A river runs through it
Once you know how Michael Nathenson goes about buying a house, you may be prepared for the interior of his most recently completed project and present home in Christchurch Hill, Hampstead. Ignoring the estate agent's blurb, he measures the inner walls, notes window positions, lowest floor level and roof area. He feeds this data into his cad programme and starts playing with it, like a writer plotting a novel, until he comes up with a solution that provides the qualities he wants: drama, tranquillity, practicality, difference. He takes this concept plan to his local estate agent and asks her to estimate the profit margin he could expect after conversion. If it's sufficiently large and the finances stack up, he goes ahead and buys the house. He consults an engineer and employs an architect, Moxley McDonald, to produce professional drawings and obtain planning permission and building regulations approval. Then work starts.
Nathenson never goes to tender. He employs a regular team of skilled workmen who make up his Unique Environments team, four men and two dogs, from Devon. Nathenson rents a nearby flat for them, with ample space for putting up family and friends, and they commute between Devon and London, spending weekends in Devon.
Nathenson already owned the late Victorian terraced house on Christchurch Hill, and had restored it lovingly about 10 years ago, reinserting all the original detailing. Since then his attitude to interior design has undergone a revolution, influenced by several years in Hawaii and exposure to the work of modern architects like TadaoAndo. On his return to London from Hawaii, he took one look at his erstwhile home in Hampstead and decided to start again from scratch.
Bamboo in place of privet, a high slatted gate, and the cascading waterfall folded into the slope of the front garden give fair warning that the terrace- mould has been broken at No 3, but it's not enough to prepare you for what comes next. Entry is the stuff of suspense films - the door opens and the ground literally falls away beneath you, the hall has been reduced to a galleried walkway and the rest of the floor area removed.
We have come to expect more of our bodies than our staid twentieth century precursors. In a much-quoted essay on developer/architect John Portman's Bonaventure Hotel in LA, the theoretician Fredric Jamieson questioned whether humans were ready for the physical sensations which the hotel lobby induced, with its whizzing glass elevators, towering atrium, and aerial 'gondola' seats. Now we take vertigo in our stride. Nathenson calls, 'Come on down.'
From the entrance walkway you look down over glass balustrading into the dining area: the narrow house width emphasises the verticality, and the tall plants either side of the recessed modern fire grate, serve as perspective lines, heading for a vanishing point below the floor. If you are a guest, staying for the night, yours will be the first room you next encounter, still at entrance level but to the rear of entrance level, and with an en suite shower room, an arrangement that gives guests total privacy. But first you must remove your shoes to protect the maplewood floors and silence your footfall.
The lower staircase is made of curved white-painted steel with open maple treads; the upper staircase has solid balustrading finished in white plaster. The stairs take up minimal space at the back of the house. All the walls painted 'Cameo White', chosen after lengthy research (Nathenson has noticed that some whites change colour with the seasons), timber door frames with opaque glass panels, flush stainless steel skirtings.
The kitchen on the bottom floor looks out onto a small landscaped patio (and parking space) backing on to Willow Road, it has a stainless steel Boffi island cooker, and Boffi wall-mounted cupboards. To the front of the house is the double height dining area, sighted on entry. It is surrounded by a narrow flowing 'river': water and plants producing the soothing effect of an internal garden. Might the river become hazardous towards the end of a particularly successful dinner party? And what if a new owner wanted a larger dining table? For Nathenson the only problem is that the Italian bamboos are unhappy in the centrally-heated atmosphere and starting to shed their leaves.
The atrium-effect established at entrance level stops at the first floor L-shaped lounge. Orchids rest on a small glazed floor panel and a miniature wet bar has been tucked into a corner by the back wall. The room looks out over the southern end of Hampstead Heath and the view is a constant source of delight to Nathenson and his wife, Angela; their bedroom is directly above the lounge, also facing the Heath. The main bathroom has what may be 'the first centrally heated bath of all times'. It is made of a mix of Dolomite marble powder, concrete and aggregate and was cast in situ using a wooden mould. The earthy terracotta basins are by Boffi; small concrete toothbrush shelves were designed by Nathenson. Here, and elsewhere, Nathenson has used Philippe Starck taps, bidet and WC.
The top storey is an open-plan study with two doors so that subsequent owners only have to add a small partition if they wish to use it as two separate rooms. Part of the rear portion of the space can be turned into a roof terrace by opening the rear wall windows and operating an electronically controlled roof light. This roof light recalls another tour de force, Paxton Locker's house in Clerkenwell Green (aj 30.10.97). Nathenson admits that it has been a strong influence, not only on this project but on other interiors he has worked on since.
At Christchurch Hill, Nathenson has demonstrated that the type of spaces associated with loft living can be achieved within the confines of a sedate terraced house. But Nathenson is exceptional in that he is not an architect, simply a very experienced andtalented designer with a superhuman abundance of energy. Ordinary mortals will have to enlist the help of an architect if they want to follow his lead.
Finally, a word about another terraced house, only a few yards down the hill: No 2 Willow Road, built by Erno Goldfinger in the 1930s. This was another attempt to reinvent the standard Georgian terrace house, and many parallels can be drawn between the two schemes. The neighbours objected to Goldfinger's scheme, just as Nathenson's neighbours have taken exception to some of the Japanese features of his front garden. Whatever would they say if they saw what he's done inside?