Brutalist and yet, beautiful.
Text: Rory Olcayto
Brutalism is fashionable again for all sorts of reasons. An ongoing campaign to save Peter and Alison Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens housing scheme in London’s East End is perhaps the most obvious, although that argument more properly fits into a wider debate about our post-war architectural heritage. Another reason is the renewed interest in James Stirling, including a Tate Britain exhibition in April.
You could argue too, that the work of two firms critics love suggest fresh approaches for the style: Sergison Bates, with its focus on loadbearing masonry and raw material expression (AJ 14.08.08), and Caruso St John’s ornamental, heavy - ‘brutiful’ - Nottingham Contemporary (AJ 12.11.09).
But new arguments have been developed to remind us that Brutalism still has enemies. Opposition to saving Robin Hood Gardens centres around the perceived difficulty in adapting its heavyweight concrete frame. It doesn’t do change, they say.
Yet a new project by Duggan Morris Architects, a part-restoration, part-adaptation of a 1960s two-storey Brutalist house in London’s Highgate, suggests a degree of flexibility within such buildings, and new ways to appreciate the sensual qualities of this most controversial of expressive modes.
In another twist, the project captures a real sense of collaboration - in this case between three sets of husband-and-wife architects: the original designers, Douglas Stirling Craig and his wife Margaret; the client, Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and AHMM associate director Susie Le Good; and Joe Morris and Mary Duggan, who head up their 11-strong practice. Stirk, absorbed with leading his firm’s One Hyde Park project, was too busy to tackle it on his own.
If we think of Brutalism as being defined by monumental compositions, exposed surfaces and low-fi construction techniques, this self-build house, with its simple cubic form constructed with fair-faced concrete block and a silver sand and white cement mix, easily qualifies.
When the Craigs, in practice together, designed the house in the late sixties, they were building on Douglas‘ experience as a council architect in post-war Coventry. Beyond the act of designing and building their own house, the Craigs’ influence extended to many of today’s architects while lecturing at the Bartlett from 1966.
Despite discussions by the London borough of Camden in 2007, which suggested the property was of special interest and positively contributed to the special character and appearance of the Highgate Conservation Area, Stirk and Le Good rescued it from an unhappy future, perhaps just in time.
It had been recently ‘redecorated’ with a layer of thick emulsion and satin wood over all surfaces by an unsympathetic owner in order to make a quick sale. Prior to this, the then-owner had progressed plans to demolish the existing building and replace it with a new three-storey development.
Thankfully, market forces intervened and when Stirk and Le Good happened across the building, they placed an offer. Duggan Morris Architects came on board in December 2008 when they were invited to develop refurbishment proposals by Stirk and Le Good, who both lacked the time to work up designs exclusively.
The as-found condition of the house comprised of compartmentalised bedrooms, reception rooms, a kitchen, dining room, utility room, two bathrooms, an integrated garage, and a 18-metre garden. Alongside the blockwork, the palette of materials included mill-finish aluminium window frames and coping with flush, pre-finished white hardboard faced doors to the front and flank elevations.
The majority of the south-facing rear elevation was glazed, with mahogany sills and clear lacquered birch ply panels overhead. Floors were a white-flecked vinyl tile. Most joists and woodwork were in plain wood, with the underside of the roof deck finished with compressed straw and faced with unpainted brown butcher paper.
There were no skirting boards or door trims and the only places with a dropped ceiling were the kitchen, entry and utility room. The original heating was embedded in the screed.
Together with the client, Duggan Morris adopted a programme of works based on retention, renovation and intervention. The external blockwork for example now closely matches its original state.
Where elements were replaced, a curatorial approach was taken. For example the single-glazed rear glazing and prism were replaced with double-glazed units designed to replicate the original, while the thin screed layer at ground-floor level was removed and replaced with a new build up of insulation, a wet underfloor heating system and a polished concrete topping.
The layout of the property was also largely retained, however, the main thrust of the project - the move that really transforms the property - saw two main supporting cross-walls replaced with a new arrangement of steel beams and columns. The result is a flexible living arrangement, which takes greater advantage of the south-facing glazed facade.
The steel columns and beams hold up the building from above, but also signify the major alterations that have taken place. Other installations such as the kitchen, an altered, free-standing Bulthaup system, read as distinct furniture elements and add to the radical interior transformation.
In terms of the overall tectonic composition, an oversized planter, constructed from blockwork removed from the interior, has been added to the front of the house to address the junction with the neighbouring building and to define the driveway.
The garden too, has been reworked, this time in collaboration with Gillespies. The internal grid pattern now extends into it, with ‘ley-lines’ of basalt extending outwards to create a series of strata, which in turn have been planted with a range of grasses and nine mature Himalayan birch trees.
At roof level a new plug-planted sedum layer has been installed, and the effect is one of the landscape extended over and above the building.
The architectural qualities seduce. They mix the heaviness of building with a film-set precision. Spaces have a soothing monochromatic stillness, yet the long spans and visible structure suggest a tension that just manages to hold everything in place; there is a kind of ‘look no hands’ effect.
Indeed the project’s strengths transcend spatial excellence. Here is a project that stands for the inventiveness and decorum that drives the profession. Most bluntly however, here is a project that shows Brutalism really can be very beautiful too.