The inbetweeners: A new breed of architects is making the most of cramped city plots

Jay Merrick
Friday 23 April 2010 00:00 BST

Thanks to reality television design shows, the public may imagine that house design and the creative use of tight building plots is not unlike a game of Grand Theft Architecture in which overblown dramas unfold around the construction of architectural crime zones. Vividly intelligent, culturally enriched domestic architecture is extremely rare. And the work of three of Britain's most gifted younger architectural practices is so exceptional that it proves this – all-too-sadly general – rule of dumbed down house design.

Mark these names: Lynch Architects, AOC Architecture, and TAKA Architects. Their architecture is several quantum-jumps beyond most of the reality-TV design universe. These practices know that the design of houses presents one of the greatest challenges in architecture, because those relatively small buildings called homes are repositories of much more than a join-the-dots mush of functions, activities, and desirable accoutrements.

In towns and cities, with prime building plots increasingly difficult to find, less-than-ideal fillets of urban ground, or existing plots, have to be reinvented. But what goes around comes around. Almost two decades ago, the leading architect and urban theorist Sir Terry Farrell, now an adviser to London Mayor Boris Johnson, wrote in The Independent: "So many modern architects are obsessed with the new for novelty's sake. Their argument that 'the future begins today' is farcical and destructive. Far truer to say that the future can only begin with the past ... We just need a gentler approach, like that of a landscape gardener, more architecture that people like and can relate to, and an understanding of how best to build on London's existing qualities."

Farrell, as did other architects who have since become well-known, made his early reputation designing adaptive reuses of existing buildings and urban spaces – and this remains fertile ground for many architects; and there are organisations, such as newcomers Urban Infill, who specialise in assessing the development potential of existing buildings or urban junk space.

But finding truly high-quality design for small-scale sites or any project that involves the remodelling or extension of existing buildings, is the real challenge. The architecture of houses is about creating concentrations of private life, and great skill is needed to express a true sense of home. After all, home is where our lives are revealed the most. And if a home is really well-designed it becomes a place where we are most aware of being simultaneously grounded and creative, and tightly focused or wide-ranging in our thoughts, actions and emotions.

In a recent commentary in The Architects' Journal, Patrick Lynch described domestic architecture as the expression of a "resonant echo of the world's voice witnessed in brick and stone. If a house could speak, what would it tell us? Tales of wedding feasts and baptisms and funerals? Or just the everyday stories of human situations and common unfulfilled time – the idle chatter of happiness and boredom?"

He's not going to design you an executive-style blingtastic house with canary yellow Corian worktops and pointlessly over-ornate taps costing £1,000 a pair, is he? But what he, AOC and TAKA will do is create a home that stretches the imagination in a much more profoundly satisfying way. They design houses that open up new possibilities of living in spaces that are as physically meaningful as possible.

Their designs are often surprising, but the surprises are grounded in alchemies of reason and imagination that draw out engaging facets of the physical, the poetic, and qualities of time and place. All three practices use simple materials superbly, and know how to make houses unfold, visually and spatially, to set up engrossing contrasts of the subtle and the stark.

To paraphrase the title of Haruki Murakami's best-selling novel, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, what do these architects think about when they're thinking about architecture? Let's consider the ideas behind House 1 and House 2, designed by Alice Casey and Cian Deegan – aka TAKA. These two homes in Dublin, a renovated Victorian house and a mews dwelling, house two generations of the same family. TAKA's design is all about expressing their key memories, which were used as touchstones. "Their social rituals are given tangible form in the design," explained Deegan. "Typical domestic objects are distorted in material and scale to form a psychological landscape specific to the occupants."

It's not as complex as it sounds. The daughters' recollection of the stairs in their old house as being "another room" resulted in an enlarged "landscape stairway" in their mews house that offers space for pausing or sitting. Equally fond memories of the kitchen as a social space with an open fire produced two distorted hearths suggesting other uses. As for memories of the fire being the heartbeat of the original home, TAKA accentuated this with an industrial-scaled chimney rising through the centre of the building.

In the parents' new home, the dining table is given special priority - a ritual altar cast in polished concrete to communicate the idea of family permanence. As for the mews house, their Flemish-bond bricks mimic the brickwork of the Victorian house, but with a twist: the front façade carries a striking pattern of projecting bricks, and the rear façade a mesh of bricks patterned with ventilation gaps. TAKA's architecture is literally expressive, by turns tough, emotionally sensitive and, above all, humane.

In Golders Green, AOC Architecture's Hearth House is a wittily eclectic remodelling of a typical north London semi. Working within the existing building footprint, the architects increased the usable floor area by 20 per cent and dramatically re-ordered rooms to create a range of very different spaces for a family of five.

The familiar has been re-ordered in an elegant and faintly surreal way that creates moments of amusing double-take. AOC's key move was to open up the core of the house by forming a triple-height space, bringing light into the previously dark north-facing rooms. At the bottom of this space sits an electrically heated hearth and stairs made of poured concrete, embossed with the same chevron pattern as the parquet flooring. AOC are interested in unexpected juxtapositions, and Hearth House is full of them: nooks, internal windows, screens and openings; a grand ascent to a landing that divides in two; a Modernist open-tread steel stair to the attic; stair balustrades supporting a desk; picture frames as wardrobe handles. And not one of these "moves" is done in a clumsily overstated, look-at-me way. It's a beautifully tailored architectural game.

In Norfolk, one word crops up again and again when considering Lynch Architects' Marsh View cottage and its recently added mirror-sided studio: intense. This quite extraordinarily remodelled and extended bungalow is intensely earthy, intensely of its place, intensely poetic, and intensely mysterious. It is one of the most remarkable examples of British domestic architecture in recent years.

Marsh View's architectural brilliance and originality lies in the way it has re-expressed the idea of a simply built rural dwelling as both monumental and transiently rustic, darkly and inscrutably obdurate, yet also ad hoc and heroic. And, as always with Lynch's domestic architecture, the interior is quite magical in materials and atmosphere.

Three houses, three utterly different and properly expressive examples of what thoughtfully designed homes can be. One cannot imagine being in them and feeling tempted, for even a millisecond, to switch on reality home-building shows. As Patrick Lynch says, our real human situations deserve more than that.

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