AR House awards 2019 shortlisted: Gianni Botsford Architects deftly manipulate light and shadow on a small and mainly subterranean site in Notting Hill
When choosing a site for a 250m2 bachelor pad, complete with a quarry-full of Carrara marble and obligatory swimming pool, a cramped garden in London’s most expensive borough has its limitations. On this tiny square plot in Notting Hill, squeezed between five-storey townhouses and a large plane tree, the architect, Gianni Botsford, had no choice but to dig down.
The London-based architect has an impressive portfolio, but his preoccupation with manipulating and distributing daylight is most obviously evidenced in his painstakingly thorough residential work. Within this former garden’s unenviable constraints, Botsford has magically sculpted a mostly subterranean, two-bedroom home brimming with light and generosity.
‘Like a mouthpiece, the oculus sucks in the available light, before reflecting it across each unique, hand-crafted spruce beam and into every corner of the partition-free living area’
In a seemingly counterintuitive move, the free-standing house is situated in the shadows. It sits in the gaps between the slithers of light that reach its backyard setting. Analysis of the light levels at 1-metre intervals defined the limits of the volume. The resulting trapezoidal floor plan is wedged between two narrow, heavily planted gardens that reveal rare glimpses of the home’s exterior, against a brown brick backdrop. Stock brick garden walls bound the site and carry the tapering roof. Nothing suggests that two-thirds of the home lies beneath, an iceberg construction capped with copper, which deftly dodges sunlight destined for the lightwells situated at the corners of the plot.
The timber roof and its copper skin are crafted with the precision of an orchestral instrument. It even resembles one: sweeping curves and splayed base bringing to mind the bell of an upturned French horn. The complexity of the form is at its most apparent directly below its 6-metre-high, off-centre oculus. Like a mouthpiece, the oculus sucks in the available light, before reflecting it across each unique, hand-crafted spruce beam and into every corner of the partition-free living area.
A select palette of materials encountered in the only above-ground room sets the tone for the basement levels. Marble and metal are reserved for wet areas, while timber lines those that are dry. An impossibly glossy copper kitchen sits sandwiched between whitewashed laminated timber above and Douglas fir floors below. Botsford wondered whether the finishes ‘might be a little too much’, yet their considered application creates a harmonious composition with the mineral elements shining as if freshly mined – a nice nod to what is happening below.
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Source: Edmund Sumner
Hidden behind the kitchen, a floating timber staircase descends towards a fluted marble lightwell, where reflective surfaces above amplify the sky. Every journey arrives at light, dispelling the feeling of descending into the ground. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, two courtyards and abundant storage are found on this level. A wall of full-height stainless steel utility cupboards, every bit as bespoke as the kitchen above, draws the eye towards a mirrored wall that clones the courtyard opposite. Every object and surface capitalises on its limited access to light, pushing and pulling it in every direction.
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A second floating staircase, this one made of steel, takes you 9 metres below ground. This level houses a pool, steam room, top-lit yoga studio and a gallery. All lights are off, yet sunlight dances rhythmically off the water and marble. The fully timber-clad gallery by contrast has an intriguing atmospheric ambiguity: it could be a fitness studio, disco or den.
The home took more than 10 years to complete, yet less than three of those involved construction. It survived a recession, prolonged negotiations with the authorities and a change of ownership. Its resilience and inventiveness impress, but it’s Botsford’s meticulous orchestration of materials, form and light that truly astonishes.
All photographs by Edmund Sumner
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Nile Bridgeman is an alumnus of the New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.), which is a free programme for emerging design writers, developing the journalistic skill, editorial connections and critical voice of its participants. N.A.W. focuses on black and minority ethnic emerging writers who are under-represented across design journalism and curation. N.A.W. was founded in 2017 by Phineas Harper and Tom Wilkinson with the Architecture Foundation and the Architectural Review and you can read more about it here