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Jonathan Woolf's Painted House

In his dramatic intervention to two 1940s semis, Jonathan Woolf highlights suburbia’s disjunction between familiar facade and hidden interiors, writes Irina Davidovici

Intellectual concerns bubble beneath the surface of a pragmatic development in the Painted House, architect Jonathan Woolf’s latest collaboration with developer Bharat Patel. The conversion of two 1940s semi-detached units in North London into a single family home, this project exploits its suburban location with wit and sensitivity.

The rectangular contour of the front facade, culminating with two triangular turrets, reliably signifies the familiar ‘suburban semi’. Despite this use of familiar imagery, used to placate neighbours and planners alike, it is clear that these are no ordinary semis. The front has been re-clad in brick slips of a textural, vibrant grey-brown with contrasting mortar, quite unlike the red brick and render of nearby houses. The original bays, the only front windows to be preserved, have been given a sharp, geometric presence. The frontage thus acquires an ambiguous, rather formal quality.

Behind the familiar double facade, the organisation is at once unconventional, surprising and practical. The internal surface of 700m2 is generous, but not luxurious. The project houses an extended family of 11: two brothers, their families and their elderly parents. Instead of a house each, the brothers opted for communal living in the bigger unit, with upper-floors bedrooms and bathrooms stacked on top around a common staircase. The smaller unit, with its own vertical circulation, houses ‘work and play’ spaces: home offices, sauna and gym. Despite the unusual configuration, the project was conducted as a speculative development and could potentially be redivided into more conventional units.

The two original houses are only connected on the ground floor, achieving a circuit of large, well-proportioned living spaces – kitchen, dining, reception. The grandparents’ quarters are on this floor, close to the centre of family life. Their special status is reflected in their room’s unique character, with windows on three sides, close to the main sitting room and stairs.

The grandparents’ suite is located on the existing footprint of a back extension, formerly one-storey high, which has been reconstructed at full height. The project maximises the potential of suburban developments, replicating the casual annexes at the backs of neighbouring houses. In section, this allows for the introduction of unexpected moments: the double-height circulation lobbies and shafts of light over the staircases, in land-locked bathrooms, and above the ground-floor cloakroom.

In contrast to the sharp brick frontage, the more complex volumetry at the back is fully rendered. The disjunction between the public front and private back, typical of suburban residential sprawl, is thus articulated in terms of materiality. The more relaxed status of the private back is also signalled through the casual treatment of the windows and skylights. The windows are mostly square and occasionally skirt the ground, framing views in a manner both private and playful. This brings to mind Woolf’s previous Brick Leaf House (2003) – the Painted House employs similar brick, achieving a similar contrast between the dark brick surface and the white painted window frames, although the similarities end there.

I find the Painted House’s name slightly misleading. The concern here is rather with linings, with an intricate play on the thickness – or rather, thinness – of materials. The name is a reaction against received ideas of the suburban interior, with its layering of surfaces for protection or display. Under thin layers of paint, the internal surfaces are laid bare, in contrast with the expected profusion of carpets, slate or parquet. The linings are plaster and painted MDF – colour-matched by the laminated kitchen units and the industrial resin floor. The natural materials – marble shelves in the bathrooms and birch-ply flooring on the upper floors – are also presented as linings of sorts.

The thickness of linings was explored and arrived at on site, with excellent construction skills on display in this muted internal performance. Externally, the existing houses have also been lined: the walls clad in insulation, topped with brick slips at the front and render at the back.

The front elevation brings to mind Aldo Rossi’s search, through pure geometric forms, for the ‘common emotional appeal’ of residential types

This is a project with strong theoretical credentials, linked to the 1960s and 1970s debates around type and image. The expressed thinness of external and internal linings subverts the archetypal image of the house. Similar to Robert Venturi (Vanna Venturi House, 1962), Woolf plays with the familiar in this project while exposing the essence of suburbia: the disjunction between a conventional facade and the private interior. In turn, the abstraction of the front elevation recalls Aldo Rossi’s search, through pure geometric forms, for the ‘common emotional appeal’ of residential types. The Painted House brings to mind Rossi’s conviction that memories and personal experience make us project, on a house, the emotional content of ‘home’.

Irina Davidovici is an architect and writer. She is history and theory coordinator at Kingston University School of Architecture

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