Young architects have traditionally created most of their ingenious design tricks for private clients. In a residential neighbourhood of London not noted for its architectural gems or vistas, is a house and a studio for two creative people. Unlike 99.9% of its neighbours, it is experimental, playing with the idea of ‘looking and being looked at’, and with the language of modernism. An exercise in architectural subversion, it is all the more powerful in its anonymous context. Two light structured buildings gaze at each other across a stretch of water, each reflecting a larger, more open-ended story about the other. Designed by architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, a young practice founded in 1994, now named Tonkin Liu, this narrative creates an architecture about self-awareness, exposure and embellishment. On the face of it these might seem contrasting conditions. Yet here, the architecture shows the connections between them to be much more fluid than might be supposed.
Set on a long and narrow leftover urban plot, the buildings are very lightweight, without foundations. Two concrete boxes with stressed skin structures, they resulted from a kit of parts which were bolted together on a disused airfield. A courtyard of shallow water divides the buildings with their gently sloping roofs. Reminiscent of a Chinese court house, a high sided colonnade and a 40 metre long low building with an office flank the water. The studio at the far end of the water is clearly the smaller of the two, but it stands considerably higher than these linear ‘wings’, and the house is reflected at a smaller scale in its glass front. The courtyard widens towards the studio, creating the impression that it is at a shorter distance to the house than the other way round.
Each building is an essay in perceiving proportion, framing the viewer and his or her actions, and, in turn, the act of viewing, almost voyeuristically. This dualism operates in the relationship between the buildings themselves, one in which they play on their own and each other’s scale, both as active instruments and passive containers. For the architects, form is not purely material, there to define the ground, and to be perceived as unchanging in nature. The captured presence of natural elements - the buildings’ reflections in the water; the enhancing effect of internal light at night - recalibrates the impact of the architecture, constantly shifting its proportions, imagined scale, and experiential impact. The shift from afternoon to evening ‘dematerialises’ the front façade of the house.
Inside the open ground floor space, the food storage, preparation and cooking units are faced in ‘cellbond’ honeycomb aluminium and fibreglass (like a beehive). They are back lit, giving them a soft yellow glow, making their identities abstract and potentially interchangeable. When night falls, the fully glazed street facade becomes ‘flattened’ into a white micro-capillary screen, a shadow theatre of light and movement around these ‘jewel’ elements, animating the dark street. This transformation into a light box reduces the house into a simple grid, apparently free of structural supports, yet one capable of transmitting magnified movements. The addition of a car port canopy keeps the scale of the building in line with the rest of the street, picking up the line of bay windows of the neighbouring buildings.
At night, the rear of the house, its clear glass window divided into a cruciform, appears as a gleaming double exposure embellishing the pool. The architecture of the studio is chameleonic in its own way, becoming a pin hole camera as night falls. With its blind down, an inverted image of the reflected house – another jewel, perhaps - appears on the back wall as if there is an aperture in the blind. By day, with the lower windows pulled back, it can play a role as a simple pool house for relaxing. This use of reflectivity and framing challenges the traditional hierarchy of forms, in which all structures are subservient to the main building. The project is in any case highly suggestive of open-ended functions. The pool of water in the courtyard can be drained, transforming the linear space into an improvised extension to the buildings overlooking it, where people can mingle. The project reflects a desire to extend architecture through nature, training the eye to the impact of enclosed water and sky, and in turn harnessing design to the changing seasons. This desire is evident in the water-filled, high-sided courtyard that effectively screens off views of the neighbouring houses, making the changing sky patterns above all the more noticeable. However, the spatial composition is highly effective in framing a row of high street buildings visible from the bedroom through its windows. All the focus otherwise is on the central pool of water. Any other openings in the interior spaces are to the sky. A narrow skylight cut in the roof of the house brings a shaft of light down across the dining table. A bigger skylight in the studio roof opens up the box of a building that functions so well as a camera obscura.
The project’s physical lightness combined with the shadow play using domestic props gives it the quality of a stage set, and yet there is something very robust about the character of the space. Their choice of durable cheap materials is highly idiosyncratic. Asserting an improvised aesthetic in keeping with the kit formation of the structure, they are the same on the inside and outside, and are left uncovered, breaking with English domestic housing tradition by being also consistently dry (no plastering, for instance). In ‘expressing the beauty of a builder’s yard’ - as Tonkin and Liu describe their concept - ‘Sasmoc’, for instance, a white board like polished plaster of Paris, is used on the covered walkway, the colonnade and the bed platform. Panels of ‘Eternit’ shiplap boarding, a very cheap, fake timber, are applied vertically, using the textured surface found on the reverse, in the photographic studio. The reddy brown ‘wayroc’, a material used for the beds of articulated lorries is used on the walls of the office and in the dining area. ‘Viroc’, another discovery is a cement-backed chipboard used in agricultural contexts (pig styes, for example), and here constitues the floor surfaces in the low building and colonnade.
Tonkin and Liu do many subversive things to manipulate the ‘piece of white modernism’ they have inserted on the narrow site. As a design it situates itself between a rational plan of an architect like Louis Kahn, with a focus on served and servant space, divided by a thick wall, and the more characteristically free plan of Le Corbusier, with components arranged freely. Although there is a strong element of served and servant space in the main building’s relationship with its neighbours, the lynch pin of the different relationships is a floating box, a simple effect achieved by the water that divides the protagonists in this tantalising architectural play of looking and being looked at. Flexible, ingenious solutions to architectural needs – especially live-work, in a city in which travelling times can otherwise be quite long - are increasingly common among younger architects, and every project built creates a precedent that encourages further willingness of clients to explore their options in the future. Individualised answers reflecting the pluralism of society do not necessarily need to be large scale, but they serve as generators of community at a time when older mechanisms have been lost.