Atmos Studio’s staircase heralds the coming of a new modernist expression yet to find a name, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Ben Blossom
For some studying architecture in the nineties, an alternative creative impulse was at play, one that strayed far from the data-driven Dutch modernist project fronted by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and MVRDV, and the phenomenological leanings of Peter Zumthor or Caruso St John.
Instead these aspiring architects sought inspiration in the emergent techno-pop culture. In the roll and rhythm of electronica by Aphex Twin and Primal Scream, in the fictions and speculations of cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and in the fractal graphics and 3D video games enabled by Sony PlayStation and ever-faster desktop computers.
In recent years architect-trained artists have emerged, with strange, interactive, cybernetic designs like Usman Haque’s Burble series, a wall of illuminated balloons ‘programmed’ by remote users. Dunne & Raby have been working within this paradigm since the mid-nineties, creating interactive designs that blend art with science and technology.
Yet despite the energy and intellectual effort expended, this, and other works that might be placed within the same school of thought, cannot readily be described as architecture. Too much of the work produced so far has been ephemeral, immaterial, intangible, unheavy. That is about to change. Atmos Studio’s staircase, part of a wider refurbishment of a south-London residence, heralds the coming of a new modernist expression yet to find a name.
The staircase, which Atmos director Alex Haw describes as a ‘mathematical array of 15 generous steps on a smooth and gradual journey into the light of the floor above,’ has the look of something new. Yet it feels almost traditional – as if its form is rooted in a historical process, albeit one imbued with cultural currency and made with contemporary digital technologies. Sterling might call it a ‘fabject’, a fabricated object, a name for new products developed through rapid prototyping.
Each tread of laminated oak curls into the wall, then merges back into skirting lines which flow through the house, or rise upwards, melting seamlessly into the balustrade. The balustrade itself is formed of fibrous strands that hang like threads from above, then bunch together to mask the landing, or pinch in, at ground-floor level, to entice you upwards. ‘It resembles a curtain drawn back,’ says Haw.
The visual and spatial impact is immediate, visceral. The overall composition is unashamedly erotic: the billowing rhythm of the balustrade, the unfurling treads, the sense of ornamentation – each element feels symphonically composed. A computational, mathematical beauty too, is implied by the form. It could almost be sentient.
Curiously, uncannily, it fits right in, like a friendly alien symbiote nourishing its host. It energises the domestic environment, which is really quite normal, in an English middle-class sort of way. Family photos, paintings in gold frames, flowers and soft furnishings are the order here – not a Corbusier chaise longue in sight. Consequently, there is much volume house-builders could learn from Haw and Atmos: there is real, everyday application here that could be customised for individual buyers. Who wouldn’t want their own feature staircase?
This is what sets it apart from other completed work that has grown out of this scene. The annual AA Summer Pavilion designs for example, which are often conceived using similar processes, seem lifeless in comparison, wilful expressions of technology that barely consider spatial or contextual matters.
The nimble, crafted, holistic qualities of the staircase are also at odds with recent parametric works by Zaha Hadid, whose lumbering forms rely on scale in order to shine, or the pseudo-techno stylings of Amanda Levete Architects, which have yet to fully embrace the potential of integrated digital design (AJ 10.09.09).
It is just a staircase. Yet Victor Horta’s staircase in Brussels’ Hotel Tassel signalled the arrival of Art Nouveau in 1894 – that first built expression of a scientific love of biology, a renewed curiosity in sinuous rocaille, and an enthusiasm for things Japanese – and this project embodies modernism now. Brewed in the nineties, refined in the noughties, and set to go mainstream in the decade to come. I’m calling it Smart Nouveau.
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Staircase detail by Alex Haw, director, Atmos Studio
“The staircase was manufactured entirely from timber, laminating different thicknesses of MDF as either tread or riser or support wall, capping tips and verticals with finer threads of laminated oak. Everything was fabricated directly from 2D CAD information using CNC-routing.
“The stair was designed as a kit of parts. An engraved base-plate enabled precise positioning of outer frame walls and the central spine wall, both bridged by a sequence of elaborately carved beams. Routing constraints led to voids at the intersection between diagonal planar elements, necessitating additional filigree masking elements that resolved eccentric junctions.
“The geometry was generated from a basic sequence of angles and radii, with interstitial lines placed at intervals. The volumetrics sought to minimise mass while ensuring stability, laminating three staggered layers of MDF in section to form an ultra-thin profile in the dominant elevations, layers of engraving further splitting the mass into the appearance of two strands. The use of two engraving depths for each layer of MDF enabled intricate carving of what would look like a single sculptural surface.”
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Start on site 19 August 2009
Contract duration 10 months plus extension of time
Gross internal area 249m2
Gross external area 109m2
Form of contract JCT Minor Works 2009
Total cost £321,000
Cost per m2 £897
Client Jonny Henderson
Architect Atmos Studio
Structural engineer Built Engineers
Main contractor Red Oak Services
Approved building inspector Lewis Berkeley Building Control
Annual CO2 emissions 3,900kg (estimated)