A housing development that gives a Swiss twist to the classic London terrace model. Ellie Duffy reports on a new residential project by Jaccaud Zein Architects that provides a welcome rethink of what defines a house or a flat – and even a possible exemplar for shaking up the tired models of the UK’s volume house building market to better reflect the changing and fluid nature of the modern household.
Standing outside Jaccaud Zein Architects’ newly completed housing development at Shepherdess Walk near Old Street in London, I ask its Swiss architect Jean-Paul Jaccaud why he thinks the British have historically been so unenamoured of apartment living. His answer is eminently pragmatic: “There were lots of houses built here and that is probably what most people would choose.”
Despite the staggeringly high proportion of small one and two bedroom flats currently on offer in London’s newest developments, it’s true that the city’s modes of living are still largely defined by its historic housing stock. The predominant typology is the terraced house (although nowadays often converted into flats), which originated from the pre-reformation, narrow-frontage, timber-framed house and was developed at varying scales across London from the early eighteenth century well into the twentieth. It is a typology shaped by a system of development economics – introduced by seventeenth century financer Nicholas Barbon – in which speculative builders bid to construct groups of houses within a pre-defined masterplan.
Inside, at household scale, the terraced typology tends to equate to deep plans, relatively fixed positions for fenestration and a high proportion of fixed-width stair and corridor, and a contained dog-leg staircase with half landings almost always aligned along a party wall. In practice this means that vertical separation rather than lateral living is the norm in London.
The Jaccaud Zein housing is located on the corner of Shepherdess Walk and Wenlock Street in a fast-changing “city fringe” district close to Tech City’s Silicon Roundabout (formerly know as Old Street Roundabout). It is an area that was once defined by its canal infrastructure but where, after Second World War bomb damage and post-war reconstruction, only pockets of Victorian terraced housing and wharf stock remain. A canyon of new skyscrapers by SOM, Foster + Partners and UN Studio is rising fast nearby, offering “luxury urban living” in the form of one or two bedroom flats to the international jet set.
This particular site previously housed one of the UK’s first HIV clinics, in a flimsy 1980s building soon subjected to fire-bomb attacks amidst public hysteria. Next door sits an ornate late-Victorian building, a former pillow-making establishment, faced in red brick, while opposite, a long two-storey terrace of part-stuccoed mid-nineteenth century housing recedes southwards. On Wenlock Street, a local church is surrounded by 1950s low-rise housing, with newer blocks of street-hugging apartments rising higher to the east.
Into this complex, ordinary urban context the new modestly scaled development (a collaboration between developer Solidspace and Jaccaud Zein Architects) is articulated as two blocks. Hedging its bets between house and apartment – or old and new modes of living – it offers both: a short terrace of three four-storey houses along Shepherdess Walk and, separated by walled gardens, a higher block of five apartments along Wenlock Street. The terrace is joined to its Victorian neighbour, a corner building, and navigates its own corresponding corner by presenting a plain chamfered face to the street, in both echo and antidote to the elaborate, bullnosed articulation of the Victorian one. A subtle flicker in the angle of the new terrace reflects a similar shift in geometry of the long, low Georgian terrace opposite. The new development is faced in Belgian brick, chosen, the architect tells me, to evoke the colour of London Stock covered by 100 or so years of grime. It fits in remarkably well.
Across the development sheer-faced brickwork is punctured with deep-set, simply articulated openings, communicating a public face of reticence akin to the language of the Georgian terrace opposite and contrasting strongly with the applied exuberance of the Victorian façade. A just-visible striated effect across the faces of the new development is created by a change in articulation of the brick, with the mortar work of occasional bands being recessed rather than flush. Together the buildings form a finely nuanced reinterpretation of the London urban block.
Inside the departure from the typical London terrace layout is dramatic. Both houses and apartments make use of a split section model which the developer Solidspace calls their “DNA”. It is a volumetric approach to spatial organisation that means internal spaces are staggered, like a staircase itself, offering semi-separation rather than a rigid compartmentalisation of the household functions of cooking, eating, working and relaxing. The split section lends itself particularly well to the creation of generous vertical volumes that meander through levels. Removed from its container, the staircase is no longer fixed in width but widens and narrows to suit the space and volume of footfall. Unexpected and surprisingly powerful views of the ordinary streets beyond are a happy by-product of the offset internal levels.
The apartments are all configured over multiple levels and offer an unusual amount of rooms by UK standards. What kind of people have been interested in these “house style” apartments (nearly all sold) I ask Jaccaud? His answers reveal the complexities of the contemporary household – partners who both work from home in separate capacities, parent and offspring living together as part-time/full-time flat sharers, or patchwork households with two sets of children from previous relationships. The bigger flats are designed to accommodate a wide range of domestic set-ups, incorporating self-contained studio space with a separate entrance suitable for use as an office, nanny or granny flat or to rent out.
But what about London’s ever pressing housing crisis? Ostensibly these high-end apartments have as little to do with addressing London’s real housing needs as “Canaletto” and “Lexicon” and the rest of the canyon of luxury apartments up the road. For volume housebuilders the split section model is uneconomic, offering a low floor area to volume ratio and more complications in design and construction.
However, the architect says it’s his work on social housing at his sister practice in Switzerland, Jaccaud Spicher Architectes Associés, that has informed his thinking about this private housing and how to accommodate increasingly non-nuclear household units, as well as an awareness of how different cultures use space. The practice has worked, for instance, with a “cluster” concept for social housing, configured as a series of up to ten studios sharing communal facilities, with single parents housed alongside the elderly or newly retired with time on their hands, or native Swiss speakers alongside new immigrants.
Hopefully it is this pioneering spirit, with its more realistic focus on the actual needs of complex contemporary households, that will engage the interest of developers and volume housebuilders in the UK and encourage a more imaginative approach to housing provision – something that is sorely needed.
– Ellie Duffy is a director of the graphic design agency Duffy, London. @duffydesign