Building Study: 71 Queensway by Robin Lee Architecture
Text: Mary Duggan
This conversion of a former warehouse in Bayswater, west London, creates a grand two-level apartment plus office space for its developer Baylight, writes Mary Duggan.
I suspect Robin Lee did not secure this commission off the back of a boys' club invitation, but rather through the client’s respect for his calm and committed approach to architecture, and his ability to collaborate. The commissioner is Crispin Kelly, director of Baylight Properties, a 30-years-established developer with a portfolio of commercial and mixed-use schemes, and more recently a residential offshoot company called Groundplan. Notable architects working across both programmes include Sergison Bates, Tony Fretton and Peter Salter.
Meeting Lee and Kelly together to discuss their collaboration was unexpected; without egos and without suits, similar in character, modest, very well mannered and seemingly unaffected by success. Both are clearly driven by how their work is placed and how it is moving on architectural discourse, the thinking behind the urban condition, and the consequences of architecture, which Kelly describes as the morality of practice. Certainly commercial factors exist; the success of the business is evidence of that. But I did not get the sense that the architectural brief for this project was constructed on an Excel spreadsheet with a net-let target.
The scheme is a refurbishment of a deep-plan Victorian warehouse, roughly 800m2; a hidden chunk of building fabric tucked in behind Queensway, wedged between retail and commercial space fronting on to, but set back from, the high street. Residential housing encloses the rear exposed elevation, so it is pretty much landlocked.
Baylight purchased the building a number of years ago to develop it into something – ‘something’ being the key word here; an unfamiliar lucid turn of phrase for a developer. There was not a specific programme in mind. This project would explore many issues: the ongoing discourse surrounding found conditions within such historic structures, a relatively over-used term to describe actually doing nothing; how to procure good quality spaces within our urban fabric on complex sites; and how to curate something new programmatically and narratively without defaulting to roll-out specification or the need for construction speed.
While various economic factors existed at the time of the design development, such as local-authority use status allowing B1 offices to convert to residential, this was not a driving factor. The project started out with an agenda to make the best use of the building envelope. Of course it would generate a revenue stream, but what functions could best exploit it? The decisions as to what to do with the building were going to be influenced by the building itself. The process described is one of discovery, an idea to see what the building revealed through unravelling the various layers and observing the conditions therein.
By Lee’s account, the Victorian structure was quite unremarkable in its found state, with very typical historic features, beam and block floor plates, knackered brickwork and poorly run services. The strip-out works unveiled a layer cake of finishes and poorly judged historic decisions. It wasn’t the fabric itself that was the challenge, but rather the spatial qualities, the deep plan, the dark second floor crying out for one blast of light to relieve the density.
The common design strategy deployed on such refurbishment projects is to ensure all new interventions are legible, to offset against the old, complementing, but contrasting, clear delineation, neat junctions, coloured and signalled structures pointing out the diagram. Boring. In this project, while a decision has been made to expose the existing features, this is not deployed so desperately. In fact the found condition is simply reapplied. The concrete staircase is extended laterally to fill a void; no frills or brass junctures to express the connection. It is executed necessarily. There is a boot imprint in the extended section. Exposed precast soffits are lightly painted to enhance the texture. There is a complacency about the decisions, which leaves very blurry lines between new and old.
The design and procurement process was also unconventional. This was not a project early laboured and de-risked by exploratory works and cost models, but rather a slow journey to experience the space as it unfolded; to observe the light conditions and to make design decisions in real time – a 1:1 model, rather like a live work, and in many ways an experiment to address and question how we develop and procure architecture.
The challenge with this space was the depth of the plan, particularly at second-floor level with the long section predominantly enclosed. The exploration programme exposed a few areas of the party walls that were discovered to be externalised, so planning applications were lodged to introduce fenestration. The spatial dynamics were also assessed, to see the exposed structure and understand through this experience how the spaces could be articulated, what could be enhanced and what to simply expose.
The final agreed programme was a single dwelling arranged across the two upper floors while an additional floor of the building was converted to offices.
Living. We are obsessed with the subject from community and place to accommodation and detail. We swarm around the Barbican programme and apartment typologies like honey bees. We continue to search for the best house that will influence the way we adopt new living patterns, to structure our social interactions at family and community level. What precisely do we need to inhabit our homes fluidly, flexibly and happily? We yearn for a different programme, which can facilitate extreme socialising and extreme anti-socialising.
