Reconsidering the archetype of the mews dwelling, this new house explores the tension between the rigour of its street presence and a fluid inner realm
Doughty Mews is a fine example of a quintessentially English typology. Its modest brick frontages, directly abutting the carriageway, were once stables that served the grand houses of Doughty Street. This dignified thoroughfare and its attendant mews exemplify a model of urban housing that rapidly came to define Georgian England, as it swept across the fields that separated the Cities of London and Westminster. Since then, while more recent public housing and other developments have encroached upon it, the urban form and character of this part of Bloomsbury has retained its coherence. Current development remains piecemeal, infilling and densifying individual plots as they become available. However, social hierarchies have witnessed a far more significant shift and where the typical London mews might once have accommodated servants and iron-shod hooves, it now houses the creative, well-heeled metropolitan elite.
To this end, a new house by Jamie Fobert Architects negotiates an awkward corner plot at the southern end of Doughty Mews, where it meets the east/west alignment of Roger Street and where John Mews begins its gentle climb southward, towards the rear entrance of Holborn Library. It is a complex and long contested site, last occupied by a car repair workshop, whose proprietor fought a lengthy battle against eviction. Subsequently it was subject to two successful planning appeals for overscaled, commercial housing schemes; chips in the greedy and destructive game of developer roulette that is played across London to crank up land prices and which stifles so many opportunities for sensitive development and appropriate densification. Fortunately that did not prove the case here and Fobert’s clients eventually succeeded in obtaining the land before commissioning him to build a substantial, 600sqm dwelling on it; a palazzo masquerading as a mews house.
The construction of houses for the wealthy on what would, historically, have been considered marginal territory is an increasingly common London phenomenon, of which Caruso St John’s Brick House or Fobert’s own award-winning Anderson House are just two recent examples. Yet with substantial frontages to both Roger Street and Doughty Mews this is not, like them, an introverted site buried in the heart of an urban block. Instead, its restriction lies in the proximity of its northern and eastern boundaries to the loosely arranged garden facades that both soften the rectitude of the Doughty Street terraces and have, in recent times, become the focus of their domesticity.
With disarming frankness Fobert characterises the resulting building as ‘the result of a right to light diagram overlaid with a right to privacy diagram’. However, this dramatically underplays the complex formal and spatial interplay through which the house maximises its use of the available site in every dimension, both internally and externally. Its delineation of points in space, defined by the regulatory envelope, establishes what one might term a ‘structural constellationʼ, to borrow an idea from Josef Albers.
Externally its folded and inflected form successfully negotiates the transition from the diminutive scale of Doughty Mews to that of Doughty Street and the tower-like mass of the 1930s Art Deco apartments that punctuate its junction with Roger Street. The initial adjustment in scale occurs on the mews facade, where a glazed return and a small recessed balcony are carved into the wall of buff yellow Petersen brick. On one side of this cut, the eaves are carefully aligned with the building’s immediate neighbour, while on the other the scale shifts to respond both to the larger volumes beyond and to the corner turret of the mews house opposite. Above, and set back in line with the internal face of the balcony, a bronze-clad, pavilion-like structure forms a third storey above ground. However this is almost invisible in the oblique and, when looking south down the mews, the house feels modest and unassuming.
At street level the corner between Roger Street and Doughty Mews is chamfered back to open up the relationship between them, with the worn stone bollard that did mark the corner pulled back into the line of the new brickwork. This small adjustment announces the Roger Street facade as a more substantial, tripartite composition. Here the brickwork is inflected to pass behind a plane of bronze plate, its folded form reinforced by interleafing standard bricks that express their resultant, open joints at each turn. The bronze creates the balustrade to a first-floor terrace and accommodates sliding garage doors. It appears to continue behind the masonry, defining entrances within brick reveals and creating the impression that the two material surfaces slide over one another. Above, the line of the roof-top pavilion steps back again to reveal a slender, projecting blade of roof that reiterates the geometry, while shading an extensive wall of glazing. Elsewhere, windows are limited to a few, large, carefully composed openings.
‘From the tightly coiled arrangement of cellular rooms below, up through the more spatially plastic volumes of the living spaces, it finally presents a vista across a vast city room’
The practice’s extensive use of large-scale models to develop the house is clearly evident within the complex, nuanced resolution of its exterior. While the building offers an imposing frontality when seen from John Mews, its transformations in mass and scale when seen in the oblique reveal it to be a contingent form, in constant dialogue with its variegated context. Beyond neighbouring buildings, this attitude extends to a relationship made with what Fobert describes as ‘the most magnificent plane tree in Bloomsbury that’s not in a park’. Concerned that the project would remove this graceful tree from the experience of the passer-by, he arranged parallel screens of glazing to ensure that it can be seen through the house and remains a visible presence at the end of John Mews.
