[BUILDING STUDY + DRAWINGS] Behind the inscrutable facade of James Gorst Architects’ Leaf House are some sober, but beautifully detailed and unusually proportioned interior spaces, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Hélène Binet
Hélène Binet can make architecture look interesting even when it’s not. Her pictures are emotive and intimate; the uncanny opposite of glossy press photography. James Gorst Architects’ latest work, Leaf House in central London, is a fortress-like, 21st-century ‘Georgian’ townhouse topped with a glass study room; it has stunning cover-shot potential. Yet before I visited the house, the photograph I was most drawn to was Binet’s quotidian scene of a wooden chair at a writing desk in an unoccupied room. Its register is subliminal; it provokes a feeling of déjà vu.
Daniel Libeskind has said Binet ‘reveals architecture’s inner intensity’, and given the suggestive nature of her photographs of Leaf House, I think I know what he means. What Binet does with this building is focus the eye on domestic architectural moments: the graceful curve of the house’s limestone staircase and walnut-and-steel balustrade; the oak-panelled smoothness of the bespoke joinery.
Project architect William Smalley explains that Leaf House replaces a ‘much-extended, disaggregated house’ in a street that was not developed until the 1920s. This allowed the architect more freedom than might otherwise have been permitted in this part of London. The house’s immediate neighbours are a pair of semi-detached homes in the style of Eric Lyons’ post-war Span housing and a towering dark-brick residential block of around 90 years old. There were some restrictions: the main block of the new house matches the height and footprint of the previous building and the top floor is set well back from the front facade.
The clients, a couple who both work from home and have two small children, wanted a house that accommodated both family and working life and had good acoustic separation. The result is a 575m2 five-storey building with a reinforced concrete frame. The father’s glass study is located on the top floor, while the mother’s office and the children’s playroom are in the basement. The ground floor is given over entirely to a 30m-long hall, a reception space, a kitchen and a garden room. Compartmentalised sleeping and dressing spaces occupy the second and third floors.
Internal space is expressed as rooms, rather than a series of open-plan zones
If Binet’s photographs of Leaf House’s empty rooms appear melancholic, it is only partly due to her own skill. The practice’s design is sombre, and is marked by a fascinating ambiguity over how strongly it wants to engage with public life. The house has a commanding position at the junction of two residential roads. Its street-facing facade, set back from the pavement, is composed of a three-storey block clad in Portland stone.
A projecting two-storey ‘bay’ of bead-blasted stainless steel has large flush windows set into it. The detailing is immaculate; you can see the etched glass facades of the top-floor study from the street. But its paleness, its detachment from the street edge and its lofty, distant penthouse suggest a voyeuristic rather than participatory relationship with the townscape.
Gorst has said that Leaf House draws on the archetypal Georgian townhouse model in its sobriety and careful consideration of proportion. It also expresses internal space as rooms rather than a series of open-plan zones, and is all the better for it. Despite its size, it has intimacy. In fact the whole house has a rather cubic feel, like a set of interlocking volumes. Strip windows have deep internal ledges, doors fold back into wall pockets and the children’s bedrooms have an enclosed landing. The garden room is designed as an almost freestanding box, and the study is a crowning ‘ice-cube’. Other details reinforce this intimate, compartmentalised design.
The study is accessed via a ‘secret’ oak staircase, hidden behind a folding pocket panel. And next to the master bedroom is a ‘night cabin’ – a single room with a fitted oak unit incorporating a bed, a desk and shelving.
A glance at the floorplans will show you how well James Gorst Architects has designed this house. But as with any private residence (and especially this one – its clients were heavily involved with the design) there are idiosyncrasies. The garden is small and the provision immediately in front of the dining space was clearly not intended for habitation (‘Why would we want to eat outside?’ the client apparently said). There is no outside access from the garden room either. Once again, that sense of detachment is palpable.
A glance at the floorplans will show you how well James Gorst has designed this house
The ground floor, too, is over-scaled in comparison to how most of us live, but this suddenly compresses as you move upstairs. Indeed, by the time you reach the study’s staircase, the proportions feel almost medieval, as though you are climbing up an ancient stairway to a forgotten church attic.
The section of Leaf House provides another reading: the house as company headquarters. The basement office feels like a business archive and the rooftop study like a boardroom. The ground floor, spacious and with luxurious details, is the corporate lobby, and the sleeping quarters are like office spaces – practical and efficient sites of prolonged habitation. The garden, too, feels institutional.
Can the industry learn anything from a bespoke high-end project like this? Yes, but it must look closely. The pocket doors are great and should be factory-standard, as should the frosted window in the bathroom that slides away to reveal clear glass and a view outside. Grooved lights in the undersides of bookcases are a cool, cheap luxury. The walnut-and-steel staircase balustrade, the keynote detail within the house, draws the eye so completely it makes you wonder why housebuilders don’t offer buyers a choice on simple elements like this.
The reality of my visit to Leaf House was close to the fiction conjured up by Binet’s pictures. The photographs alert us to the numinous qualities of the practice’s design, but really they amplify the message it is transmitting: that we can enrich domestic life with ordinary but elegant detail.
James Gorst: once a new classicist, now a domestic god
For an architect working in domestic design, it’s fitting that James Gorst’s practice occupies a former house,albeit one once belonging to the governor of a long-demolished London prison.
The House of Detention epitomises the sober form of penal architecture, and despite its bleak history, and Gorst’s high-end reputation, it’s a good match. ‘My work is subdued,’ says the Cambridge-qualified Gorst, who graduated in the 1970s when architects were ‘flagellating themselves over high rise’, as he puts it. Like many, he eschewed ideas of architecture as social engineering and instead saw it as ‘up there with the plastic arts’.
I relinquished received historical styles and explored the sensual aspects of interiors
Gorst’s early career was dominated by upscale refurbishments of period properties, plus the new-build Gibson Square in 1987 and the country villa Pie Corner in 1988 (AJ 05.09.90), which earned him the ‘new classicist’ tag. But in 2001 came The Lodge, a rural gatehouse in West Sussex. ‘It’s where I relinquished received historical styles and explored the sensual aspects of interiors,’ says Gorst.
Gorst uses the familiar ‘client-site-budget’ explanation to describe his approach to domestic architecture, but The Lodge prompts a more interesting response. He refers to elements of Scandinavian design, and the threshold location of its rural architecture. ‘[The houses are often] between dark woods and sunlit meadows,’ he says. ‘Night and day, conscious and unconscious. It’s a metaphor that informs the design of a house.’ Does this explain his preference for the domestic? ‘It’s the medium in which I can best explore the architectural experiment,’ says Gorst, adding that the home is a human theatre where ‘you die and are born, where you live’.
After The Lodge came Wakelins (2003), a combined refurbishment and new-build in Suffolk, and then Glen View, a new single-storey holiday home also in Suffolk (2008), notable for its modest contract value and horizontal form. Cut into a sloping site, the house combines vernacular references and a strong geometry that accommodates the site’s gradient with its appealing views. And, costing just £242,000 (‘less than a refurbishment’), it shows Gorst doesn’t only work with moneyed clients. Sarah Frater
Start on site January 2008
Contract duration 23 months
Gross internal floor area 575m2
Form of contract JCT IFC05, negotiated
Total cost Confidential
Cost per m2 Confidential
Architect James Gorst Architects
Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates
M&E consultant Chapman Bathurst
Quantity surveyor Burke Hunter Adams
Main contractor R Durtnell and Sons
Handrails Specialized Fabrications
Annual CO2 emissions 17.5kg/m2