Nature, daylight and the occupants predominate in this London studio
An unassuming shuttered concrete facade set between banal modern housing and cheapjack warehouses in a bland inner suburban street robbed of character over recent decades: this description is unlikely to excite fellow architects let alone critics or even curious passers-by. Yet here in London’s Latimer Road, 6a architects has shaped an intriguing building that, special in its own right, shows how any number of narrow, deep and unpromising city sites might be developed to advantage and in tune with history, both ancient and modern.
The building is a studio for Juergen Teller, the German-born fashion and fine art photographer. Behind the grey concrete facade, it comprises a sequence of three individual blocks – offices and archive, studio, and a dining room with private quarters above – punctuated by garden courtyards.
If this still sounds prosaic, then imagine standing in front of Teller’s studio, opening the door and looking into the building. The eye is drawn along its length, through a promenade of solids, voids, daylight, shadows, greenery, plays of sunlight through concrete beams, through side openings and, in particular, through rooflights, that make this seemingly matter-of-fact design the stuff of the poetry of architecture.
This, of course, is a phrase of John Soane’s, and the architects say that they have been much influenced by the ingenious plays of daylight Soane mastered in both his own early 19th-century museum home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and in the Dulwich Picture Gallery with its all but windowless London stock brick facades. Appropriately, the sawn timber shuttering 6a has used to give texture and character to their concrete walls is of the same height as London stock bricks, a detail that roots Teller’s studio in the photographer’s adopted city.
Soane, of course, toyed considerably with ancient precedent and prototypes. So, it is not altogether surprising to walk into and through this well-crafted building and to feel you have been here before, somewhere in the deep urban past. In fact, although this was not in the architects’ conscious minds, the plan, section, facade and character of their building is remarkably similar to that of a number of ancient city houses.
‘Here, then, is a building of the early 21st century with echoes of the plan of a secretly ambitious house of the first century’
The House of Pansa in Pompeii springs to mind. Built for a go-getting businessman, politician, property magnate and promoter of gladiatorial games, this large house occupied a deep and narrow city block. Its facade, like many Roman city homes, was all but characterless, more warehouse than villa. Fronted and flanked by shops, a bakery, cafés and small apartments, this once opulent house opened out through a single narrow entrance from the street.
Once inside the lobby, however, visitors’ eyes were led through sun-filled courtyards – an atrium followed by an Ionic peristyle – through shadows and columns to secret family recesses. Beyond this, the house opened onto a verandah, the width of the site, overlooking a walled garden. Look at the section of the House of Pansa: it is not so very far in form from 6a’s studio for Juergen Teller.
Here, then, is a building of the early 21st century with echoes of the plan of a secretly ambitious house of the first century. The House of Pansa was a place of work as well as a home. The Teller studio could very easily be a home, too. With its kitchen and dining room, its generous and well-fitted bathrooms, and sauna, along with first and second floor rooms overlooking courtyards, gardens and, from a roof terrace, a London skyline of stock bricks, narrow gardens and variegated chimney pots, it would be a fine place to live as well as work.
With the front door closed, the building is truly private. It is not overlooked. Its courtyard gardens, landscaped by Dan Pearson Studio, allow Teller’s staff and guests to work in the open air. How rare today to find a workplace where windows open into courtyards, to the sound of birdsong and rain. How delightful to live with weather rather than pretending, as all too many wilfully hermetic modern places of work do, that nature does not exist.
The gardens have been planned to grow – and they are growing quickly – like those accidental gardens found in forgotten patches of city, in quiet railway yards or former bombsites (yes, you can still find these, in the guise of car parks, in London). The architects say they were captured by RSR Fitter’s delightful book, London’s Natural History, first published in 1946, when willow-herb, buddleia and London Pride (saxifrage) sprouted from corners of buildings as ruined as those of Pompeii.
‘There is sense of solidity, craft and care wherever you look, sit or wander through, and something special in a building that wears its craft so very lightly’
Seemingly so obvious from the street – a simple facade punctuated by a timber door and, on the first floor, a large six-light office window – the section of the Teller studio is rich and even playful. The office and archive block contains rooms on two and three floors respectively gained and linked by a lightwell stair. The studio itself is a spacious top-lit affair, animated by a pair of narrow, open raw concrete stairs leading up to store rooms. Given that this beautifully lit space might easily double up as a chapel, in the imagination these might be monks’ cells. Equally, the studio would make a great gym, or – as Teller has used it – a performance space and cinema. In fact, Teller has been so taken with the studio and the building as a whole that he has displayed it in recent photographs as part of fashion and fine art compositions.
As a sharp-eyed photographer might expect, detailing throughout the building, although refined and far from ostentatious – from custom-designed brass door handles and hinges to stair rails – catches the eye. There is sense of solidity, craft and care wherever you look, sit or wander through, and something special in a building that wears its craft so very lightly. Here is a well-mannered building that allows nature, daylight and its occupants rather than architectural gestures to take pride of place.
More than this, the architects have called no attention whatsoever to the way in which the building performs. An essentially ‘passive’ structure, it makes use of solar energy, collects green water for its gardens and terraces and does these things and many more beside without anyone knowing about them. It operates as quietly as its well-proportioned rooms breathe and bathe in subtly changing daylight. London, of course, is not southern Italy, so courtyards will be bathed more often in grey than azure light and lashed with rain rather than being caressed by the sun. And, yet, how special to be able to sit out, under the roof of the corridor, as rain falls around you, to be able to open windows to let in summer breezes, to walk through and between spaces that are both all of a piece and yet different from one another.
This is an elemental architecture, connecting past and present, solid and void, nature and artifice, poetry and functionality. It has to be experienced, of course, as photographs cannot capture the sensual qualities of a building that, on first encounter from the street, seems so very uneventful, so matter of fact, when it is laced with imagination, filled with light and life.
Juergen Teller studio
Architect: 6a architects
Structural engineer: Price & Myers
Landscape: Dan Pearson Studio
Photographs: Johan Dehlin