Deep in a Kenyan forest, this house is an exploration of topography and materiality, ‘a ruin before its timeʼ awaiting the day when nature finally claims it back
Houses lavish enough to warrant description as mansions do not often achieve an architectural distinction commensurate with their budget. Among those built in London in the past 50 years I struggle to think of more than three that have: James Gowan’s Schreiber House (1965), Tony Fretton’s Red House (2001) and Brick Leaf House, completed in 2004 to designs by Jonathan Woolf.
With its brick skin punctuated by large, flush-set windows, this last project is much indebted to Mies’s Krefeld Villas but Woolf makes his borrowings new through a highly individual feeling for topography. Artfully slumped over sloping ground on the edge of Hampstead Heath, the building presents a distinctive conjunction of the monumental and the pliant. The minimally fenestrated expanse of brickwork that constitutes its principal elevation maintains a particularly intimate relationship to the land: its effect almost entirely reliant on the play between the sloping line of its meeting with the ground and the incremental steps of the roofline above.
The building’s interest is also typological. In essence it is an unusually grandly conceived semi-detached house, containing conjoined residences for the families of two brothers, linked by a shared basement swimming pool. The siblings are of Indian origin − a culture in which the collective life of extended families is more common than in the West − but grew up in Kenya prior to attending university and establishing their careers in London. However, increasingly nostalgic for the African landscape, the family of the younger brother decided a number of years ago that the time had come to return to Kenya. Woolf is soon to remodel Brick Leaf House into a residence for the sole use of the remaining family. In the meantime, he has been busy with the construction of a new house in Nairobi designed for the shared occupation of the younger brother’s family and parents.
Despite obvious differences in climate and fauna, its site has more than a little in common with that of the Hampstead house. Again, it lies in an affluent residential neighbourhood, half an hour’s drive from the city centre, and again it is situated on the edge of an expanse of tree-covered public land. This is the Karura Forest, an area of more than 1,000 hectares, which supports a rich ecosystem of monkeys, bushpigs, porcupines and birdlife and forms one of the city’s principal tourist attractions. The new house, which its architect has dubbed the Lost Villa, is the last to be accessed off a short and winding cul-de-sac on the forest’s northern fringe. While its neighbours hold close to the street, framing large gardens to the rear which grow increasingly wild as they advance towards the forest, the Lost Villa maintains an altogether less mediated relationship to its landscape. By concentrating construction at the rear of the downward sloping plot, Woolf has created a home that is effectively set within the forest and entirely concealed from the street.
‘Its unusual depth gives it an almost infrastructural presence − Woolf likens the house to a ruin under a flyover’
The Lost Villa also distinguishes itself from its neighbours through its refusal to announce its presence in immediately legible terms. Low, expansive and maintaining a close relationship between internal and external spaces, it aims rather at an episodic, somewhat labyrinthine effect. The visitor’s experience is staged carefully from the moment he/she passes through the security gate at the upslope end. The initial impression is formidably spare: just a road descending towards no obvious destination, framed between high walls of featureless, rough-chiselled sandstone. However, on reaching the end of this axis, they find the road makes a near 90-degree turn before descending for a further 70 metres towards the forest. From here a first small sign of human inhabitation is encountered: a projecting concrete canopy that provides shaded passage along the inner wall and signals the presence of a roof behind it. Its unusual depth gives it an almost infrastructural presence − Woolf likens the house to ‘a ruin under a flyover’ − and that reading is enforced by its mirroring of the fall of the road. This line is not constant but levels out at two points, providing access to recessed car ports − all but the sole interruptions in a startlingly long blank wall.
The main body of the house takes the form of three wings linked at their corners so as to form a loose chequerboard of open and closed spaces and variously housing the accommodation for the client’s parents, his immediate family’s living quarters and their bedrooms. This last wing also accommodates a discretely accessed lower floor housing bedrooms for guests, but ordinarily the house operates as a single level, albeit one broken by brief flights of steps required to negotiate the falling ground. Above, the underside of the roof − which effectively follows the slope − is exposed throughout, generating considerable sectional variety. The height of the principal living room varies between 2.2m and 2.7m while the equivalent space in the grandparents’ accommodation is smaller in plan but almost twice as high.
