Patrick Lynch applauds an “urbane, ingenious and slightly surreal” housing project by Stephen Taylor Architects
Moore Park Road is one of those typical London streets that you find just off of a high street, or in this case, Fulham Broadway. It sits beside the elevated ground of Eel Brook Common, thought to be an Anglo-Saxon burial mound, and the neighbourhood is further bordered by railway lines, Stamford Bridge football stadium and the River Thames. Perhaps because of these natural and man-made edges, the area feels cosy and familiar, just the right mix of cared-for and not too over-designed. At best, this sort of place exhibits some hard-to-describe architectural qualities, things which Stephen Taylor recently praised (on the Architecture Foundation website), as “figurative, brooding, humorous, ironic, commanding and indeed romantic”. This arts and crafts sensibility is often confused with the picturesque, something that makes sense in terms of the tradition of painting and landscape, but is difficult to apply to a utile art like architecture.
Architects always encounter things that are stubbornly already there. In particular, the economics of speculative development is usually strongly inoculated against whimsy and self-indulgence. In other words, the seeming beautiful disequilibrium of Victorian and Edwardian architecture is an aesthetic achievement driven by and born out of messy reality and necessity, not by its avoidance.
Victorian houses continue most of the themes established by the Georgians: party-wall architecture; front rooms and back rooms; back gardens; formal and informal facades; and, to a degree, an intense contrast between urbanity at the front and a fragment of bucolic reverie to the rear. In urban design terms, though, they are often quite different. In particular, Victorian houses don’t usually come with squares attaché, and instead the terrace house type is often bent around corners; and streets set out at various angles often snake around triangular plots.
More or less effort is taken to reconcile this seeming disorder into spatial, material and formal presence. What you encounter often doesn’t appear orderly, but it is in fact the purest demonstration of economics + topography + technology + decorum at any given point in a city’s history. Stephen Taylor’s four houses for Baylight Properties at Moore Park Road are part of this urbane tradition, and grow out of and transcend the apparent limitations of their situation with wit, panache and invention.
Baylight’s founder, Crispin Kelly, purchased an occluded light-industrial building sat at the centre of the block in the 1990s. ‘Block’ is perhaps a slightly too urban term to describe what is essentially a semi- or even almost suburban situation of back gardens and small terraced villas. Taylor and Kelly’s approach, their planning and development strategy, was to demonstrate that by removing some of the mass and bulk of the pre-existing shed, the amenity of the neighbouring properties would improve. So in replacing something unplanned with something designed, the hope was that the site could gain a new sense of itself, becoming a coherent manifestation of financial, planning and architectural intelligence. In order to do this, any scheme had to demonstrate compliance with a plethora of overlapping parameters and design criteria.
New housing in London today is influenced by the design principles legitimised in The London Plan. These are driven by ethical values and encourage good architecture, and local planning authorities have generally adopted them – even for smaller schemes that are not seen by the mayor and his advisers – largely as a means to try to insist on design quality. This policy is one reason for a nascent renaissance in good housing design in the capital, and why local authorities have begun to commission council housing by architects like Stephen Taylor, Henley Halebrown and Mikhail Riches.
Good design is not seen as something abstract, or subjective, or best left to the market anymore, but is enshrined in a series of principles that in effect bring together Building Regulations and planning policy with human rights law. So thresholds should be level; provision for wheelchair users furthermore informs the need for bathrooms at entry level, and for a room that can be used as a bedroom in case of infirmity; overlooking between properties should be limited; inhabitants of new dwellings should enjoy dual aspects and cross ventilation; rooms should be generous and well lit; external space is essential; and new buildings should be well insulated and cheap to run.
These principles essentially inform the design of the four Moore Park Road houses, and yet it is to the architect’s credit that they do not come across as simply the response to a tortuous series of external pressures. Rather, the dwellings are delightfully airy, intimate and open, different enough from each other to feel unique, but serial enough to feel urban. They are bound together by a single brick wall that encloses the development, and distinguishes it from the neighbouring houses. In total, 37 separate party wall agreements were required.
