AR House highly commended: The practice’s first house, in a quiet suburb, is a bubbling collage of germinating ideas, clever references and meticulous details
Pebbledash has a poor reputation. With an unfortunate association with the shoddily built semis it caked unflatteringly after the Second World War, both it, and roughcast – its close cousin – have a public-image problem, stripping period properties of character, charm and 5 per cent of their market value. In fact, this scorned material has Roman roots and had a noble renaissance at the turn of the 20th century, when it was applied liberally to Arts and Crafts houses by architects including Lutyens, Voysey and Rennie Mackintosh.
In Dublin, pebbledash is having something of a renaissance now, its material merits and historic significance reassessed and reimagined for the 21st century by young Irish architectural practices including TAKA, GKMP and Steve Larkin Architects, as well as London-based but Dublin-born David Leech Architects.
‘Looking around the house is like watching a language find its tongue, a thesis assembling itself before your eyes’
Hiding in plain sight in a cul-de-sac of ’40s semis in the north-eastern Dublin suburb of Clontarf, an intruder imitates its politely pebbledashed neighbours with a boiling crust of gluey porridge slung onto walls with joyful abandon – or ‘like cauliflower’ as Leech describes. Roughcast – in which the aggregate is mixed with mortar before being thrown onto walls, rather than left exposed and pressed onto the mortared surface, as with pebbledash – is a material familiar to local tradesmen, though here it is amplified to uncouth cementitious gobs. The contractor, concerned for his reputation, required some convincing that this was the desired effect.
But this distinctive ‘cauliflower’ roughcast was not the original plan: when first designed in 2008, Leech had envisioned a cast-concrete structure with a brutalist bush-hammered finish to emulate the local pebbledash. Instead, the churning roughcast skin hides a sizeable steel structure. The Hollybrook Grove house was the architect’s first independent project, started while working at Tom de Paor’s office and at 6a, but it wasn’t until 2016, when the Irish economy picked up, that the house was constructed and Leech established his own practice in London.
He admits he ‘almost felt like a different architect’ returning to the project after nearly a decade. ‘In the end, it became a refurbishment project of a building that had never existed’, he admits. The house is effervescent with germinating theories, thoughts and details, coaxed into cohesion by a decade of consequent experience at Caruso St John and Herzog & de Meuron. In this small house, each idea finds space to speak quietly.
Among the most dramatic shifts was this relaxation in attitude towards what Leech refers to as material ‘honesty’: a ‘puritanical aspiration’ for the external expression of structural materiality. Having studied at University College Dublin, he claims this purist ambition was a result of ‘the Modernist teaching in Irish architecture schools and a rooted belief in phenomenology’. Hollybrook Grove is ‘not a typical Irish house’ he argues, indicating its casual disregard of structural expression, which he believes runs contrary to a ‘very clear identity in Irish architecture’. Leech is critical of ‘intellectual follies’ created at great expense for wealthy patrons, and describes craft as ‘exclusive’ and ‘elitist’. The cost of this house per square metre was some 30 per cent cheaper than that quoted by highly skilled contractors. The exorbitant cost of quality craftsmanship, he says, ‘keeps the world of architecture out of the suburbs and something only for the middle classes who can afford skilled makers and craftspeople’.
‘Hiding in plain sight, Holybrook Grove house imitates its politely pebbledashed neighbours with a boiling crust of gluey porridge slung onto walls with joyful abandon’
Rather than design high-precision exposed concrete frames or masonry that require expensive craftsmen, Leech is interested in the applied arts, in ‘building with tolerance and then distracting with elaboration’, investing time in the assembly of finishes to mask inexpensive construction.
The house was built on a chunk of the adjacent garden bought by the architect’s family after two planning applications submitted by the previous owner for a semi-detached facsimile had already been rejected. The reason cited was the required bedroom-to-garden ratio, and only the third proposal for an unbuilt 45m2 one-bedroom bungalow was approved. By incorporating a concertina of folding doors into the ground floor, Leech persuaded the planners that, when open, the house’s footprint could in fact be reduced to just its cruciform structural ‘core’, with the remaining ground plane becoming part of the garden.
