Groupwork + Amin Taha’s 15 Clerkenwell Close is a poetic meditation on history, building and materials, finds Piers Gough
Amin Taha, whose basketwork balconies at Barretts Grove were a Stirling Prize contender last year, has been fabulously provocative around my London neighbourhood from the get-go. First it was a new building for the traditional Italian deli Gazzano’s in the historically Italian area around Mount Pleasant – with the external elevations realised from top to toe in big tiles of Corten steel. Obviously it’s not the first building in that material – will Eero Saarinen’s original John Deere headquarters ever be excelled? – but still a brilliantly bloody-minded addition to a Farringdon Road of good historic buildings, but totally indifferent modern additions.
His next Islington provocation was a building for the trendy Aria shop on Upper Street. At first glance, a corner bomb site is restored with a repro Victorian building matching its mirror corner across the street. But wait: the building is patently cast in solid terracotta-coloured concrete with its windows blinded like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. Then new rectangular windows punched seemingly arbitrarily through the facade, oblivious to its scale, detail or language. Again there are some precedents abroad, notably Édouard François’ Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière in Paris, but here the idea is brought to London at precisely the right opportunity with the right client and a tolerant planning department.
Taha’s latest building is also in the Borough of Islington, in Clerkenwell Close, in an area formerly characterised by watchmaking and printing, now home to architects and designers with attendant showrooms and ‘proper food’ restaurants. And this time Taha is his own client. He looks much further back than such recent history for inspiration, right back to the Augustine nunnery that was here outside the city walls, as well as Saint James Church across the road. He speculates about the great limestone buildings existing and lost, and what became of the demolished fabric. His musings have created a poetic meditation on the modern possibilities for the excavation and construction of stone.
Unfortunately the site is surrounded by the kind of flaccid, neo-nothing buildings that are supposed to pass as OK filler in many conservation areas but in fact by having nothing to say, suck the life out of the real thing of the historic architecture. By contrast, the building Taha has realised with his practice, Groupwork, doesn’t kowtow but converses as an equal with its historic surroundings and tells its modern story contextually and lucidly.
Us passing locals have been amazed by the construction technique developed with Webb Yates, the exquisitely elegant structural engineer. Early in its construction, the apparently concrete-framed building had no vertical members. Seemingly taking the Dom-Ino House’s freedom principle a step further than Corb, there appeared a stack of concrete floors but no columns to hold them up, just a lift and stair core. It looked for a time like a surreal five-storey advertisement for acrow props. Then along came some big fenestration: that’s not going to hold up those floors, surely! And then – we should have guessed – an exoskeletal frame, but of what?
It turned out to be undressed limestone straight from the quarry, in sizes determined by structural necessity. The ‘natural’ stone simply bears the marks of how it is quarried. Drilling, splitting and sawing produces a range of textures and colours that matches the complexity of crafted, wrought stone – for instance the classical conceit of rustication implying bedrock segueing up to smooth walling contrasting with the richness of a Corinthian capital. Here, the architect has evidently allowed the poetic licence of chance to determine the very modern sensibility of the composition. It’s an outward expression rather similar to the now-popular raggedy-raw ‘as found’ interior.
A glazed meeting room is suspended over the basement-level office space
The stone always has a smooth side to the inside of the offset frame, but the outside is left however it comes out of the quarry. The column pieces have a square steel plate inserted in their back at floor level. It meets a similar simple steel bracket attached via a thermal break to the concrete floor slab. A nice subtlety is that the columns get predictably narrower on the corners and as they rise up the building, but on the top floor they become bigger again. This is evidently to compensate for the lack of load from above, like, for instance, a pinnacle on a flying buttress. So the building is an erudite education in trabeated structures as well as a strange lacy grid of supernatural stone.
Now it’s complete, the building is a delight inside as well as out. Flats are stacked above the ground-floor and basement level studio, which is occupied by Groupwork. It’s mainly basement because the ground-floor slab is mostly missing to create a glorious double-height space.
A folded steel stairs descend to the basement office level
Approached by a gently sloping colonnade down the south side – a vehicle access requirement – the ground is landscaped in flowing patterned pebbles like some excavated Roman mosaic. One column is generously carved with a list of all the contributors to the building, not just the usual suspects of a foundation stone.
An entry bridge crosses to the central concrete core and leads to a suspended steel-framed glass vitrine of a meeting room, like a Damien Hirst shark tank. Steel stairs descend into a basement with the distinct feel of a revealed historic monument. Exposed old party walls are rich with raw brick sculptural form; the west wall is like frozen avalanche with some sawn-off steels trapped in it, while the north wall has uncovered a formal composition of elegant arches. New external walls to east and south are of concrete below the ‘clerestorey’ of floor-to-ceiling glazing at ground level. The studio simply doughnuts around the central core, into which kitchen and loos are seamlessly incorporated.
An enclosed bridge jumps across the studio from the street-front to the central core at ground level. This is the residential entrance. It is entered through a projecting steel cage – a porch like a mini version of the facade. In the core, the open grid-pattern steel stairs wrap around the central framed lift shaft like they used to in blocks of old. The stairs’ slight extra traverse distance means that the pitch is shallow and attractive to walk up.
The internal walls of the concrete core are insulated and lined with timber as technically it is an outside space; the rooflight at the top is lifted above its upstand to allow free air movement. This obviates the need for entry lobbies or sprinklers in the flats. Taha may be a provocative poet but he also delights in the minutiae of the building regulations and subtle technical intricacies.
The apartments themselves, including Taha’s penthouse, are generously-sized and lovely. All the rooms are enfiladed so the flats can be circulated around the perimeter wall as well as the normal ‘inner’ route. It certainly makes them feel bigger than their actual size. Layouts are predicated on the attractive idea of expressing kitchen and bathroom pods as freestanding timber-finished boxes. The open plan is divided into rooms when required by hidden doors which slide and fold out from the boxes. The materials palette is reduced to concrete for walls, floors and ceilings, oak-veneered plywood, and brown marble for wet surfaces in both bathrooms and kitchens.
Fixed floor-to-ceiling glazing means minimum framing. It is augmented by timber ventilation shutters neatly placed behind the external columns, minimising obstruction of the outlook and allowing a close inspection of the stonework and its fixing method. As well as divine views of Saint James’, this modest-height building also enjoys a spectacular skyline panorama over the City, Barbican and St Paul’s.
Kurt Vonnegut reported that his architect father lamented that modern architecture was ultimately uninteresting because it lacked any element of chance. Indeed in this post-craft and liability-obsessed age, it is an absolute article of faith of architectural practice that every aspect of the design of buildings is nailed down to the smallest possible degree. Most of us subscribe to the total control theory that the more perfect the drawings and specifications, the more perfect the resulting building. Amin Taha – while excelling in technical innovation – positively relishes the possibility of imperfections in buildings, reflecting our own imperfections across the range from historic memory to construction techniques. In doing so he has produced some of the most surprising and exciting buildings to grace the capital in recent years. He is the kind of architect I suspect many of us always wished we could be: bold, brave, inventive and poetic.