
Architect Tonkin Liu, Structural engineer Price & Myers, Services engineer Archineers, Quantity surveyor FOM, Project management James Codrington, Contractor Roach & Partners, Lighting design Tonkin Liu, AV consultant Grahams HiFi, Aluminium Laser cutter Guttridge Laserfab, Supplementary joinery Jack Trench, Skylights Cantifix, M&E installation Ceetech