Concrete thought: an astonishing terrace extension | Interiors
WWe can’t resist tinkering with our homes. In the 1980s we walked through rooms and reached the rafters to add attic extensions. In the 1990s, the side passages were glazed and the dusty coal cellars became technical rooms. Then come the giant excavations of the basement. Now everything revolves around the back. Terraced houses that look traditional at the front have burst into cavernous, open-plan extensions at the rear. The glass box, shining with marble surfaces and folding doors, is every architect’s attempt to bring sunny California modernity to cloudy British climates.
Forward-thinking retirees Alan Martin Day and Russell Vandyk wanted something different for the rear of their North London semi. “We never yearned for the ‘house beautiful’ look,” Day says, “but it was starting to look shabby.” Built in the 1890s for a clerk “Mr Pooter-ish”, the house sits on a terrace end land embraced by a river that once supplied London with fresh water. The Victorian layout had hardly changed. The higher front halls spoke of fine entertainment. Behind, steps descended towards the old quarters of the servants piecemeal, still marked with the ghostly traces of the maid’s bell.
For 40 years, the couple have said they have “got by” with a do-it-yourself kitchen and bathroom. The rest of the house functioned as a bohemian guesthouse for friends and family. “There wasn’t a damascene moment when we decided to change things. But as you get older, you appreciate having a more aesthetic dimension in your life, ”says Day. “Luxury is not about expensive cruises or canapes; it’s about beauty – not about impressing others. “
The couple, who once ran an accessory manufacturing company, gave their architects a “generous” brief. “It was an opportunity to be experimental,” says Ben Allen, whose anonymous practice gains a reputation for lively and allusive architecture.
“We move away from huge open spaces. The acoustics are terrible. And eating, living and watching TV together can feel overwhelming. Covid made us understand that we all need spaces to retreat, ”says Allen, who credits his colorful, post-minimalist approach to working on projects such as the Serpentin Pavilion for Olafur Eliasson, based in Berlin. “Keeping it simple wasn’t her office mantra,” Allen says. “If you walk through a forest, the light and the atmosphere are constantly changing. Our natural environment is infinitely complex; therefore having a little complexity in our interiors should be obvious.
To “intrigue” the new two-story extension, Allen and his colleague Omar Ghazal turned to Sir John Soane. Not his great neoclassical bank of England, but the eccentric and the imagination of the Georgian architect house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. “Soane enlarged her house with an amazing sequence of pavilions, lit in different ways. They forged a link between the old and the new, ”says Allen. “Glass boxes work well in warm southern climates, but the English skies can be oppressive. You need a feeling of warmth and protection. Instead of looking at the rain-streaked glazing, a ribbed vault sits under the light-diffusing skylight – like this arboreal canopy – in the double-height kitchen. Arched openings draw your gaze from the kitchen to the dining room where Allen designed the D-shaped table and chairs. Alice in Wonderland– the ladder door above the sink opens, like a vintage serving hatch, onto the living room. “These connections made the house so much more social,” Vandyk says, pointing to the mezzanine, hugged by the blue railing. One room was sacrificed to add the new space.
Concrete, not a timber frame, was used to build the extension. “We were inspired by the color and honesty of Victorian architecture,” says Allen. “The masonry is decorated, but it is also load-bearing. What you see is what you get. ”At the rear, a structural column inscribed in a scalloped pattern contrasts with the flat panels in the bathroom. The rich greens, reds and salmon pinks were achieved using earth pigments. Everything – stairs, kitchen counters, benches – was built off-site. “We spent a lot of time exploring the options, but it only took three days to build the mainframe,” says Allen, who named the project “House Recast”.
The bathroom was another experience. The shell-shaped shadows of a decorative screen float on the smooth green walls under the dome-shaped skylight. The exotic hammam feel is a nod to Ghazal’s Jordanian roots mixed with a reference to the Orientalist home from London by Victorian painter Sir Frederic Leighton. Designed as a wet room, it has a specially designed brass shower head and the sculpted basin resembles a classic pedestal.
Vandyk and Day recently learned that their house was picked from among 200 other entries to win the annual competition. Don’t move, improve! price. Not that they have ever doubted the uniqueness of their recalibrated interior. It gave them a new perspective on the house they’ve known since their twenties. “From all angles, you always have something different to watch – there’s a constant sense of novelty,” says Vandyk.