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‘Peter Salter’s Walmer Yard is a luxe enigma that must be swallowed whole or not at all’

At Walmer Yard in London, Peter Salter plays with asymmetries, styles and forms

Has London ever seen a more unusual coming together of modern property development and intensely imagined, highly crafted architecture than in the four artfully interlocked houses at Walmer Yard, Notting Hill? This profoundly idiosyncratic three-dimensional riddle of asymmetries and references may yet be prescient concerning the future densification of even fashionable fillets of the city.   

The sections and plans of Peter Salter’s scheme jump cut from organic, to orthogonal, to elliptically geometric, to faux-medieval. Charles Holland caught their abstruse quality nicely in a 2012 blog: ‘I have genuinely no idea what this building will look like. Looking at the plans gives little clue. Salter’s drawings were always both explicitly literal and almost completely opaque. Everything is rendered with utter deadpan realism, apart from what it might look like.’ And, even built, one can’t truly know the architecture.

040 049 ar 02 building walmer yard

040 049 ar 02 building walmer yard

Plans

Salter tells me that he was: ‘not interested in the orthodoxy of making plans or sections complete’ and drew the Walmer Yard forms again and again ‘until they became critical’. In his search to deliver packed urban space, Walmer Yard’s arrangement of materials, surfaces and spatial narratives recalls the mixture of solid fact and metaphysics in this passage from the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay, ‘In Praise of Shadows’: ‘Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquillity holds sway.’     

Walmer Yard is, among other things, a 840m² demonstrator of the qualities of light and atmosphere that the Japanese author (not to mention Louis Kahn in his ‘treasury of shadows’ mode) alludes to. The relationship between allusion and illusion, and between one kind of material or space and another, dates back to Salter’s first significant exercise in asymmetries and ‘families of forms’: his 1982 competition design, with Chris Macdonald, for the Oriental Museum at Durham University.

10. walmer yard by peter salter corner of courtyard and interior

10. walmer yard by peter salter corner of courtyard and interior

Corner of courtyard & interior

Crispin Kelly bought the Walmer Yard site in 1983, just before entering the Architectural Association, where he studied in Salter’s studio; at the time, Salter was designing a project in Japan, and two other notable buildings followed in the mid-1990s: the Kamiichi Mountain Pavilion and Inami Woodcarving Museum. 

Beginning in 2003, Salter’s cascade of bespoke spaces and details passed through the filtering mesh of Kelly’s real-estate imperatives. The drawings, which sometimes featured naked Sumo-like male figures and Junoesque women, gradually took physical form via Meredith Bowles and Hugo Keene of Mole Architects’ 1:25 scale models, Rhino modelling and, most crucially, exceptionally skilled craftspeople. 

Salter’s collaborator, Fenella Collingridge, says his geometries defeated CAD software when inner and outer curves were not parallel, and these elements remained hand-drawn. ‘No one’, she says, ‘turns a corner quite like Peter.’ Salter’s ‘notion of packed buildings’ achieves three other aims at Walmer Yard: to ensure privacy and minimal sound transmission between the four properties; to get as much light as possible into structures that only receive direct sunlight for about a third of any day; and to design houses suitable for individuals or couples rather than families. 

2. wy peter salter concrete board marking on front and ramp elevations of house 1 including pedestrian stair ramp and concrete board marking of house 2 house front and side elevations

2. wy peter salter concrete board marking on front and ramp elevations of house 1 including pedestrian stair ramp and concrete board marking of house 2 house front and side elevations

Concrete board marking of house 1 & 2

The capital’s shrinking domestic spaces and potentially fissile social divisions have already produced new kinds of compacted dwellings, such as Henley Halebrown’s admirable £1.8m Copper Land co-housing scheme. As a job-lot, Walmer Yard would cost about £22m to buy and will not (as some other parts of the city might) feature in a 2050 London equivalent of Thomas Annan’s gruelling 1870s photographic series, Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow.        

The Walmer Yard houses are set around a tiny wood-blocked courtyard whose ambience was inspired by the upper hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, though the plan suggests a rectangle morphing into an amoeba. The facades of the courtyard are highly crafted collages of rough stucco surfaces, boldly projecting wooden window casings, and rows of vertical wooden shutters. The courtyard benches have a top sill inspired by the headrest of a Boeing airliner – one of many unexpected sources of detail in the scheme.  

4. walmer yard peter salter typical fullsize pivot design for the shutters later modified

4. walmer yard peter salter typical fullsize pivot design for the shutters later modified

Pivot design details for shutters (later modified)

The courtyard is entered from Walmer Road through a series of steps enclosed on three sides by projecting elements from the two houses with street frontages; viewed from the bronze entry gates, the perspective seems simultaneously Modernist, neo-medieval and Expressionist. 