Despite the extensive glazing, the form of the interior is only hinted at from the outside. Unexpectedly, both ground and basement floors extend to each boundary, filling the plot. Their arrangement, around a central light court, recalls the introverted plan of a Roman atrium house. The two upper floors step back from this void, as determined by the regulatory envelope, and create a raised courtyard to the rear of the plan. Relationships between levels are reinforced by two sequential double-height spaces, through which slender freestanding columns pass from basement to ground and first to second floors respectively. Against them a spine wall extends from basement to roof, supporting three stacked staircases that are constructed in black folded steel plate with hardwood treads and balustrades.
Like the exterior, the inside has the precise and assured material character that one has come to expect from the practice. Both the spine wall and the soffits are of exposed in-situ concrete. Their downstand beams sit above plastered studwork walls and counterpoint the delicate architrave details, flush skirtings and oak floors. As finely finished, in its own terms, as the joinery, the concrete is cast against phenolic ply and offers a warm hue that feels tonally consistent with the brickwork.
As in a palazzo, the ground floor deals with entry, vehicles, business and guests. Arriving on foot or by car, via the garage, one enters into a loosely defined hallway. From here the first set of stairs climb to the main living spaces above. To their left, screened by the spine wall, an office is situated against the mews, its separate street door and sliding screens allowing it be separated from the main body of the house. Two guest bedrooms occupy the remainder of the floor, separated by a shared, top-lit shower room and accessed from either side of the atrium. These small rooms, with their minimal storage, fulfil the client’s request to make visitor accommodation ‘comfortable, but not too comfortable’.
A second stair, situated below the first, descends into the basement where a 1.4m deep lap pool, lined in veined white marble, traverses the width of the plan. Complemented by a grey, veined, limestone floor, the sheen of these stone surfaces accentuates the already generous ceiling height, making the basement feel surprisingly airy. Here, the glazed atrium concludes in a luxuriant moss garden, complete with a flowering tree, which can be opened up on three sides to offer a genuine sense of swimming outside. The remainder of the basement floor provides service accommodation, including space for future live-in help if required, and a voluminous technical room. The latter is testament to the project’s environmental ambitions. Highly insulated and airtight, it is self-sufficient in heat terms, with all requirements, including those of the swimming pool, being met by five 180m deep boreholes below the basement slab.
The splaying geometries of the street facade are largely suppressed within the more cellular character of the lower floors but, as you rise through the house, spaces begin to exploit the tension between the rectilinear void and the inflected exterior walls. On what might be described as the piano nobile, the kitchen and dining room read as flowing, single-height rooms, arranged around two sides of the double-height volume. Beyond this, the atrium opens up to the raised courtyard, which is surrounded by a brick wall to create a further, exterior room.
The master bedroom is placed on the same floor, accessed via a study or from the top of the stairs. This rather curious arrangement responds to the clients’ experience of their previous five-storey Georgian house, where taking a cup of tea to bed involved descending and ascending several flights of stairs. Wardrobes in the corridor serve this engagingly modest room, which shares its mews balcony with a generous, marble-lined, top-lit bathroom that occupies the corner of the site.
The final flight of stairs arrives at a second-storey living space. As you step out onto the expansive south-facing terrace, an oblique glimpse is offered right down through the house to the bottom of the atrium, where a fragment of the pool becomes transformed, for a moment, into an impluvium. The plan of the house has now completely unravelled. From the tightly coiled arrangement of cellular rooms below, up through the more spatially plastic volumes of the living spaces, it finally presents a vista across what might be described as a vast city room, within which the loose, stepping, flat roofs of the primary school opposite form a kind of itinerant landscape. Looking back north through the layers of glazing, the plane tree fills the view, captured in a picturesque moment as an integral component of the interior.
‘Its delineation of points in space, defined by the regulatory envelope, establishes what one might term a structural constellation, to borrow an idea from Josef Albers’
While undoubtedly privileged, this house presents an exemplary response to a complex urban situation that is not, ultimately, a consequence of its budget. London urgently needs to develop new models for urban living that are as effective, elegant and adaptable as its Georgian housing stock has proven itself to be. Yet in coming to terms with the heterogeneous urbanity inherited from the 20th century, architects must also learn how to address the challenge of working back into the contingencies of the city, on a site-by-site basis. Only by finding ways to accommodate contemporary programmes, types and scales of architecture into what are often difficult and marginal circumstances will we succeed in stitching its rich fabric back together, one piece at a time. This is our collective responsibility and requires care, judgement and unrelenting attention. On this remade corner of a quiet London mews, Jamie Fobert Architects demonstrate that while not easy, it is an ambition worth striving for.