The constraints of the deep plan dictated to some extent the functional split across both floors; generally speaking, night-time spaces at the lower level and daytime living at the upper level, with each floor having extremely different characteristics – very light and open at the upper floor and very dark and enclosed at entrance level.
On entering the apartment, the feeling is grand. The dark timber lined walls draw a line around an internalised free-flowing space surrounded by rooms. The plan breathes in and out.
This is a principle that Lee developed at Wexford County Council Headquarters and, although very different in scale and function, the two projects explore fundamentally similar themes. The arrangement allows for spaces to be encountered, discovered and populated in a loose and non-prescriptive way.
The pace and sequence of the entrance hallway is well managed. This level is purposefully designed with darkness in mind. It’s not a bad thing. The temptation to make it brighter is avoided and the materials are selected to deliberately enhance the darkness; to consciously internalise the space.
The walls are lined with macassar ebony, in book match veneers, so you trace and look at the patterns somehow caught between a wallpaper pattern and a more substantial material. The floor is treacled with a dark brown resin throughout. The sheen on the satin surface catches and softens the light coming in through the various windows. It has a familiar feeling of a large entrance hallway or a vestibule. A flash of London roofs through one of the punched windows is a reminder of where you are.
The plan at this level includes cloakroom and guest bathroom, bedrooms, lazing banquettes, master bedroom and en-suite, a media area and the main ascending staircase. It is a continuous space with minimal doors. Outside of the hallway, the circulation and inhabitation is managed through compressions in the plan. Bathrooms are open into the bedrooms, but again positioned with careful consideration of spatial sequences and modesty.
Each room contains bespoke furniture. It is not built-in furniture, but rather individual pieces designed with a very specific attitude using many materials: hallway bespoke lights of Italian white onyx with frames in black oxide-treated bright steel; a bathroom vanity unit of Brazilian fusion blue marble counters and shelves with frames in unlacquered brass angle sections; bedroom storage of Brazilian Rio rosewood doors and panels with frames in black oxide-treated bright steel and lined internally in natural wool felt. Exposed brass plumbing is juxtaposed with expensive brass Vola spouts, not to be ironic, but to achieve an impression that is eclectic and functional – warehouse meets luxury.
The overall impression is of a well-curated antique shop. The exploitation of material is a nod to Loos, but a ‘loose’ Loos with luscious moments.
The decision to locate a large double-wing stair in the centre of the entrance level ensured light was brought into the centre of the plan from the upper floor. The proportion of the structural opening was mocked up on site partly to assess the right amount of light to introduce into the space, and to gauge to what degree the upper level is revealed upon entering the apartment – not too much too soon and not too much to spoil the mood.
Ascending the stair, the opposite character appears. A luminous space. A strangely familiar feeling of climbing into an attic, but a very bright one. And it is full of furniture. Transitioning from the darkness of the entrance level to the bright upper level is managed exquisitely. A repeated hexagonal, but not quite tessellated pattern travels with vertical emphasis from bottom to top. It allows your eye to adjust, and conceals the upper level to a degree until you fully engage with the floor.
The entire top floor is open plan, the staircase void size and position at this level secures specific proportions to the functional areas of kitchen, lounging, dining and studying.
As with the lower levels, the extensions to the existing structure are very casual; we barely discuss them. The A-frame roof structure is extended on one side to enlarge the living area; an external area is cut out on the opposite side creating a roof terrace. The same steels are used to mimic the old. It’s almost impossible to tell what is new.
The project ignores many sector-driven conventions. In terms of the residential typology question, this probably isn’t one per se, but it has strong ideas about prioritising occupation over function and experience over use; about how to create opportunities to pause, to delight, to be casual, to be unintimidated. This is a methodology that can operate across many buildings and is not limited to ideas about living, but buildings across many scales.
For Robin Lee Architecture, this is refreshingly not a house style, but rather an emerging attitude about our environment. This project is about creating a specific atmosphere rather than specific appearance. A grand hallway meets an attic room, two spaces of collection, dramatically different.
In terms of interfacing with existing historic fabric this is a brave approach, which engages with and is not fearful of the unknown. Through this agenda, a new life has been found for a once-was-warehouse structure; a mixed-use programme has been introduced seamlessly and coherently in a way that only an architect team with a very good eye could curate.
Mary Duggan is a director of Duggan Morris Architects