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Architects Journal

Kings Grove

Text: Rory Olcayto

The Nimblists are coming: architects who can spot an opportunity where others might not. They practice Nimblism, good architecture wrought from unlikely circumstances, and Duggan Morris Architects (DMA) is fronting the pack.

Last year, on invitation from the local authority, the young London-based firm piggybacked on planning approval won by another architect for Yew Tree Lodge, a supported housing scheme in Ruislip, Middlesex (AJ 02.04.09). DMA tweaked the design’s mediocre wave-through, redefining it with a family of neat details and a contemporary, logical plan. The result was a striking exemplar for a neglected sector, which won a RIBA Award earlier this year (AJ 10.06.10).

DMA’s latest project, a house in south-east London, is another nimble showcase; a kind of ‘Yes, in your backyard’ riposte to ‘no society’ Nimbyism. This two-storey brick villa is built right in the middle of other people’s back gardens. And again, it emerged from variations to a planning approval for a very different design.

The backlands site, amid the gardens of terraces on King’s Grove and the parallel street, is typical of the local townscape and was once occupied by a plaster-moulding workshop and storage yard. King’s Grove contains a variety of early Victorian terraces and semi-detached properties of varying heights and typologies, but they have, says practice co-director Joe Morris, ‘a unified dignity familiar to south-east London’s streets’.

It was actually John Smart Architects – developer, designer and contractor of the nearby RIBA Award-winning Dog Kennel Hill apartment block, an example of Nimblism par excellence – who first saw the site’s potential. In 2002, the practice won approval for a family house with ‘an organic folded form, fantastical in appearance [and] set within a hidden location’.

DMA, which recently completed Frobisher House (AJ 03.06.10), another one-off residence in the area, bought the site from John Smart in 2006, with less than a year left on the approval to detail the scheme and start on site. Luckily, Smart demolished the plaster-moulding workshop in 2004, which meant the application had commenced and was valid, allowing DMA time to make the variations to Smart’s design. These were approved in 2008, after concerned neighbours were slowly brought on board with gentle persuasion, and work began on site in September 2009.

Like Frobisher House and Yew Tree Lodge, this building is expressed in brick – and more brick. While the profiles and footprints match, it is a world away from Smart’s jet-moulded vision. Practice co-director Mary Duggan describes it as: ‘Similar but different. Same location, similar bulk and mass.’ The brick mass is drawn from the language of the rear of the adjacent terraces, which is utilitarian and less altered in character; less affected by overcladding and refurbishment. ‘A ribbon of brick facades punctuated by sash windows,’ say the architects. This overwhelming sense of mono-materiality is compounded by the brick garden walls that define each plot.

DMA’s house is accessed via a 2.5m-wide gravel lane – a parting in the street between two semi-detached properties that once formed the access road to the workshop. The plot is bounded by a 3m-high wall to the east (the remains of the workshop), garden walls to properties north and west, and a Victorian outhouse, lending the development a picturesque quality to the south. The house is located to the north, creating a large tree-planted courtyard at the end of the lane through which visitors must pass. A small plot, enclosed by storey-height brick walls, forms a ground floor terrace to the north.

Both facades are practically fully glazed, providing portal views across the gardens. The junction between the windows and the red-pink brick surround is highlighted with a brass trim edging the glass panels, and the larger windows pivot open so the open-plan ground floor extends to encompass the courtyard and terrace.

Inside the palette is spare: more brick complemented by oak joinery, brass fittings and a polished concrete floor. The deep plan is top-lit by a central void with uninterrupted views of the sky. All rooms are linked to this void. The first floor is reached by a beautiful oak staircase; a narrow, vertical space between towering brick walls with a mirrored surface at one end. Two bedrooms occupy either end of the plan, one of which has an en-suite bathroom with flesh-coloured tiles. Surprisingly, in a move that suggests a wry spin on neighbourly concerns about overlooking, this bathroom has a floor-to-ceiling, clear glass window.

Looking down upon the plot, you can see that the hard surfaces to the courtyard and terrace are precise imprints of the windows on elevation, as if the apertures were cut and laid out horizontally. Morris says the intention is that both areas will be planted with ornamental trees – an extension of the surrounding verdant landscape.

And what a landscape it is. From the north-facing bedroom it seems like an exotic suburban park. On a bright summer’s day the scene is serene, but in winter it will be dramatic. The trees provide subtle screening, but its seasonal nature serves to complicate the building’s contextual dialogue.

Yet to my mind, what DMA does here beautifully is celebrate location, in both a private and public manner. By placing the house at right angles to the 10 adjacent, lush gardens, they are seen with a fresh perspective – not as separate plots but as communal parkland. ‘We told the neighbours that backlands are a “shared amenity”, something everyone looks on to, and that the new home would be part of that same story,’ says Morris. ‘Anyway, what’s wrong with people seeing you making a cup of tea?’ he asks. Or, for that matter, taking a shower.

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