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Modern romance; Hidden love: beyond an anonymous Victorian arched carriageway, Caruso St John bring New-Romanticism to the heart of Notting Hill.

To make an extraordinary material special, is banal. To heighten one's awareness of a humble material like brick, is poetic.

Adam Caruso, Sigurd Lewerentz and a Material Basis of Form, 1997

The clients for this house, who continue to live between London and New York, had become increasingly frustrated by the limitations of their five-bedroom Victorian home in Notting Hill. Unlike their 500 square metre loft in New York's grit-chic Soho, their cellular multi-storey London terrace was not conducive to the communal family life that they wanted to perpetuate. For Caruso St John, therefore, the brief was clear; the family wanted a spacious London home, preferably with all the living spaces on one floor, where, quite literally, they could not avoid one another. With two children who were rapidly growing up, and the inherent complications of living on both sides of the Atlantic, it was important that when this family came together in one place they could occupy a space that would focus and encourage interaction.

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As an equivalent to their New York neighbourhood, the Westbourne Grove area of Notting Hill was a given, providing a familiar and lively 24/7 location, with a wide variety of residential streets in which to retreat. The nature of the site, however, was less defined, and a number of locations were considered over an 18-month period, including a loft-like space in a commercial building, coolly situated above an ice-rink. Eventually, however, this curious, but not uncommon, residual end-of-terrace plot was found. With an existing consent the potential of the site was secure in terms of planning; however, it was not as cheap as it would have been if the existing mechanic's workshop was the only consented use. Nevertheless, the client approved the acquisition of the site and Caruso St John set about reimagining the contorted and overlooked plot with an alternative strategy to the domestic courtyard scheme that had been given planning permission.

While the courtyard type presented a fascinating planning format that Caruso St John may well have enjoyed working with, the site was considered too small for a centralised courtyard scheme. As Caruso recalls, the balance between the size of the courtyard and the depth of the plan soon became problematic, leading almost inevitably to the strategic decision to pull the accommodation into the heart of the site and to provide minor courts in the three residual corners of the triangular plot. Despite not having an established type with which to work, this proposition proved equally stimulating as a design exercise giving Caruso St John the opportunity to extend a number of their own preoccupations; here, focusing on the broad nature and variety of domestic spaces by extending what Caruso calls their understanding of a material basis for form, most explicitly revealed through their admiration for, and interpretation of, the work of Lewerentz.

While the figure ground of this home was inverted to place voids at the periphery and a solid at the centre, the internal spaces remained focused on a single centralised volume; the space for unavoidable interaction. Through the resolution of scale, form and geometry, this space has given the home a unique identity, and a curiously eccentric sense of centredness, flanked to the south by a separate study and underpinned by the cellular spaces below.

Consistent with their emerging oeuvre, this space is unique. Formally and spatially it is an unbalanced composition, set within an envelope that has no elevations and a plan that does not rely on spatial sequences from any particular domestic type. Somewhat surprisingly, for a practice that actively seeks to place their work within a historic continuum, this house is almost entirely without precedent, and while the notion of active form-finding is something that Caruso St John would no doubt be uncomfortable with, this is without dispute a sculpted building and a compelling object (albeit buried deep within the fabric of an as found urban condition). In form, it certainly is not, despite its loosely adopted description, a derivative of a dome. So, when you re-read Caruso's 1998 essay, The Tyranny of the New', in which he stated that '... it is doubtful whether completely new forms can exist ...', how then have Caruso St John allowed themselves to be so creative; dare we say, inventive? Having actively avoided formal novelty and unnecessary reinvention, it is not unreasonable to ask what logic or justification has informed the manipulation of this principal space.

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On first impressions, the faceted concrete shell could be seen by some to come dangerously close to a strain of determined formalism from which the practice would instinctively recoil, as they characteristically retreat from any mode of architectural classification. Fortunately, however, as you would hope and expect from one of the UK's most thought-provoking practices, the architects do have a strong theoretical basis for this building, reassuringly based on solid and well ordered principles of construction, cost and buildability, rather than vague and poorly communicated notions of phenomenology. The success of this space is consistent with the architects' strongly held belief that the art of building has nothing at all to do with virtuosity, but everything to do with the all-pervasive, existential character of the whole.

