Toh Shimazaki in West London

Alun Jones, ‘Toh Shimazaki in West London’, in: Architecture Today (London, UK: November 2007)

GLOUCESTER MEWS WEST - A House In-between

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Gloucester Mews West is a curious place. It is located between the backs of two stuccoed terraces in the heart of Paddington, and inasmuch is an urban morphology characteristic of this part of west London. What sets it apart is that the entire mews and the rear elevations of  the terraces that overlook it have been rebuilt post-war. As a result, the backs of the terraces have lost their characteristic chaotic agglomerative form, leaving them instead strangely utilitarian and dowdy. The mews itself forms a continuous terrace of identical 1950s polite English modernist houses.

The uniformity of the diminutive mews and the acute contrast of scale with the enclosing cliff-faces of the terraces, is accentuated by its topographic relationship with the street. The mews is approached through a carriage-width archway under a pub, the road descending steeply by more than half a storey to what one assumes is natural ground level. This elevated point of arrival provides a de Chirico-esque single point perspective of a world of contrasts.

1a Gloucester Mews West occupies a 3.5m wide gap between the back of the aforementioned pub and the beginning of the ‘brave new world’ mews, and was formerly occupied by a single-storey garage. Into this tiny crevasse, Toh Shimazaki have inserted a house of dissolved boundaries.

The client purchased the site in 2005, which came with planning permission for a one-bedroom-plus-study house, organised over three floors. Having successfully completed several projects with Toh Shimazaki he appointed them to realise this project. The inherited scheme did not meet the requirements of the client and Toh Shimazaki set about redesigning it. However, the original planning permission had been granted on appeal, after a long struggle, and came with a raft of conditions attached. It was also apparent from the maelstrom of local objection to the original project that to make a new application for a redesigned scheme would be to embark on an odyssey into local politics that the client would rather avoid.

Instead, Toh Shimazaki took the numerous conditions to the planning permission as the opportunity to open up a creative dialogue with the planners, that would allow them to modify the scheme whilst still remaining within the parameters of the planning permission. The existing consent was therefore adopted as a ‘found condition’, and within the given form and arrangement of apertures, Toh Shimazaki set about redesigning the project; refurbishing an un-built building. The principal objectives were to open-up the interior of the building, to infuse it with more light, and provide visual connectivity within the building to mitigate against the potentially claustrophobic situation of the plot.

The house is organised over three floors. There is a bedroom, shower room and roof terrace on the upper floor, an entrance hall / study area at the ground floor, and a kitchen living dining area in the basement. There is also a notional garage at ground floor, which was a requirement of the planners to maintain order in the rhythm of the street frontage, but given the constraints of the site not even a smart car will fit. The front elevation of the house is organised to maintain the size, scale and pattern of the neighbouring houses, again a planning condition, and there was consequently little scope for Toh Shimazaki to operate here other than in the detailing. The opportunity for ingenuity is taken in the window detailing, which is expressed as an oak box that is pushed through the plane of the façade. This breaks with the monotony of the street and adumbrates the spatial strategy within the house.

The house is entered to the side of the 'garage', via an attenuated lobby into the entrance hall / study area, from where the drama of the design is revealed. This space is beguiling. You find yourself standing on a glass floor, unexpectedly a storey above the principal accommodation, overlooking a pool of minty-green resin screed that appears to radiate light. A storey height glazed screen in front of you reflects the light from the glass floor on which you stand, itself reflecting the light from the rooflight above you. The result is not dissimilar to a Dan Graham installation; disorientating whilst simultaneously layering your perception of the space you inhabit. The colour of the resin floor resonates with the inherent green tinge of the glass that surrounds you, creating a calm and aqueous world.

An oak staircase rises in a straight flight from the lower floor, wraps around the entrance hall / study and climbs up to the first floor, where it frames the rooflight. The staircase’s spiralling movement brings both party walls into play and somehow manages to exaggerate the width of the space. The stair is the only element in the building that has been given a distinct material character. It is formed in steel and clad in oak an all visible surfaces, so wherever you are in the building, you read the stair and landings, from both below and above as a folded ribbon of oak. This serves to emphasise the spiralling route of the stair and enforces its role as the key architectural element within the idea of this house. Crucially, it also forms a material connection between the lower floor of the house and the sky, which given the morphology of the site is essential for the sense of expansion that Toh Shimazaki have managed to imbue in this crevasse.

The lower floor contains the principal accommodation. The kitchen and shower room are located to the front of the plan, below the body of the house. The stair and an offset in the form of the basement provide a natural demarcation of this area, beyond which the living room occupies the rear of the plan. The living room roof is glazed from party wall to party wall, interrupted only by a raking beam that continues the line of structure to the side of the stair. The beam acts to enforce a sightline and also provides the necessary subdivision to provide a ventilation panel in the roof. From the living room there is a controlled view of the sky to the front of the house, seen through a rooflight in the bedroom, two storeys above. This is a counterpoint to the view of the neighbouring buildings that surround and define the glass-roofed space. The juxtaposition of these different strategies to bring light into the house - both framed and unframed, perspectival and expansive - serves to relieve the space of any sense of overbearing that the surrounding buildings could impart. Instead, there is a sense that the living room is 20m tall. 

Arriving at the top of the staircase you enter the bedroom, which you realise is spatially continuous with the lower study area. What you took for a rooflight below you discover is a patch of glass floor that forms a bridge to the sleeping area. The play of light and reflection and the layering of space, continues here with areas of wall being lined with mirror. A small terrace completes the processional sequence of the staircase.

The project was, not surprisingly, extremely difficult to build, taking fifteen months to complete. The entire basement had to be hand dug and carted to an adjacent street as local objectors saw to it that no skips could be placed outside the house. Of the thirteen party wall awards needed only three were signed off without a struggle. The mere fact that this building exists is testament to the clarity of vision of all involved.

It will be interesting to see this house being lived in, to see how the laconic world of reflection that has been created responds to the trappings of everyday life and of being furnished.

Paddington is a place in-between; between arriving in London and your destination; between town and Notting Hill; between Hyde Park and the sprawl of urban development. 1a Gloucester Mews West is a house in-between, but unlike its location, Toh Shimazaki have created a sense of stasis and tranquillity here.

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