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Down deep in Deptford: Tanners Hill by Dow Jones

Dow Jones Architects’ renovation and reconfiguration of No 25 Tanners Hill into a house and gallery has involved carefully peeling back the layers of Deptford’s history. By Jay Merrick. Photography by David Grandorge

By 1700, Deptford in south-east London had ‘become neare as big as Bristoll,’ according to a local diarist. It was London’s largest satellite town, with a population of more than 10,000 people, many of whom were skilled craftsmen and shipwrights. Thirty-three years earlier, in Holland, the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch produced a painting called Couple with Parrot. This lusciously still interior was the touchstone for Dow Jones Architects’ £211,000 reworking of No 25 Tanners Hill, Deptford, into a dual art gallery and home for Peter Von Kant.

The scheme’s exposure of historic fabric is exemplary, the faintly surreal material and spatial qualities of its groundplane an engrossing temporal puzzle. The building is part of a higgledy-piggledy terrace of small two and three-floor houses, most built at the beginning of the 18th century and, in the case of No 25, rebuilt or recast circa 1750. This small fillet of Deptford still radiates a strong sense of that distant past.

Most recently, No 25 Tanners Hill had been a bicycle repair shop with a long single-storey asbestos roofed extension at the back. When the architects hacked, investigatively, through the mouldering layers of centuries-old distemper, lime plaster, and detritus on the inside of the western ground floor wall, they were effectively stripping back the final 18th century dividing line between Deptford and the rural wilds of Kent.

‘Almost everything we touched turned to dust,’ recalls Alun Jones. ‘It was shocking. We came here with a group from the English Heritage conservation office and started taking things apart to see what the fabric was like so we could develop a strategy. And, of course, there was the axis mundi stair space, and this absolutely incredible wall. We then made a 1:20 model, to find out how to get light into the middle of the site.’

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You encounter this beamed, flakily multicoloured wall (now stabilised) the moment you enter the building. The brick and old ships’ timbers rise from the polished concrete floor of the reception and gallery space with the vivacity of an abstract expressionist artwork or one of William Monk’s hallucinatory landscape paintings. And from here, the ground floor stretches away southwards through very different spaces in an enfilade tableau, with Pieter de Hooch painted all over it, as it were. On the ground floor of No 25 Tanners Hill, we are in a realm of brusque material and spatial counterpoints.

The architects Biba Dow and Alun Jones were dealing with a profoundly dilapidated building whose original plan had been derived from an early 18th-century standard London housing design for the ‘lower orders’, taken from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises: Or The Doctrine of Handy Works, Applied to the Arts of Smithing, Joinery, Carpentry, Turning [and] Bricklayery.

Moxon’s typical ground-floor plan shows a corridor running the full length of one party wall, with winder stairs tied to a more-or-less central chimney stack, closets between the stack and the other party wall, and pairs of windows, front and back. The difference at No 25 is that there was no front-to-back corridor and the relatively massive chimney stack passed through the party wall into No 23.

Crucially, there is a gap between the chimney stack and the winder stair: this inspired the front-to-back enfilade, which progresses through five spaces. From the gallery reception area, one can see the small room just beyond the chimney stack, a glazed open courtyard, the corridor that connects it with the dining and sitting room and, finally, the kitchen at the far end in what used to be a small, physically separated - and now toplit - Victorian stable.

Alun Jones chose Couple with Parrot as his conceptual touchpaper because he’s always been fascinated by de Hooch’s juxtapositions of interior and exterior conditions. The most distinctive thing about de Hooch’s views is that they morph, without obvious logic, from the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional. ‘His paintings are about the everyday world of praxis: a table, a window, a soffit - what Dalibor Veseley calls a “typical situation”,’ says Jones. ‘What’s also interesting is the way de Hooch structures light and projects depth.’

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Strong, very deliberate material juxtapositions are everywhere and can be summarised by a top-to-bottom reading of the exposed surface of the kitchen’s south wall: plasterboard; roughly edged Victorian stone coping; a ribbon of slim, orange tiles; darkly charred bricks; a black, iron beam; more sooty bricks, partly encased with a rough, variably textured concrete render and, finally, the polished concrete of the floor. In other words, a 4m transit through at least two centuries.

The view from the kitchen, back through the enfilade is dominated by the inside-outside effect of the courtyard, which is glazed on three sides. The angle of the glass wall on its corridor side was deliberately made to match the skew of the former stable walls of what is now the kitchen. 

Upstairs, Dow Jones’ has left 17th century Holland behind and delivered a simple reconfiguration of spaces to create a bedroom, study and bathroom on the first floor, and a bedroom, bathroom and open cupboard space in the garret. Salvaged timber was used for the repaired stairs and for much of the flooring. Despite the use of 21st century fittings, the rigour of Joseph Moxon’s pragmatic 18th century doctrine remains strongly evident.

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There are some pleasing details. The street-facing window reveals are deep, encased in sapele and double-glazed with toughened glass. There are also four large public/private vitrines and courtyard joinery frames, which are minimally detailed but visually satisfying - as is the way the metal roof covering folds down into the courtyard and the way the underside of the turning staircase meets, with a delicate grace, the single structural timber column that rises through the full height of the building.

Pieter de Hooch is not the only juxtaposer that could have been cited in this project. There is a scene in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which shows the sadomasochistic heroine sitting in a room with her ‘slave’ who is typing. The slave seems to be in a darker annexe. We glimpse a bedroom, as if it were at the end of a corridor. Dow Jones’ reinvention of his building may lack a couple with a parrot, but its perspectives - blocked out as they are with starkly different surfaces, qualities of light and perspective - possess aspects of the spatial surrealities of both de Hooch and Fassbinder, but without the latter’s lurches into portentous overstatement.

There is surely a final ghost in Dow Jones’ praxis machine. A key point about its work here is that the material and spatial distinctions are polemically ambiguous. This scheme is about both the revelation of history, and the selective representation of the idea of history; as such, something more fugitive than ‘typical situations’ is involved.

‘Yet history does intrude on every word,’ wrote the cultural theorist, Theodore Adorno, ‘and witholds each word from the recovery of some alleged original meaning, that meaning which the jargon is always trying to track down.’ A 300-year-old wall is a damnably tricky thing.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

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