VPPR’s twin houses in London’s Tufnell Park appease neighbours with a sculptural form and a roofscape based on threes, writes Ellis Woodman. Photography by Hélène Binet
The canon of Western architecture may not entirely lack buildings of triangular plan, but the examples are few, invariably peculiar and almost entirely lacking in influence. Perhaps the most celebrated is the Triangular Lodge that Thomas Tresham built at Rushton in the 1590s as a coded declaration of his Roman Catholic faith. In tribute to the Holy Trinity, every aspect of the design derived from the number three: three 33-feet elevations are each divided into three bays of three-part windows and crowned by a trio of triangular gables. Scarcely less obsessive was the series of houses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed on the basis of triangular grids in the final decade of his career. The Palmer House in Ann Arbor of 1952 was the most developed: a project whose systematic eschewal of the 90° angle extended even to the design of the beds. And yet, remarkable as they may be, neither building would do much to relieve one of the suspicion that the triangle is both impractical in use and less than conducive to psychological well-being. The artists Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman have both made structures that employ a triangular geometry precisely for its discombobulating effect.
All this might be taken as a distinctly cautionary history, but it has not deterred young practice vPPR Architects from adopting the triangle as the determining motif of Ott’s Yard, its most substantial project. The choice derives from the shape of the site: a former joiner’s yard that lies at the heart of a three-sided block of late 19th-century terraces in north London. Two of vPPR’s partners, Tatiana von Preussen and Catherine Pease, bought the land at auction in 2009, by which point planning permission had already been secured for the construction of a single-storey house. When they approached the planners with the proposal to build two smaller houses on the site – one for each of them to occupy – the first response was not encouraging, perhaps understandably so, given that the plot lies to the immediate rear of every back garden in the block. VPPR nonetheless developed a design on that basis and proceeded to hold a series of public consultations that included staging an art exhibition on the land. Crucial to their success in securing the required consensus was the fact that the scheme offered neighbours something that the earlier proposal had not: an elaborately planted roof-scape developed by garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd, which would essentially constitute the project’s most public facade.
From the street, the scheme is invisible. A high timber gate admits us to a parking area, beyond which an axial path leads deep into the site. The route is rich in planting but at its end we find ourselves delivered to a monastically spare courtyard, the floor and walls of which are faced in brick. Comprising an attenuated triangle in plan, this space is framed by the two houses, its width diminishing towards the far end. The house plans – also triangles – are essentially identical to one another but of reversed orientation, with the effect that one presents us with the thin end of its wedge-like form whereas the other exposes its rump. The dynamism of that relationship has been supported by the decision to roof each house with a monopitch falling towards the plan’s narrowest point. Their opposing orientation makes for a sculptural composition that can be enjoyed from the upstairs windows of every surrounding house.
The southerly of the two properties was the more restricted by rights to light, requiring its ground floor to be set at a lower level. Once inside, we climb down a couple of steps to reach the kitchen and dining area, whereas we climb up to access the equivalent space in its neighbour. The resultant disjunction in window levels proves valuable in mitigating problems of privacy. Ground-floor bedrooms and bathrooms are arranged in a compact pinwheel arrangement at the wider end of each plan, but the living space sited on the mezzanine above is spatially continuous with the kitchen and dining area. As we enter – at the narrowest point of the plan – we are therefore immediately presented with a view through the volume’s full depth. In a manner that recalls the forced perspectival spaces of some of Frank Gehry’s early houses, such as the Ron Davis residence and studio (1972), the diverging walls and roof plane make the space seem longer than it is, an effect that we find reversed on finally looking back from the mezzanine.
The triangle theme is restated in the form of a large skylight located at the middle of each plan – the source of a triangular patch of sunlight that tracks around the living area across the day – and again in the large-format ceramic tiles that extend across each house’s ground floor, the smaller ones that face the kitchen worktops and the pattern of oak floor boards at mezzanine level.
Externally, triangles structure the design of Lennox-Boyd’s roof-level planting and the pattern of pavers in the courtyard. Most of those choices have a clear and even pragmatic derivation from the scheme’s larger geometry, but some, the use of triangular tiles on rectangular worktops, for example, are less obviously rooted. The scheme asks us to see each triangle as a unit nested within a system of self-similar units – each part, an expression in microcosm of the whole. The architects have not quite mustered the tyranny (or budget) to fully support that vision – in contrast to the kind of sleeping arrangements on which Frank Lloyd Wright insisted, Pease and von Preussen’s beds are of conventional shop-bought format – with the effect that some of the patterning reads as merely a graphic motif. Yet what it has lost in conceptual force, the design has perhaps gained in livability.
Certainly vPPR has succeeded in overcoming the challenges of a site that required them to secure 23 separate party-wall awards to create a pair of highly attractive homes. The houses that young architects build for themselves have often served as built manifestos. How the practice’s future direction might develop the interests of this strangely internalised and compulsive scheme is hard to guess but I, for one, am eager to find out.