Canadian-born, London-based architect Alison Brooks is a reinventor of housing design typologies. UK mass housing is controlled by big business, and the boxy homes that make up the majority of its output leave little room for imagination. Brooks feels strongly that the commercial forces risk creating ghettos: “housing is city building; it is a social and political activity. It should be a site for experimentation and change”. In the eight years Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) has been in existence the practice has maintained its commitment to experimental work in urban design, housing, interiors and landscape, dominated by a string of highly acclaimed new housing schemes that have given her fame.
FUL House (1999) was a critique and metamorphosis of the Victorian-Edwardian terraced house. In 2001, the VXO project transformed a 1960s family home in Hampstead, with three new building elements to create a “domestic campus” of expressive “landscaped” structures. Even before it has been completed, Brooks won an RIBA Housing Design Award (2003) for Brooklands Avenue (2002-), a three part housing scheme in Cambridge for Countryside Properties which will be the largest modern public housing development in the city since 1965. The judges recognised its exemplary design in relation to UK government guidelines for sustainable developments.
ABA’s own emerging body of work strongly demonstrates an interest in transforming architecture out of its customary context and into landscape, giving it new character beyond the boundaries of tectonic convention. She loves the complex baroque sensibility architecture can attain through relatively few gestures, and the planar forms of origami feature in her recent works, which are often folded or wrapped surfaces of one single material.Salt House
ABA has also realised new “indigenous” architecture on the British coastline, once much more of a working environment than it is now. The 350 m2 Salt House (2002-5) on the coast at St Lawrence Bay in Essex is a new hip-roofed, timber-clad atrium house roofed in black slates.
It is situated at the end of a row of old white clapboard timber “oyster” cottages (formerly the homes of oyster fishermen) with bay windows and “outriggers” where the fishermen used to shuck oysters. Like its neighbours, it has an “outrigger” to the south, forming a courtyard and a one storey extension for guest accommodation. The house is both a transformation of the local vernacular and a prototype for building on the flood plain.
Innovative beach houses in the UK are relatively rare. Salt House’s experimentalism relates more to the ambition of the North American beach houses built in the 1960s as second homes, influenced by the optimism and prosperity following the war. She gives a new twist to elements like the front porch commonly seen in American (and Indian) housing. “Semi-public space enables people to participate in the community, the street. There is a necessity to be social”, says Brooks. The wooden decked ground floor space is open plan, and opens to the south and north in stepped terraces. The central glazed lantern opens the house up to the sky, connecting levels and breaking down the horizontal division between floors. The design draws its geometry of a deflected façade from the language of neighbouring bay windows. This fold in the exterior provides generously shaped bays and a flow of space, breaking down the flat, tight skin that separates exterior from interior. The house is a completely column free space, and its owners like the organic quality of the plan, and the fact that they can walk out onto a balcony from every room. ABA tries to explore something new with each project but similar things tend to re-emerge. The Salt House works with planes; bending, folding and lifting, to generate the sculpted spaces of the upper floor through this collapsing geometry. At the risk of giving Salt House the over-precise facetted quality of an architectural model, generating this architecture is about letting the form emerge through an open and organic process, like a salt crystal.Wrap House
Wrap House, in Chiswick, west London, also makes architecture out of a single planar element that sets up an organic relationship between interior and exterior elements. A 100 m2 timber extension to the ground floor of a large detached house, it was completed in July 2005, and creates a variety of new linked and continuous internal spaces. The roof’s triangulated geometry (clad in Ipe hardwood decking) compresses to create an intimate internal area at the rear, while creating a view of the landscaped roof form from above. At the other end of the building, the roof folds upwards to allow panoramic views of the garden. Its skin wraps around a centrally located fireplace to form an outdoor timber deck for dining and parties in the summer. Fold House
Fold House in Wandsworth, south London (2001-4) clearly shows ABA’s interest in dematerialisation. A 420 m2 conversion and extension of a huge Victorian terraced family house in a conservation area, Brooks has designed a singular living/dining space generated by a repeatedly folded sheet of patinated brass. This elemental form “peels away from a glass box”, creating a variety of outdoor spaces including a courtyard between the existing house and the new extension, covered outdoor portico, with folded plates acting as light reflectors and benches. The glazing is fully retractable, allowing two of the facades to be fully opened to the garden. Ever conscious to avoid a static statement, the 3 mm sheets of patinated brass will gradually change colour through exposure to shifts in temperature, humidity and to sunlight. “If the architecture can be made into something as simple as cut and folded sheets, it becomes extremely two dimensional, even when it is three dimensional, a bit like working on origami. It’s about expressing weightlessness”. ABA originally considered using bronze because the clients loved the patinated window frames of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, but wanted something lighter. Sheets of bronze are very expensive, but having specified soldered brass rod and sheet for the Tel Aviv Opera House foyer (Ron Arad’s project, ed. note ), Brooks was familiar with the material and aware that brass is cheaper because it is an alloy.
The surfaces of the Fold House, cladding a structural steel sub-frame, are a pleasantly patinated blue/green, integrating its open forms with the garden environment.
Brooks wants to create a radical new vision for housing and urban design in the UK. “We produce three-dimensional models at a very early stage… you can test everything you do, the ideas against the virtual model. They allow clients to understand the design process and complex forms more easily”. She is not moved by tectonic acrobatics for their own sake. “We try to create an alternative framework for social experience that enable people to engage with their environment. I”m trying to connect to the senses, to emotions, to our senses of being human - those things that often get sidelined by the purely architectonic”. She feels that people in the UK “have already bought into the idea of modern flexible spaces - the loft was part of that shift - they are more open-minded and as a culture ready for something different - but there’s a timelag in terms of architecture. We should be addressing a radically different concept of domestic architecture on a large scale that can improve people’s lives on a daily basis: housing has a huge social impact”.