The chequerboard plan enables each wing to enjoy aspects in four directions and the grounds have been developed to ensure that each view addresses a different territorial condition. At the heart of the plan is an entrance courtyard framed by a deep, covered terrace. Woolf’s clients own a large collection of Indian art and architectural artefacts and have integrated pieces of antique joinery into this cloister-like space as well as other smaller verandahs. A similar strategy was adopted at Brick Leaf House but here the treatment proves more resonant, compounding a sense of the building as an archaic ruin.
The principal living accommodation opens onto a large south-facing terrace, which − Nairobi being a sub-equatorial city − is cast in shade. On approach to the house the visitor has been granted only a partial and fleeting view of the forest but here it is finally confronted directly − a sequence that Woolf compares to the experience of approaching an 18th-century English country house. ‘It’s like giving a public speech’, he suggests. ‘You tell them what you’re going to say and then you tell them.’
‘The chequerboard plan enables each wing to enjoy aspects in four directions and the grounds have been developed to ensure that each view addresses a different territorial condition’
On its north side, the house looks out across a substantial kitchen garden towards a ceramics studio used by the client’s wife. This is one of two outbuildings that are integrated into the wall concealing the villa from its drive. The other, which contains staff quarters, is daylit exclusively from above, effectively concealing its presence from outside. However, the same stone floor and hardwood joinery employed in the main house is maintained for this wing, militating against a reading of it as a secondary structure. The Lost Villa is the first project that Woolf has undertaken outside the UK and he acknowledges that the different economic logic of the Kenyan construction industry took him by surprise. He had originally planned to build the external walls from an industrially produced clay-block laid with thick mortar joints only to discover that construction in hand-finished stone was considerably cheaper. As a rule, it always made economic sense to minimise the use of cement and machines and draw on the manual skills of on-site craftsmen.
Among the very few items that ended up being shipped in from abroad were the tracks that allow the full-height sliding timber windows to retract against the internal face of the adjacent wall. Nairobi is sufficiently elevated above sea level to be spared a significant mosquito problem so for much of the year the windows stand open, transforming the Lost Villa’s external image into an elemental assembly of concrete and stone. The house is also afforded light and air by projecting skylights - a family of elements that present a marked departure from the plan’s essentially orthogonal geometry. While of uniformly square footprint, they adopt idiosyncratic orientations bringing a range of sometimes startling light conditions into the deepest parts of the plan. Woolf anticipated providing louvres in front of the glass but such is the depth of the roof − composed of a dense lattice of concrete beams required to counter potential seismic activity − that his clients have deemed it unnecessary.
The skylights’ eccentric orientation also has the effect of defining and confirming the roof’s autonomy from the (potentially reconfigurable) world below it. In fact, at the uphill end of the site it is possible to climb onto the roof and enjoy an experience of it in which the house’s programme plays no part. Save for the projecting skylights, which read like huddled groups of actors populating a vast stage, we find ourselves placed in solitary relation to nature. The effect brings to mind Jørn Utzon’s 1962 essay, Platforms and Plateaus, where he writes: ‘The platform as an architectural element is a fascinating feature. I first fell in love with it in Mexico on a study trip in 1949, where I found many variations, both in size and idea of the platform, and where many of the platforms are alone without anything but the surrounding nature. All the platforms in Mexico were positioned and formed with great sensitivity to the natural surroundings and always with a deep idea behind. A great strength radiates from them. The feeling under your feet is the same as the firmness you experience when standing on a large rock.’
‘Its artisanal construction and monastic self-containment not only set the house apart from the suburban character of its immediate neighbourhood but render it something of a stranger to the 21st century’
The Lost Villa maintains a more reflexive relationship to the ground than the unstintingly horizontal platforms that Utzon describes, but its ambition towards a mythic engagement with landscape is the same. As its name suggests, the pursuit of that ‘deep idea’ has required it to renounce a great deal. Its artisanal construction and monastic self-containment not only set the house apart from the suburban character of its immediate neighbourhood but render it something of a stranger to the 21st century. And much as it provides the frame for a paradisiacal existence, the sense remains that the Lost Villa is only a house in passing. Woolf has addressed his client’s brief with sensitivity but he has recognised it as no more than an alibi. This ruin before its time is a project awaiting a greater abandonment − a moment when domestic needs have fallen away and the forest has claimed it back.