The meticulous rear extension of a London terraced house turns the storage of art into an artwork itself
‘Our role is to make it all happen’, says project architect Jernej Cencic. While Aristotle’s claim that architects are ‘more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons of the things which are done’ sounds very prejudiced, what is true is that the architect, jumping from project to project, never acquires the level of expertise of the craftsmen he collaborates with. More author than craftsman, the architect carries the authority to conceive the project as well as the authority to support its construction, guaranteeing the constant translation of drawing to making. At Gianni Botsford Architects (GBA), the architects produce drawings that show all the components of the project at once – an exploded axonometric in this case, emphasising the project’s successive layers.
At conception stage it is fundamental to allow for drawing and experiment, reasoning and testing, negotiation and revision, while during construction the commitment of the architect can make all the difference. Craft’s most fundamental characteristic – and the most at threat in all aspects of life today – must be time. Certain procedures cannot be hurried. The maturation of an idea is a slow process, particularly when so many different voices have to come together to culminate in a unified output, the result of a shared commitment. ‘In that sense, we are lucky,’ admits Botsford, ‘our clients are very patient.’ If architecture is about materialising a vision rather than making concessions, then time is a crucial variable. ‘A project like this cannot happen if we aren’t here, on site’, says Cencic.
Emerging out of one of the bay window’s angled sides, the Layered Gallery is accessed from the inside through the alcove. One of the smaller windows was removed, its frame kept for a new door. The architects envisioned placing the extension along the western end of the garden, but it was the planners who insisted on locating it against the opposite wall. That end of the plot previously accommodated a three-storey closet wing and, following its demolition, a thick brick wall complete with a chimney on the ground floor remained – there used to be a bakery here. The south-west orientation of the ghost volume’s remnants proved better suited to the project.
The design of a rear extension to a terraced house providing storage for the client’s art collection and a new toilet – non-negotiable – might not seem a stimulating brief, but GBA, who sees its work as ‘original solutions to particular problems’, took the opportunity to rethink both programmatic components. The need for storage space evolved into a ground-floor temporary gallery, a space for the client to hang art on suspended display screens with S-hooks attached to steel lattices. The panels are heavy, and their movement along the ceiling’s railings slightly cumbersome, turning the shuffling of images and rearranging of paintings into a physical process, as if encouraging more considered choices, while the leftover spaces between the bricks’ irregular wall line and the flat screens create pockets of actual storage.
The ‘secret’ toilet and washbasin are hidden in a large bespoke cabinet with regular cupboard compartments. Assuming that these facilities would not be used often, it was preferable to keep them out of sight – an unfolding toilet may appear frivolous, but it does make you think facilities take up too much space. Four red roller blinds provide privacy while protecting art from incoming light. In this large four-storey terraced house where each room serves a specific purpose – along with ordinary domestic spaces, there is already a study, a library and a cinema – the layered gallery maximises the experience of an originally purely functional requirement while creating a slightly unexpected kind of space.
From the outside, as the two steel columns – only supporting elements of the external screen – are covered by creepers, the steel and glass box appears to hover above the ground. Construction finished just a year ago but the careful integration into the existing and the growth of the garden’s vegetation already make it difficult to tell how long the extension has been there. The use of Corten contributes to this impression.Weathering steel – a nicer name than Corten according to Botsford because it suggests the material’s characteristic patina – was chosen in part for the complementary chromatic combination it would offer amid the surrounding greenery. The shades of rust, hues of brown oscillating between warm maroon, fiery orange and deep grey depending on light exposure, contrast with the fern’s bright greens and, through its newly acquired layers of patina, the structure tells an evolving story of the acceptance of time. It was the late French gardener and landscape architect Pascal Cribier, who said ‘A beautiful garden is a timeless place, the least damaged possible. Life and seasons must guarantee a place’s continuity’ – a statement that holds true for architecture.
Collaborations with different steel experts were required to create the project’s bespoke constituents. The external structure, the window frames, the cabinet and the sliding screens were designed and manufactured by a combination of British and Italian craftsmen – the architects acknowledge that ‘finding specialists we can work with and building relationships with them is an essential part of the job’. Botsford further admits that it is better for the different contractors and craftsmen to not understand the project in its entirety, as if the global vision would restrain creative output – suggestive of Arendt’s separation of Animal Laborans from Homo Faber. And in this instance Animal Laborans certainly guides Homo Faber. The pride felt by one of the craftsmen, who engraved his name at the bottom of the steel cabinet, testifies to the level of fulfilment felt by the project’s different contributors.
‘Rather than creating a render-perfect architecture only to then attempt to preserve its spotless condition, Corten speaks a more honest language’
Beyond the convenient lack of maintenance required by Corten, the structure’s construction is apparent, its skeleton visible with the grittiness of the welding, the nuts and bolts holding the different components together, even the small cylindrical blocks added on later to stop the window handles from hitting the glass. Rather than creating a render-perfect architecture only to then attempt to preserve its spotless condition, it is a material that speaks a more honest language – come as you are it says. ‘It is not because we have used weathering steel in this project that we will want to use it again in our next commission’, says Botsford – a statement easily confirmed by his portfolio, which displays a wide range of techniques and materials. Instead, the site seems to stand as the single most important ingredient in GBA’s design approach. As if every project is to be started from scratch.
Probably due to the nature of the British climate, conservatories and other garden rooms in the country too often restrict the connection to the outdoors to the sense of sight. Here, the delicate smell of jasmine rises from the garden and the large windows open fully, sitting flush against the screen structure, with the opening frames clinging onto the fixed frames thanks to built-in magnets. As it is unusual for the width of a window to be nearly as broad as the depth of the space it sits in, the sensation is one of truly generous connection with the outside world. The exterior takes over the interior.
The glazed roof and bare-skinned interior on the extension’s upper level – where a few frames rest on a simple Corten display shelf placed directly onto the existing exposed brick wall, and a narrow red bench occupies the centre of the space – enhance the feeling of openness to the elements. You are now surrounded by the rooftops of Fitzrovia – no longer confined in the enclosed sunken garden, no more perimeter walls in the way. On cloudier days, the colour of London’s sky takes you back to the off-white concrete slab in the courtyard, as if one were the reflection of the other. A few tree ferns are visible from up there but, mostly, the view down is dominated by the central slab, pulling the plants back against the brick walls and increasing the sense of depth. The garden, designed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, is more vertical than horizontal, and the experience of it changes drastically depending on which floor you are on – ‘like a worm on the lower ground, like a bird on the first floor’, says the landscape architect. Somewhat reminiscent of Carlo Scarpa, the clear geometry and sharp outlines of the slabs contrast with the organic shapes of ground-hugging vegetation and the trails of climbing plants racing up to the sunshine.
While the extension’s design contrasts emphatically with the original 300-year-old listed terrace, where time has eaten away the stairs’ stone steps and left uneven gaps between floors and doors, echoes of colour bring together the distinct identities of the parts into a unified whole and create the place’s unique atmosphere – the rear perimeter’s brick walls are painted dark grey, a motif found both on the ground floor’s street facade and inside the cinema, while the bay window volume remains white, matching the garden’s concrete slabs. A sense of timelessness emerges out of the whole, contributing to both the dissolution of hierarchy between elements and, consequently, the impression of an absence of statement from the architects.
Architect: Gianni Botsford Architects
Structural engineer: Entuitive
Landscape architect: Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Photographs: Luigi Parise