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BOOK

REVIEW

A New English House: Jonathan Woolf Categorical Books, 2005. £24

When I picked up A New English House, I'd just read an article about the end of books.

Soon, it claimed, printed books on paper will be dead, their place usurped by digi-books and e-ink. What I held in my hands was the perfect antidote for any bibliophile who finds that idea profoundly depressing.

This book on Jonathan Woolf's powerful pair of north London houses has the same confidence, clarity and spare, muscular aesthetic as the architecture. From the inside cover, with its sparse, contoured ground plan of the edge of Hampstead Heath (just Robert Adam's Kenwood House and Woolf's posh semis in bold), the book is infused with a delicious arrogance and a fascination with the contrast between the sylvan and the urban; the texture of the rural and the hard surfaces of the city, which characterises the architecture.

Hélène Binet's moody and typically uninhabited monochrome photographs announce a structure which evokes the texture and misleading simplicity of Lewerentz's buildings, lurking almost ominously in leafy settings. Amid the Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts stylings of this wealthy bohemian ghetto, Woolf's houses for two sibling clients somehow blend in, while adding an entirely new layer to an area which can seem smug, self-conscious and superconservationist.

This is the kind of thoughtful domestic architecture that has flourished in Portugal, Germany, Holland and Switzerland, but which we see little of here. Woolf reflects simultaneously on the typology of the semi, the country house and the traditions of Modernism. Combining standard (albeit large) windows and a self-evident expressed skin of non-structural brickwork, Woolf does not rely on sculptural tricks or customised elements, but rather uses space, texture and powerful rootedness to this dramatic, sloping site to articulate the architecture.

Pre-existing trees govern the way in which the houses sit on the site, but the ground plan is little more than the simplest of rectangles, cranked barely perceptibly to express the loose boundary between units. The interiors are as simple as the skin would suggest - complexity deriving rather from snatched views through to further spaces and from skylights that draw dramatic, even theatrical streaks of brightness, most notably in the stark, almost painfully photogenic pool.

Inhabitation has stripped the house of that starkness, so evident in these pages, and softened it significantly, so that the book becomes a record of a fleeting moment, the pure and clear moment immediately after completion so enamoured of architects. That Tony Fretton's poetic essay is squeezed onto the dust jacket, and the text consists of a very short essay by Robert Maxwell and a brief interview with the architect, indicates the kind of confidence which comes from having thought long and deep about both building and publication. Superb.

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