Jamie Norton: 'I transformed my poky north London apartment into a spacious modern space'

The musician and songwriter can teach all cramped city dwellers a thing or two.
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The Independent Online

When the musician and songwriter Jamie Norton – he's worked with Take That, McFly and Incognito – decided to transform his two-level apartment in Stoke Newington Church Street, north London, he had only one or two design ideas in mind. "I love architecture," he says, "but I'm very aware that I don't have an original thought about it. My original thoughts are in music."

Enter Alex Haw, ex-Fulbright scholar at Princeton and now co-principal of Atmos Studio in London. What he brought to Jamie Norton's design challenge reflects an unusually wide-ranging view of how space can be reconfigured and reactivated. Atmos has designed rapid-assembly plywood pavilions for the British Council, developed a body-tracking laser installation, interactive bar projections, and even created a mobile arts facility known as the Beanmobile. Add to those CV items the fact that Haw's Princeton thesis was about the relationship between architecture and music, and it becomes obvious that Atmos is plainly not a standard-issue design practice.

Haw's reconfiguration of Jamie Norton's home is one of the most boldly conceived and executed small projects I've encountered in the past decade. Haw refers to it as the Woven Nest, but that is too quaint a metaphor. Far more telling is his observation that "the ironic thing about getting more out of the space was to do less".

And so the narrative of spaces and materials here amounts to a small masterclass in unexpected visual connections, fine detail, and the allure of light. There is no hint of the fact that the original apartment was cramped, relatively dark, and anything but spatially engaging.

The new sense of spatial flow, and a gradual rising into the light, comes as a delightful shock after mounting the very narrow, dog-legged stairs to the apartment's first level. Haw hasn't simply delivered a clever piece of design in the familiar terms of plan and section – he's produced spaces, over two levels, of extraordinary finesse and visual traction. And he's done it in an overall volume of space of about 160m3. In crude terms, that's the equivalent of a space measuring a bit less than 6m by 6m by 6m.

"I see a project like this as being a lot like film-making," Haw says. "What you see from the bed, what you see when you get up, or go to the bathroom. It's about the staging of viewpoints, or developing an architectural choreography that makes rooms and spaces precious." Norton has another take on it: "There's something brilliant about doing something like this with abandon."

That remark reveals the most important ingredient of any architectural project, regardless of its size: the client's commitment to an unusual design. Mutual trust was clearly at work, not least because Norton's original taste in architecture was relatively restrained: "I love Jean Prouvé. I love glass. I love light, and Japanese minimalism." His previous flat was in Queen's Park: "Everything was white, shabby chic."

Yet now, above Stoke Newington Church Street, he and his wife Becky and two-year-old son Ned live in what might be thought of as a cool, strangely Baroque pad – the key to 17th-century Baroque architecture being the way interiors, particularly in churches, were dramatised with light that suffused into the heart of buildings in a way that was beautifully luminous but never absolutely direct. Haw's remark that the physical constraints of the project pushed him into designing "sacred moments" is rather apt.

But what about the grunt and detail of the project? Half an hour after first meeting his client, the architect was on the roof of a building opposite the flat, taking pictures of it, and of the buildings on either side, to understand the changes and visibility of the existing roof-lines. "This is a Grade-II building in a conservation area," Norton explains. "And it was poky. We were very impressed at how Alex reacted to the challenge."

There were significant planning issues relating to sight-lines. The highly unusual roof geometry created by Haw – there are 11 facets, five of them glazed – is rather like a stealth object, and can barely be seen from various key external vantage points. I would normally hesitate to mention the usually dreary matter of planning documentation, but the key material produced by Atmos Studio to justify the design is outstanding in its clarity. The diagrams, plans, visualisations and concise explanations of the shape of the new roof segment were presented with irrefutable logic. Even a non-architect could "get" the reasoning behind the whole scheme in a minute or two.

How does the reconfiguration actually work? In essence, it hinges on the way the core of the space has been given a trajectory by an elegant, oak-edged staircase that curls upwards to the central glazed "eyelid" in the roof, and to the two bedrooms and bathroom. There's a roof terrace, too, and it can't be seen from other houses. Haw talks of the design as "a series of sequences, an elongation that stretches the eye".

And this time, Haw deploys a metaphor that is spot-on: the staircase, he says, is a tree whose treads-cum-branches spread out through the home, morphing into architraves, desks, bookshelves and even a laundry-lid that doubles as a blind. The angled, glazed roof segment above the bed-head offers views of the sky.

Conceptually, the intervention can be seen as a single piece of architectural furniture that holds together the living room and kitchen on the first level, and the bedrooms and terrace above. Haw's attention to the finer details shows a certain graceful wit: the geometry of the roof facets have been inferred in the design of the bedroom cabinets. The architectural language being spoken here, in both its major and minor features, is articulate and confident.

As a fan of Jean Prouvé's, perhaps the most brilliantly refined of French Modernist designers, what Norton particularly enjoys about the result is the detail – and the fact that "there's a precision to it that Alex appreciates. We probably spent more on the project than we needed to, but we wanted to enjoy our home – enjoy holding this handle, or touching this surface. We've learnt a lot from the whole process. I learnt what my [architectural] values are." Those values were originally slanted towards purely aesthetic effect; now, he realises that the practicalities of space-use are equally important.

"I spend a lot of time away from here," he muses. "This feels like a sanctuary, a place to recharge. I would always want my home to have that quality. Just that thing of being able to close the door and just breathe. I have friends who live in £5m homes. But now, I sometimes think: are they missing a trick? There's something about designing within limits that's very exciting. It's the same in music.

"We finished recording a song last night that's probably the best song that we've ever written. It's very exciting. I feel I'm at a point of change, musically, and I have this sense that I'm going to arrive at a new place, and that it's going to be really interesting." Not so very different, then, to unlocking his street door and heading up that narrow staircase towards the tree of light.

Little wonders

* Neil Dushenko's Timber Fin House is an extension to an Edwardian home in Walthamstow. Its shape, and glazing, is designed to track the sun. But what's really bold and satisfying about the structure is its cladding in oak and Siberian larch – a tough, practical contrast to the weathered brick of the house.

* If it's posh you want, then Duggan Morris Architects might interest you. Their prefabricated solid timber, five-storey staircase in St John's Wood was conceived as an unravelled orange peel, and is pure luxury – which is, of course, de rigeur in that swath of London.

* And should you be in the market for a room with a view, you might be tempted by the possibilities of structures such as Malcolm Fraser Architects' Outlandia Field Station at Glen Nevis, a simple but beautifully detailed lookout cabin that would make a delightful workroom or meditation space anywhere.

* In a really tight spot, the internationally experienced architect Charles Curry-Hyde could be your saviour. On two 50 m2 floors in Clerkenwell, he is in the process of "editing the space syntax at the foot of the stair and creating a paragraph break between the kitchen and dining area". The result will be as crisply elegant as his witty description of the design