You enter the site through a mews-like archway, go up a gentle brick slope, and arrive on a slightly elevated plateau. The sensation is of coming across something secret and secure, but also something common and shared. A series of front gardens are intimated by stone ‘mats’ and benches, sat beneath brick cantilevers. The architects have skilfully delineated individual thresholds as territories somewhat set apart from the collective character of the brick passageway. The atmosphere is suitably anonymous and discrete, hinting at and allowing for individual eccentricity to flourish, dependent on the character of each inhabitant. You can imagine that these stoops will soon be filled with plants and knick-knacks. It is the equivalent of what the late Florian Beigel called designing the picnic mat, but not the picnic itself.
Each house is essentially the same type, but they are slightly offset relative to each other. The resulting gaps between them allow sunlight to slyly flood into the entrance passage in a seemingly natural and unforced fashion. Voids between the buildings feel voluminous and part of the composition, charged with design intent but also not over-designed. Happenstance here is not forced or willed, but the result of rigorous attention to the various forces, legislative and financial, both tacit and explicit, that shape the city and mould its architecture. You enter each house at its mid-point in plan and section, effectively into a stairwell, one which seems to uncoil downwards, and twist tightly upwards into the eaves. A large window opens calmly onto a view of the back gardens next door, and you feel both protected and discreetly situated in a coherent urban ensemble.
The cantilevered front parts of each house are clad in lightweight precast brick panels, expressed as such in contrast to the traditional brickwork of the grounded construction. This expression of tectonic logic comes across as a kind of natural ornament and decorum. Great care has been taken to orient each room slightly askew to its immediate neighbours, and the contrast and detail in the new brick walls, glimpsed in high-up bedroom windows, make each aperture seem considered and respectful of you and your neighbours’ privacy. The effect is that you feel part of a considered whole.
The exaggerated sense of attic-like resonance and enclosure upstairs is contrasted with a deliberate and extreme juxtaposition on the lower floors. You descend a narrow stair, lit from above, and arrive at a curiously-crafted round timber column, which seems to act as both a jumbo newel-post and a door frame. Sliding past this on both sides, space spills out onto a wide subterranean surface. Illuminated at its edges, and spreading out beyond the glass walls into a series of pools of light, the floor plane seems viscous and flowing, a ‘free-plan’ in contrast to the taut timber ‘room-plan’ above. This extreme and joyful contrast is possible because what first appear to be solid brick houses are revealed below to rest on thin concrete columns supporting a bare concrete ceiling. Wedges of external space are seemingly trapped between garden walls and glass walls, creating a series of small gardens that can be combined in a myriad of ways. It feels effortless and strange and bold, the result of logic pushed to its logical conclusion. I was forcibly reminded of the sense of inevitability that you encounter in the writing of Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc: something fresh, energising, self-aware, slightly zany and surreal.
Large moveable glass doors further the sense of reflection and spatial flow, of possibilities and freedom. Daylight and sunlight are not just quantities in this subtle architecture, but qualities and atmospheres that activate and resonate with the internal and external surfaces. Light spills in and drips around the edges of the plan, echoed and mirrored in the vast glass walls, as if refracted under water.
This sense of immersion is partly a result of the lower floors being deeper than the neighbouring gardens to various degrees, and because the architects were sufficiently aware of this effect to seek to amplify it. With the patio doors open, the ground floor seems to expand almost unnaturally far, creating a delicious sense of floating beneath the tall, slightly staggered brick chimneys above.
This isn’t just complexity and contradiction for its own sake, but a fully mature sense of spatial and phenomenal ambiguity: a comic sense of the close proximity of the ridiculous and the sublime. It’s funny and subtly exciting architecture, stretching the envelope of what is supposed to be possible in speculative developments into something urbane and generous, ingenious and wry.
This project fulfils Taylor’s own claim for the “artistic endeavour” of urban housing, satisfying both the intellectual and sensual pleasures of elegant form making , and the ‘rigour and importance of the plan’. Stephen Taylor creates architecture that is appealing to the body and the mind, inhabitants and neighbours, individuals and a collective. I’m not alone in thinking that he is one of the finest architects working in Britain today.