Backing onto Highgate Wood, this house both embraces nature and reflects the local vernacular while being of its time
One of the first things you notice about Highgate in high summer is the hydrangeas. Like blowsy floral footballs, their engorged baubles deck its bucolic avenues in a quiet riot of pastel blossom. As with many of London’s outer burbs, Highgate doesn’t feel very metropolitan. Here, where it shades into even more bosky Finchley, it is low rise and low density, populated by the suburban staple of half-timbered Tudorbethan semis set in neat gardens. An air of genteel, curtain-twitching prosperity predominates.
But there are stirrings amid the hydrangeas. Stealthily infiltrating this conservative milieu are the more challenging contemporary sensibilities of Carmody Groarke, who have just completed a family house on a looping avenue abutting Highgate Wood. Making no concessions to the somnolence of its locale, it reads as a tectonically precise and pristine convergence of brick volumes set back from the street in the manner of its Tudorbethan counterparts. Yet where the hydrangeas would usually be there is a starkly minimal expanse of gravel and some saplings populating a sort of suburban Zen garden. Formally abstracted and stripped of extraneous adornment, Carmody Groarke’s modus operandi is a conspicuously laconic presence amid the floral excess. It’s a bit like stumbling across Dries Van Noten in Liberty’s fabric department. You have to mentally readjust.
Designed for a couple with two small children, the Highgate house was one of Carmody Groarke’s earliest commissions, evolving with the practice, which is now 10 years old. ‘We’re interested in the idea of the timescale or design life of architecture and how that informs how it is made,’ says partner Kevin Carmody. ‘We’ve designed all kinds of buildings, from memorials with a lifespan of centuries to a pavilion that was only up for three days.’ Real or unrealised, such projects explore the boundaries of conventional architecture, incubating ideas, research and ways of making that underscore and energise a still expanding repertoire.
For Carmody Groarke ‘reflection and making go hand in hand’ and the substance of construction is intimately connected with how architecture is made, experienced and transformed. To date the ‘substance’ has included materials such as recycled scaffolding poles and polyethylene cladding for a pop-up rooftop restaurant in Stratford, London, which interrogated the process of construction and its contingent and creative intelligence. Beyond the mayfly world of the pop-up, there is the more enduring cluster of delicate stainless-steel stelae conceived for the July 7 memorial in Hyde Park and the tantalising prospect of a boat museum on Lake Windermere clad in oxidised copper cladding that will weather over time.
‘At Highgate the brick is an animate organism, powerful and muscular, giving expressive life to geometry and space’
Beautifully constructed from brick supplied by Danish firm Petersen, the Highgate house has a potent sense of solidity and rootedness, with massive walls and deeply chiselled window reveals. The variegated reddish brick is palpably loadbearing, a calculated riposte to the glib slickness of stick-on panels, in which masonry is reduced to just another textural option, a thin dead skin instead of living sinew. At Highgate the brick is an animate organism, powerful and muscular, giving expressive life to geometry and space. What the architects describe as its ‘physical constancy’ even extends to the brick lintels; no precast concrete shortcuts here. And while the house is defined by its sense of abstraction, the use of brick maintains contextual coherence and alludes to English craft traditions, as historically manifest in the neighbourhood’s eclectic array of dwellings.
Materiality, in the sense of allowing materials to be and of themselves, shapes and determines the architecture. The cliché of the limited palette finds renewed expression in a sumptuous tasting plate of brick, travertine and dark fumed oak that, together, subtly define and transform space. Edged and lined in black travertine, an indoor swimming pool, for instance, is not the usual blue reservoir but a mysterious, chthonic grotto. ‘We’re interested in the physical capacity of architecture to provoke an experience of its presence’, says Carmody. ‘We’re also interested in how the physical properties of architecture can reveal other layers of meaning, or relate to other ideas beyond themselves, through the realm of experience.’
There is a tangible experiential shift in how the house presents itself to the public street and the more private domain of the garden and woods to the rear. On the street it is hermetic and restrained, with areas of perforated brick, like modern mashrabiyas, discreetly diffusing intrusive gazes. On the garden side, the brick walls dissolve into planes of full-height glazing to frame formal lawns and ranks of tightly pollarded trees. Beyond this mini-Versailles, the dense, arboreal perimeter of Highgate Wood looms over the site, an untamed suburban wilderness pressing up against manicured domesticity. Here, unconstrained by the propriety of the street, the house assumes a more villa-like quality as it opens up to and is engulfed by a green tsunami that forms a verdantly scenic backdrop to daily life.
‘Despite its pearl-clutching modernity, the Highgate house abides by the unwritten rules of English suburbia’
A large central hall, which can be used for living and entertaining, is the pivotal element anchoring the formal and spatial composition. Reinforcing a hierarchy of rooms according to patterns of living, this giant knuckle connects the house’s two wings containing bedrooms for adults and children at upper level and a more fluid ensemble of spaces at ground level. Compared with the proscenium-like dimensions of the hall, the cellular bedrooms are surprisingly modest in scale, but the interior is characterised by carefully choreographed moments of compression and release generating a compelling spatial and experiential tension.
In the rarefied world of bespoke house design, the distance between client and architect tends to be telescoped down, catalysing a more intimate rapport through which often unorthodox ideas can be explored and implemented. Within this equilibrium the role of the enlightened client is critical, yet it is usually always overshadowed by the prevailing narrative of the architect’s god-like genius. And as history shows, being an enlightened client takes perseverance. Think of poor old Edith Farnsworth, whose eponymous Miesian masterpiece was the subject of bitter litigation, or just about anyone who had to put up with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Highgate house section
Carmody Groarke are not in this league of aloofness and clearly have a civilised relationship with their clients. However, the clients are also evidently determined to be outstanding patrons, as the project ran for just under five years from first conversation to completion and involved demolishing the original house on the site, a potentially transgressive act that no doubt attracted its share of feverish curtain-twitching.
Yet despite its pearl-clutching modernity, the Highgate house abides by the unwritten rules of English suburbia: front and back gardens, materially contextual and site responsive, its trio of brick volumes fanning out to inscribe the gentle curve of the street. You could easily imagine what other architects and clients might have made of such a delectable setting. It’s still Dries Van Noten in Liberty’s fabric department, but rather than mutual incomprehension, there is mutual respect, stimulating a fruitful exploration of the art of the possible.
Architect: Carmody Groarke
Photographs: Hélène Binet