Most building projects have obstacles to overcome, but in the case of this jewel-like minimalist creation by Eldridge Smerin in London, the problems were daunting even before they put pencil to paper. Firstly, there was an existing modern house on the site that was in fairly good order and designed by a well-respected British modernist architect, John Winter. Secondly the site is on a steep hill. It is confined, less than
150 sq m. The boundary cannot be expanded because the project is located in one of London’s most strictly protected conservation areas, being one of only three dwellings allowed inside the walls of the famed Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of a host of British historic figures and home to probably the finest collection of Victorian funerary architecture in England.
London architects Eldridge Smerin approached all of these challenges with a combination of respect for tradition and inspired vision. Before taking down the existing house, they consulted its architect. Winter generously agreed to the demolition saying that “there would be no hard feelings so long as what they built was better than what they demolished”. The planners also approved their design on the principle that it should make a significant contribution to London’s architectural heritage. This it does, not by being just another glass box, but by using planes, light, shadow and material with respect for form and an eye for new possibilities.
The new house is a glass and concrete volume that recalls the modernist model but shows wonderful innovation. It makes the most of the steep site by way of an audacious cantilever. A pair of beams running from the party wall on the north side of the building and supported by four columns provide stability for the concrete slab that stretches another 4 metres beyond. This structure creates two floors of living space above the ground floor that seem to hover in the midst of grand mature trees and old vine-covered tombstones. The middle floor is glazed on two sides (on the south and west), while the top floor has three sides of
floor-to-ceiling structural glass. Up here in the kitchen/dining area, a frosted glass panel on the eastern wall obscures the view from the road, and a retracting glass roof panel opens the room to the sky.
Using fair-faced, board-marked concrete that shows the striations of wooden plank shuttering on the walls and stairs, the architects added a distinctive texture to balance the smooth transparency of the glass. Within the concrete recesses of the house glazing is used in concert to allow the flow of natural light. Glass panels set into the first and
second-floor landings are aligned to let light through to the ground floor, and from there it is possible to see all the way up through to the kitchen skylight. Two bathrooms also act as light shafts with a roof light, glass floor panel and a sheet of glass between a bath and the stairwell, filling the solid interior with unexpected illuminations.
To achieve more space without extending the footprint, Eldridge and Smerin added a further story above and below. Excavating the basement level threw up another formidable obstacle in that the Fleet River, which runs under this part of London, had to be diverted from its course beneath the house. But the architects also adjusted the proportions of public to private spaces. Rather than dividing the house into 2/3 bedroom/bathroom and 1/3 living space, as before, this plan allows for a 50:50 share of function.
“People nowadays spend more time in their kitchens and want more space for proper cooking facilities than they did in the 1970s when the previous house was designed,” Nick Eldridge explains, referring to the wide open top-floor kitchen and dining area and the middle-floor music room - made even more inviting by the addition of a Bathyscafocus fireplace by Focus. The bedrooms have been stacked in the northwest corner and the bathrooms up the building’s central spine while the generous living area has balconies running along the front.
Though the large expanses of glazing suggest a lack of privacy, the feeling within the house is of being snugly enclosed, but with a spectacular view, as the balconies provide a sort of buffer zone between the visible areas of the house and the private interiors. And yet the sweeping vista of sky, trees and parkland below, even with the many monuments to long-dead inhabitants, gives visitors a sense of real freedom and open living that is truly unique in a city of such dense building and crowded history.