New chapter in the life of an old house

08 Jan 2010

Chris Dyson Architects completes an extensive re-working of a Georgian townhouse

This house was built in 1720, and over three centuries its history has been, to say the least, chequered; that is to say, full of ups and downs. An episode in the nineteenth century when vehicular access to the back was driven through the front must be considered a down, the imitation weaver’s loft which was added at the top of the main house more recently. Yet enough of its gracious appearance survives to make one rejoice that it has fallen at last into the hands of an owner who wants to do right by it, and that he has chosen an architect who has the wit and sensibility to see what can be done.

Some degree of compromise was in order, to deal with the everyday needs of the twenty first century, and so it could not be a deliberate going back to the original conditions of use. In its final state we find a large new exhibition space with wall-to-wall plate glass windows facing on to a cleaned up courtyard, which with its surviving fig tree has the air of a garden, while on the second floor a more private living room looks down on this garden through four equally spaced vertical windows. It was only when Chris Dyson lived in a Georgian house with such a rear courtyard that the architect realised that a single tree can make a vertical garden, animating all the levels it passes through.

These spaces are entirely modern in feeling. The surprise is that, along with the new kitchen at first floor, they extend across the whole width of the house between party walls, and are of entirely new construction. A look at the cross section is sufficient to make one realise how small the original house was, being just one room deep, and how restricted were its tiny rooms. By adding this new construction the architect has offered his clients an enjoyment of Spitalfields from within the confines of a normal life.

The cottage at the rear of the courtyard has also been regulated with a new face of five equal windows, on two levels, which changes it from being a cottage to being a sort of dower house, sharing in the grandeur of the main house, but on a diminished scale. The ability to regulate a façade with regular windows has been a principal skill of an architect for several hundred years. The other main skill of the architect lies in planning, and especially in dealing with the staircase. Here, the original staircase has been retained and adapted, without major change, to serve the whole house. It is a pleasure to find that this stair reaches up into the main bedroom in the top floor, where it serves to distinguish between sleeping and bathroom areas without destroying the single space: an idea which the Smithsons used in their design for a town house for their own use in 1952.

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