Carved out of a small but lush garden, bound tightly by a tall wall that chamfers the plot, the house’s ground plane sits like a topography of concrete terraces. One moment it is a sequence of outdoor patios, the corners of the first floor hovering unnervingly in mid-air (a result of the substantial steel cantilevers concealed above the plasterboard); the next it forms enclosed domestic rooms. The four spurs of the core, containing the toilet, services and staircase, loosely divide the ground floor into four terraced spaces: from the entry hall, whose low ceiling gives an intimate feel, a step down leads into the generous dining room and kitchen, where the garden rushes up to the brim. Another two steps down lead through to the sunken living room, where the shadowy corner of a rainforest-like floor presses against the windowed doors at eye level when sitting down. A chequerboard of marble tiles is cast into the unpolished concrete ground plane like a ‘petrified rug’, a nod to Lewerentz or, in Leech’s view, the hunks of marble set into the terrazzo floor of Palladio’s Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza. The high garden wall provides considerable privacy, which is perhaps why the recessed ceiling track is still waiting for its gauzy curtains to wrap around the house’s perimeter.
An iroko staircase ascends to a small landing, exactly one door wide and two doors long; it’s like standing inside a large Art Deco wardrobe, except for the light flooding in from the tall skylight that emerges as a large chimney stack at the roof’s apex. Behind the doors are two bedrooms, a study and a bathroom, each of which occupies the full height of the pitched roof, the ceiling of the larger bedroom billowing inwards like a circus tent. The bedrooms integrate chequered marquetry floors, constructed from two-tone Valchromat (a variation of the marble ‘rug’ downstairs), tall skirtings and window surrounds. In the smaller bedroom, a wall of cupboards and drawers incorporates the bedroom door – a modern incarnation of elaborate Arts and Crafts built-in furniture (Philip Webb’s cupboardsettle- ladder-balcony at the Red House comes to mind).
Attention to detail is fastidious: the gently hollowed first timber step of the staircase, as if worn by centuries of slippered feet; plug sockets positioned on the skirting joints like splines; rhomboids, painted in gloss on the living-room walls, which catch the soft rippling light; the meticulously detailed folding timber doors with their recessed wedge-shaped handles. The life of the house is gently pre-empted: the Valchromat bedroom panelling is designed to incorporate bedheads, a floor socket anticipates illuminating a wardrobe.
The house is currently rented on a short-term lease by a couple from the United States and, while many of these these cues are unwittingly overlooked – the temporary Ikea bedframes brazenly ignore the meticulously designed Valchromat – the house graciously accepts the tenants’ jumble of dog beds (of which there are many) and the detritus of daily life.
‘The building crackles with a youthful fervour of different ideas, references and details, but stops short of feeling conceptually crowded or claustrophobic, each thought given space to pause and breathe’
The playfulness and delight continues outside, the facades a careful collage of ‘cauliflower’ roughcast and smooth handtrowelled render, with copper downpipes superfluously drawn across the elevations like ink down a page. The tall garden wall incorporates the house’s fifth facade where it cuts away the corner along the lane. From here, it appears as an enigmatic composition in contrasting smooth render, engraved with the ghosts of a fictive door and window, and embellished with a mysterious oval of mirrored glass – deliberately not a perfect circle – which is, in fact, the porthole window in the upstairs bathroom. Another short garden wall at the house’s entrance integrates a bin store, gas meters, a letterbox and a bench; rendered smooth on the driveway side, it is plastered with roughcast facing the garden, then capped with neat copper coping.
‘It’s two houses in one’, Leech reflects – a ground floor almost entirely without solid external walls, but with an enclosed nestlike floor of bedrooms above. But, depending on where you stand, it is arguably more like five or six houses in one: a pebbledash house, a house behind a tall wall, a house of patios in a garden, a house of chequered floors, a house lined in marquetry with circus-tent ceilings, a house with a mute gable and a mirror moon. Rather than a single dominant thread, Leech is interested in ‘lots of small ideas that go together so that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts’. The building crackles with a youthful fervour of different ideas, references and details, but stops short of feeling conceptually crowded or claustrophobic, each thought given space to pause and breathe. Looking around the house at Hollybrook Grove is like watching a language find its tongue, a thesis assembling itself before your eyes.
An architect’s first house is where they find their voice: here in the suburbs of Dublin, a young architecture speaks with a clarity, confidence and maturity beyond its years. Just don’t call it ‘crafted’.
Architect David Leech Architects
Structural engineer Cora
External joinery Fitzpatrick & Henry
Photographs Courtesy of David Leech Architects, unless otherwise stated
This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today