Me And My Home: A sixth sense for space

Mary Wilson talks to Sabiha Foster about books, black walnut and birdsong

Sabiha Foster is an architect and designer. A former director of Foster and Partners, she has worked at the concept and design level of major international architecture projects. She is now the sole designer for her design studio, Altai International Limited. Altai works mainly to private commission and creates gold and platinum jewellery, objets d'art and sterling-silver tableware

I have always lived in Hampstead. Before I moved to Wedderburn Road, a lovely leafy street of large Edwardian properties, I lived in a vast Victorian house in Well Walk. Hampstead is ideal because it's close to the centre, but it is not an urban environment - it smells fresh, there is the Heath and Regent's Park. It's idyllic. Looking out into the garden of my home, you could be anywhere in the country.

"When I first saw this space, it was a higgledy-piggledy mess that had not been touched for the last 40 years. It had been so seriously neglected that even the plaster smelt. But I could see its magnificent, ambassadorial potential. It had the feel of a one-storey house, because it had the imposing main front door to itself and the front garden and of course this haven of a completely secluded 120ft-long back garden. All quite exceptional! This space appealed to me because in all of Hampstead, there wasn't a garden-apartment space of this ilk. There still isn't!

"I bought the apartment in 1999 and moved in the summer of 2000. It took about 10 months to restructure. I stripped the interior back to the brick and redesigned the floor space. It was a minor feat of structural engineering - only the outer and the central load-bearing walls remain and the central one has been partially removed to create the 60-foot-plus reception space. No sane human being would do that just to achieve the perfect apartment! It was a massive building operation, a hugely laborious and expensive process, but it has produced this spectacular result. I love this serene, elegant, inspiring space, which I feel is contemporary in the best sense of that term.

"As soon as I saw the space, I knew what I would do with it. Space is always an immediate experience. I am one of the happy few who can visualise space the way a composer hears music. Spatial sense is a language, an inherent capacity. From the grandest of cathedrals and mosques to the simplest of dwellings around the world, you see evidence of how innate the sense of space is - it was there long before the era of CAD packages and computer drawings.

"Architecture is about projecting our inner spiritual-emotional space into an outer space - it's a manifestation of one's inner way of being. Which is why different spaces generate different moods and atmospheres. My architecture training was paralleled by philosophy; philosophy and architecture have always essentially been one discipline. No wonder, our ancestors believed that we create our buildings and then our buildings create us. It's all in the idea!

"I extended the property beyond the original footprint of the house, adding the main bedroom and enlarging the reception area, which I stopped with a sliding glass wall. The glass wall draws the garden into the reception areas, making the interior space come alive.

"There was small entrance hall, which I opened up and created a new hall, running the line of vision right through the apartment. The main bedroom suite overlooks the garden and I wake up to birdsong.

"The property used to have four bedrooms, but I have created a free-flowing reception and living area which you wouldn't normally find in what one calls an apartment. It's worthy of a large house.There was a coal cellar, which is now a utility and storage room. The catering kitchen that I put in can scramble eggs and grill fish for an entire family, but if you are entertaining, a professional chef can - and often has - produced dinner for 40. There is tremendous flexibility in an arrangement based on catering principles.

"There is floor-to-ceiling storage everywhere. The passage to the main bedroom conceals doors to a luxuriously finished dressing room and bathroom. I love wood and have used black walnut throughout; it has movement and texture and contrasts with the pale high walls.

"I read endlessly and am uncomfortable without books, hence the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. My father was the kind of man who only exists in the East - an unworldly fakir-poet-scholar - so I was brought up in a house with virtually no furniture but with books everywhere. I've been collecting books since I was 14 years old and probably have around 10,000 books, most of which are now in storage. I hanker after all the books in storage! And I still haunt antique bookshops.

"Of course, I also re-landscaped and re-planted the garden. It's flourishing with glorious abandon. It's ideal for garden parties. When the blue and white wisteria drips off the trellis at the back, it is magical. And when you are sitting on the terrace before the beds of rosemary, lavender, thyme and hebes, you breathe the scent of Provence. In London!"

The 2,044sqft property is for sale though Goldschmidt & Howland (020-7435 4404) for £1.695m

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