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Friday01 August 2014

Hût Architecture’s slice of white

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Hût has refurbished two central London townhouses in typically eclectic style for film company White House Post Production, reports Jessica Cargill Thomson. Photos by Kilian O’Sullivan

Stepping into the Georgian townhouse out of the clutter of London’s Soho, visitors find themselves in a blinding white, vaguely surreal space. Like some cinematic dream sequence, virtually everything is white — floors, walls, winged armchairs — period details frozen in time. A white door stands in free space, performing no obvious door-related function. Around it, the walls of what should have been a room have been cut away, an oxblood line marking out exactly where the incision has been made.

We are in the new London base of film-editing company White House Post Production, a recent refurbishment by young practice Hût of the conjoined 1732 townhouses at 21 and 23 Meard Street, one of them grade II* listed. While there were many conservation restrictions throughout the two buildings, the reception area provided the opportunity for White House to establish its corporate identity and Hût to flex a little creative muscle.

Knocking through the ground floors of period houses has been popular ever since the middle classes discovered Islington, but here Hût has intellectualised the idea. Inspiration comes from artists such as Richard Wilson, Gordon Matta-Clark and Rachel Whiteread, whose work challenges you to re-examine space and architecture by either cutting through buildings or by creating negative spaces and ghostly impressions. The “door to nowhere”, as it has become known, is a direct reference to Whiteread’s In Out-IV (2004).

“We wanted to make it look like it’s been sliced out, and the reception desk [which is actually a bespoke piece of joinery] is part of the wall as it originally was,” says project architect Russell Potter. “It was important to maintain a hint of the domestic scale the building had before. The red line is already quite famous.”

All this takes place in the non-listed half of the building. On the other side in what would have been number 21, preservation has been paramount. Coving and architraves have been restored and enhanced, and original wood panelling, prevalent throughout the building, has been sanded back under advice from English Heritage experts, and repainted. Where it had been hacked into insensitively for electrical sockets, it has been repaired, while ornate stair-stringer carvings were sanded back by hand as paint stripper was deemed potentially harmful to the wood behind. Fireplaces, including one rediscovered behind a box wall, were also stripped back and repainted a sooty black.

It was important to maintain a hint of the domestic scale the building had before

When White House approached Hût in the spring of 2007, it had a shortlist of three buildings, including some nice spec office space. Meard Street, however, was in a shoddy state, with seventies glass partitions and woodwork in disrepair, but both architect and client immediately saw its potential. “The domestic scale suited the way they run their business,” says practice co-director Andy Whiting. “Editors quite like being shut away in a corner. I think they quite liked the idea of having a bedroom or a living room as their office.”

Editors colonise the upstairs rooms in a mixture of stark white editing suits and cosy deep-red client holding rooms, the colours echoing the reception. For the client rooms, the concept was to provide a gentlemen’s club feel in-keeping with the period of the building. Dim lighting, rich colour and vintage furniture counter the intensity of the edit suite and provide an atmosphere conducive to relaxation, but plans for wall lights that replicated candles were thwarted.

Listed building consent was needed. Westminster City Council’s conservation department, concerned about preservation of original features, said the panelling could not be touched apart from restoration work. Instead, hinged Nomad E27 lights were fixed to the ceiling, then pulled back close to the walls. “Dimmed down, it feels you should be writing a journal by candlelight with a quill,” says Potter.

As the basement stretches beyond the house and under Wardour Street, it offered space for a screening room, as well as for the messy stuff White House didn’t want on show such as the systems server, a staff kitchen, shower room, and some bijou toilets tucked into the vaults. A decked outdoor area was axed for value-engineering reasons, but openings have been cut to bring natural light into the basement, and a rooflight has been installed over the stairwell.

While most of the refurbishment has been about stripping out, Hût’s main architectural intervention has been a family of freestanding bespoke joinery, set back from the walls to protect the fabric of the building. Desks, kitchen units, bathrooms — all white, of course — take their proportions from the mouldings on the panelled walls, a rather exact 98mm.

The walls have been cut away, an oxblood line marking out exactly where the incision has been made

Throughout the project, there was one imperative: the deadline. White House’s lease on its existing offices ran out at the end of January, so delays weren’t a possibility. This would be stressful on any project, but doubly so when dealing with the unknowns of a historic building and the building control officer.

With just 13 weeks on site, the strip-out had to start before consent came through, and when it arrived five weeks after it was expected, it threw a couple of curve balls such as the panelling restrictions. The other challenge was dealing with a client whose key decisionmaker was in Chicago. Potter was on the phone every day and sent visual updates, but the five-hour time difference often meant Hût having to make on-the-spot decisions and inform the client afterwards. “We got round it by being incredibly organised,” says Potter.

“The big decisions were established from the outset in hours of meetings when the client directors were over in July. After that, it was really only the details rather than any fundamental decisions that had to be made by phone.”

While still a relatively young practice, Hût already has several refurbishment projects in its portfolio — a listed office building on London’s New Bond Street, loft apartments in a former hat factory, and a residential conversion of coachworks in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

“We are always interested in recycling buildings,” says Whiting. “The most exciting starting point is an old building that’s become derelict, where you can visualise all the possibilities of what it could be like.”

In the architect’s own words: Hût project architect Russell Potter on updating Georgian buildings to meet modern needs

Installing modern computer-based companies in Georgian townhouses is nothing new, but the extent of the technology required for a film-editing company was a challenge.

The client, White House, is a post-production company working on advertisements, music videos and feature films for high-profile clients, so the juxtaposition of a lot of hi-tech equipment in such an old building was
a nice narrative.

Because of the listed building conditions, we were very conscious of having to get miles and miles of data cabling and wiring through just one existing central riser.

The joists or the panelling couldn’t be touched, so instead we designed bespoke skirting to carry the cables in a discreet way that was in-keeping with the period rooms.

By bespoke, we don’t mean just bespoke to the project, but bespoke to each room.

We worked with several technicians from White House, as well as an outside expert the client brought in.

In the end, the technology cost as much as the rest of the building project.

In a way, the purpose-designed server room is at the heart of the building’s function. Like many aspects of the project, this had to be secreted away so that the beauty of the original building could be allowed to reveal itself.

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