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Stephen Taylor’s Town Houses: ‘an apparent simplicity to these buildings belies a measured complexity’

Proposing a new template for urban living, these two town houses subtly inveigle themselves within a leafy London neighbourhood

Any contemporary discussion of housing design is overshadowed to a degree by the artificially inflated cost of property and land in the south of England, especially London. Taking this as a given, there are other pressing issues to address: the appropriate densities of our cities and specific areas within them, building economy, the emergence of stringent regulations, particularly with regard to the conservation of energy and the eternal issue of how we should live ourselves and how we should live together. Every generation of architects has different problems to solve. The practice of architecture will always be contingent.

Stephen Taylor has considered the problem of housing as these contingencies have changed over nearly two decades in built work and unrealised projects, from the scale of a back extension to that of a masterplan. It is at the intermediate scale of the town house or groupings of them that he has been most successful, exploiting the tight conditions of urban infill sites with a spatial élan that has enabled the passage of light and air deep into the section of his buildings. There is an emphasis on intimacy − humans living in close proximity to each other − in order to achieve a high-density low- to medium-rise city.

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These projects have all been faced externally with brick and present themselves to the street in a laconic fashion, dissimulating their rich interiors. Taylor employs brick for its suitability to our temperate climate − its porous nature allows water to migrate inwards and outwards; its ability to afford tolerance − it can be cut easily and can be used with thicker or thinner mortar joints; and its flexibility − it is easy to adapt.

This deceptively simple modus operandi is developed further in the project under review here − a development of coupled town houses by Solidspace on a constrained but prominent corner site in Stroud Green, north London. The site was formerly occupied by a redundant single-storey structure associated with the disused elevated railway line to the south. This piece of redundant infrastructure, that once connected Finsbury Park with Alexandra Palace, was transformed into a linear park and nature reserve and named Parkland Walk in 1984 (27 years before the opening of New York’s High Line).

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The site is further restricted by a boundary line set 7.5m from the adjacent London Overground railway cutting. It was purchased with a covenant by the developer Solidspace in 2010 from Network Rail after four years of negotiation. Construction began in September 2012 (delayed by two months due to city-wide traffic limitations imposed during the Olympic Games) and was finally completed early this year.

The pair of houses are built out to the street line in three slightly splayed elevations and offer two entrances in the central section − one at street level, the other at a half level above reached by an in-situ cast concrete stair − a ‘stoop’. Both doorways sit partially below conjoined brick arches that come together at a slight angle to each other and are resolved in a slender geometrically formed in-situ concrete column that is integrated at its base with the bottom step of the stoop.

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The conjoined arches, together with the ‘stoops’, are conceived of as a portal − a grand threshold − that will support a multiplicity of everyday activities: sheltering from the rain while trying to find keys, a step for a young child to play on while their parent is locking up, a circuitous route for a moody teenager to enter the house through a closed hallway and go straight to their bedroom avoiding their parents’ gaze, a place to sit in the morning sun to converse with a loved one, a place to read the paper and smoke a cigarette, a chance to be in the street, but outside it at once. Light enters this deep threshold in unexpected ways, casting shadows of arch against arch, balustrade on column, figure on ground.

Given Taylor’s interest in craft, you might imagine that the arches would be made in-situ, brick on brick in compression. Taylor instead preferred the off-site care that could be afforded by prefabrication, comparing it to the way in which 18th- and 19th-century shallow brick arches were assembled on the ground by men with a heightened skill set, to achieve mortar joints that were between 3mm and 5mm thick. The raked joints of the brick arches here are a consequence of the foam spacers that were used to set out the concentric array before concrete was cast on them − a very direct idea about construction that has as much in common with Brutalism as the quasi-Arts and Crafts language of the north London suburbs.

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Domestic areas are enlivened by cubistic effects in the circulation space

Solidspace, in all their developments, pursue a spatial arrangement of open-plan rooms at half levels to each other. Taylor has reinterpreted this client requirement here by orientating this arrangement laterally rather than in the building’s depth as is common in the local Victorian and Edwardian typologies. The stepped section is most evident at ground level where three spaces for cooking, dining and living or working enjoy diagonal visual relationships across a thin vertically attenuated void. The uses of the upper two levels are interchangeable rather than prescribed.

The enclosed stair linking further levels is situated at the front of the house. This not only gives the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs a direct and protected connection to the exterior, but also situates them at the rear of the house where they are afforded greater privacy, their eastern aspect also benefiting from morning light. The stair winds as it rises around a void that brings light to the upper ground floor hallway. The treatment of space is almost cubistic − light falls with different intensity on the angled horizontal and vertical facets, softly sculpting the space. Bedrooms and bathrooms are accessed from half landings, culminating in the master bedroom, sculpted out of space under the pitched roofs. This configuration gives a strong vertical asymmetry to the facade.

Taylor pursues an architecture of walls composed with judiciously placed windows. This device enables him to interpret and re-imagine the historic language of the European city. It is also, and more importantly, a means to frame the life of the city with specificity and care. For example, on entering the house at street level, you can see simultaneously (in your peripheral vision) five windows at three levels framing yard, garden, treetop and sky (twice).

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The new houses synthesise the north London genius loci of brick and gables

The windows to the yard and garden are moderately sized glazed casement doors, and there are large glazed sliding doors in the master bedrooms at the top of each house giving onto roof terraces. The apparent idiosyncrasy of this arrangement (the largest windows of a contemporary or extended traditional house typically give onto the garden) is a response to the compactness of the rear gardens and a desire to relate the largest openings of the house to the borrowed landscapes of the adjacent railway cutting to the north-east, Parkland Walk to the south and the rooftops of north London that rise up to Alexandra Palace.

There is an apparent simplicity to these buildings that belies a measured complexity − in their spatial formations, their use of material and resultant detail, and their engagement with history. The amount of consideration given to detail is remarkable given that this development is speculative. There is a generosity evident in Solidspace’s willingness to pay for material of high quality in places and the attention paid by the architect to resolving the building’s construction in a manner that is both pragmatic and delightful. There is a robustness and delicacy evident in Taylor’s detailing, characterised by an enjoyable and unfussy directness.

Taylor is interested in reinventing London’s character, whether on a constricted inner-London site or the more leafy suburb where this project is situated. Is this desire for contextualism and continuity a form of nostalgia? In Taylor’s hands it is not. He is one of the few architects in Britain who are able, using ordinary and quite traditional materials, to create buildings that have visual, spatial and emotional weight. It is a practice born of both pragmatism and invention and to be applauded.

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Arches respond to the disused railway viaduct across the road, now recast as a linear park

Two Town Houses

Architect: Stephen Taylor Architects

Photographs: David Grandorge

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