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Since their rise to prominence with the Walsall Art Gallery (AR May 2000), Caruso St John have been at the forefront of a generation of contemporary British architects whose work thrives on the notion of specificity; principally through the exploitation and amplification of as found conditions, be they found typologies, found localities, found material finishes, or more recently, the reapplication of found ornamentation. The formal justification of this structure, therefore, within the context of this site and the inherent nature of these chosen materials, sets their work above the criticisms that could easily be pinned on architects with less robust philosophies; those whose work is wilful, self-referential, and largely irrelevant to any form of progressive and connected discourse. In opposition to the false promise of networks and simultaneous virtual realities, Caruso has stated that 'a more radical formal strategy is one that considers and represents the existing and the known', rather than one that operates in a void-like tabula rasa, or worse still, cyber-space. In this instance, therefore, when considering the derivation of this form, we should consider the existing to be the site, and the known to be the chosen technology of construction.

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Caruso St John's starting point on this site was an unapologetic homage to Lewerentz's seminal Church of St Peter, in Klippan. Complete with tapering brick barrel vaults, brick walls, and brick niches, they sought to reapply the tectonic eloquence that had made the material assembly and formal intensity of Lewerentz's characterful spaces virtually inseparable. Unfortunately, however, on this site and within the agreed budget, this strategy could not be pursued; the brick vaults were not only prohibitively expensive, but also proved too difficult to resolve formally against the junction with a dining area that was to be lower and more intimate. Within the geometric constraints of this site, a more malleable roof form was required; so, instead of stubbornly forcing the vaulted forms to fit, the depression above the dining area became the starting point for their new strategy, and by extending a series of similar irregular facets the dome-like soffit was re-formed. This decision simplified the integration of rooflights, which would have been problematic to accommodate within the vaults, by simply extending and articulating the structural folds in three places. It also rationalised the material order of the house as a whole, by distinguishing between the use of concrete in the horizontal and load-bearing brick in the vertical. This, together with the elimination of the brick niches, gave the space a more resonant coherence, where structure, material and light combine effortlessly within a single unified volume. Of course, the process was far from effortless.

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The pursuit of simplicity is a complicated process, and as such you sense that Caruso St John's promotion of the humble brick was fraught with philosophical conundrums. In every corner the details have been heavily governed, so much so, that to use a mixed metaphor, a critical eye can almost hear the details groan as the interrogation continues; If Lewerentz never cut a brick, how can that raking detail between the wall and the concrete roof be rightly resolved? As an expression of truth to form, are brick slips permissible on a floor that needs to optimise underfloor heating? And, when is a load-bearing wall not a load-bearing wall, when revealed to be only one brick thick by a door that is ajar? But surely, to re-address these questions would be a waste of energy; as with any onlooker considering the dynamics of an intense love affair, even if it is with a brick, why add to the angst?

Considering the hours that are likely to have been spent agonising over each and every junction, it is time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. And, if poetry is what we are seeking, our reading of the spaces should be as sensitively considered as the manner in which they have been composed. Is this building perfect? Almost, perhaps. But then, as the relatively young Caruso noted in 1997, 'I have been to a very small number of buildings that are almost perfect ... the perfect buildings that I have seen are the work of old men'. For us then, a prolonged debate could become an inconclusive and subjective process; a mixture of theoretical interpretation and intuitive reaction. For the client, however, the reality of this home, and whether it is near perfect or not, is a matter of shaping a new way of life; building, dwelling and thinking combined. Through the creation of this home it is clear that the family have already begun to tune in to their architects' romantic turn of phrase. They are already enjoying the detail of the brick-modular socket plates, the branching conduit lighting, and the switch plates integrated in the door frames; a pleasure that will no doubt grow as they inhabit the spaces; as they learn not to scratch their legs as they climb into the brick encased bath tub; and, as they let music fill the space, lie on the warm brick-slip floor and try to pinpoint the virtually invisible ionisation smoke detectors set within the constellations of their new concrete sky.

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Article Details
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Author:Gregory, Rob
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:1750
Previous Article:Making a place to dwell; Finding a place within the city: how architects are reconfiguring the urban home.
Next Article:Inner realm: with a combined interest in the sculptural use of concrete and the process of making domestic rooms, Jamie Fobert creates a new family...
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