Salter assigns this ‘pinching and congestion’ to the squares and streets of Sabbioneta, the 16th-century Italian town created by Vespasiano Gonzaga as an idealised Classical city. The courtyard also expresses the ‘interior completeness’ of  the mews, avenues and gardens of 19th-century Notting Hill. 

The west facades of the three-level Houses 1 and 2 face Walmer Road; House 3 forms the north-east corner; the two-level House 4 (‘the squashed house’) sits lower than the rest, hunkered into the very deep clay at the south-east corner of the site so that its roofline meets rights-of-light strictures and allows natural light to fall across the facades facing into the courtyard. 

9. walmer yard peter salter existing section aa proposed section aa and bb

9. walmer yard peter salter existing section aa proposed section aa and bb

Existing section & proposed section

Beneath the courtyard is a circular garage entered from Walmer Road by a ramp. In three of the houses, reception rooms are at courtyard level, bedrooms at mid-level, and living rooms at the top. In the ‘squashed house’, the upper rooms receive natural light from pop-up coffered rooflights; the bedrooms beneath get reflected light from sunken, concrete-walled yards. 

The houses are founded on a concrete structure which required very careful pours, and in places they produced something like the wandering layer-marks of the wall surfaces at Tadao Ando’s underground Chichu Art Museum at Naoshima.  

The house plans pivot around two prefabricated steel elements which Salter thinks of as outsize farm machinery parts: the staircases, three of which are ovoid, have leather-covered rope bannisters, and recall the staircase at Salter’s weirdly asymmetrical Kamiichi Pavilion. The carbonised steel bathroom pods form equally significant nodal points in the plans, and set up the way inhabitants experience Salter’s narratives of illuminated space.  

6. walmer yard peter salter typical staircase construction detail

6. walmer yard peter salter typical staircase construction detail

staircase construction detail

House entries open onto stone-seeded, polished concrete surfaces, with transitions to timber flooring. Typically, after entering, one turns away from the courtyard,  proceeds into fading light, then turns back to the stairs or enters a room to find more light. Light is reflected through soffit-level glazing across concrete ceilings whose shine was produced by vinyl formwork linings – contrasting starkly with the gleam of black lacquered wardrobes with serpentine fronts. One roams in a uniquely Salteresque gloaming.   

Internal walls were shuttered with birch ply up to 2.1m, giving a Georgian silk wallpaper effect which makes the concrete darker than the phenolic ply-shuttered wall surfaces above them. Most internal partitions are headed with glazing, with bedroom slot-windows at pillow-height, and living room sill levels at table height. The main windows in each room have integrally framed sections of tufa, an air-porous stone that should filter out air pollutants. 

3. walmer yard peter salter  house 2 yurt early construction detail modified in later manufacture

3. walmer yard peter salter house 2 yurt early construction detail modified in later manufacture

House 2 yurt - early construction detail (later modified)

The most obviously extraordinary elements of Walmer Yard are the yurt-like copper domes on Houses 1, 2 and 3. Salter gave the fabricators a model made of cardboard and car filler-paste, with chine lines and shaved facets, and this was laser scanned to establish the ply structure. The diamond-tessellated copper scales were produced via hand drawing, 3D modelling, scanning, CNC cutting and hand finishing. The internal surfaces of the domes are an exquisitely haptic compound of clay and chopped straw.The search for perfection in construction was always fraught. Salter says that every site operation meant the shift of a workstation – ‘reordering the puzzle as though in a dance or a children’s game’ – which involved workers including a Pakistani chargehand, an Irish steel  fixer, concrete pourers and Albanian terrazzo layers.

Eh bien, as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot says, what does all this mean? Salter’s crammed intellectual magpie’s nest of glimmering temporal and historical references has undoubtedly produced a masterpiece of architectural congestion. Is Walmer Yard’s spatial and semiotic congestion too virtuosic? Do we encounter Tanizaki’s ‘immutable tranquillity’ – or ‘the work of some clever device’? Walmer Yard is a fugue of phenomenology, a luxe enigma that must be swallowed whole or not at all. ‘Ah, but my dear sir’, murmurs Poirot in Five Little Pigs, ‘the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point.’

Walmer Yard

Architect: Peter Salter

Associate architect: Fenella Collingridge 

Site architect: Mole Architects (Hugo Keene and Meredith Bowles)

Structural engineer: Parmarbrook

Photographs: Hélène Binet

Drawings: Courtesy of Peter Salter

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