Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley's new house in a Bristol suburb builds on themes from their earlier artist/architect collaborations to make a subtle but functional domestic design The Redcliffe area of Bristol was described by the historian Keith Brace in 1970 as 'a place apart'. Its westernmost streets, on a sandstone promontory above the docklands, seem not to have changed much in the past 30 years, being an unusually casual mix of residential terraces, office blocks, garages and workshops, with the old General Hospital tucked away in their midst.
It is, though, soon to become more uniform and more densely populated - housing developments have been approved. A number of things will disappear as these gather momentum: a late 1960s office block with a concrete exterior staircase; a dusty, empty plot, which serves as a temporary parking lot; that plot's colony of buddleia plants; and the north elevation of 2 Alfred Place - a house recently completed by the artist/architect collaborators Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley.
Upon that elevation is a text which seemingly addresses this future disappearance. 'Was here' has been painted on the lower portion of the wall - regular black lettering washed over a few times with the white paint that covers most of the exterior of the house. The text is past, future and present tense combined: structured in the past tense it implies future change and, by doing so, also draws attention to the moment and to transitoriness.
To whatever degree loss might be a value in the 'was here' equation, it is detached from the specific nature of the changes that will occur. It is not, in other words, a judgement on the nature of the future development. It refers more to the sphere of activities surrounding the project in process, to the life of the site and its seamless relationship with the topography of Redcliffe. Effectively, the fulfilment of 'was here' - the covering of the elevation - will mark the end of the house's becoming (though furnishing and decoration are still in progress).
Both the text and that process of becoming are also very much related to the art practice of Warren and Mosley. This is diverse, so far comprising anything from low-key urban interventions and documentation to gallery-based video and model installations, involving sound and lighting.
The building site effectively became an extension of their studio, hosting an unfolding dialogue on the relationship between architecture, time and the body.
The design and construction phase was characterised by the extensive use of scale models, from 1:200 to 1:1. These functioned as a means to gauge/study the house's relationship to its immediate context, and as prototypes for experimental interior planes and spaces.
The house represents a slow accumulation of observation and reaction to this corner of Bristol. Mosley talks of a circle of local influences and points of reference. He describes the process of incorporating these in terms of 'reflecting back snapshots' of the surrounding topography, so that the house becomes a composite of memories and associations.
The clearest example of the borrowing of an element lies in the use of black timber-boarding, homage to a nearby, 19th-century boat shed. Boarding appears in the lower section of the facade (forming the garage and front doors), and then reappears on the top floor to form an outer fence for the roof-top garden and cabinlike cladding for the single, top-floor room.
Situated at the foot of the sandstone cliffs on Redcliffe Wharf, the boat shed is some 10m below Alfred Place and out of sight of the house. This space is, however, of particular significance in the topographical narrative of the house's evolution. It is also the point of entrance to the Redcliffe passages and caves. These Warren and Mosley visited during the period of site analysis, guided to the voids beneath their plot by a local caver.
The site is also subject to a much more brutal, 'machine age' incursion into geology. Just around the corner from Redcliffe Wharf is a railway cutting and tunnel entrance: a now abandoned link between the docklands and Temple Meads station to the east. The house sits above and to the left of the bricked-up tunnel entrance.
The appearance of the rear or west elevation acknowledges the tunnel by way of its own dark recess, created at the very top of the building. The black, timber-clad, top-floor room is set back, so as to leave a narrow terrace between it and the rest of the west facade, with parapets on either side and a shallow overhang. The slice of shadow effectively increases the house's visual density, in counterbalance to the tunnel mouth. It could be seen as an example of fusion between pictorial dynamics and architectural form, doctoring the relationship between house and scenic context.
In this respect, among the most significant influences on Warren and Mosley's work are the paintings of Edward Hopper.
This particular Redcliffe scene itself is reminiscent of Hopper's subject matter.Houses and tunnels were core and symbolically charged motifs of, particularly, his later works, such as Ryder's House (1933) and Approaching a City (1946).
The way in which Warren and Mosley engage with Hopper's paintings has less to do with the creation of iconic form than with the compositional structuring of elements, and the way in which those combinatory structures often imply motion. In a short text on Hills, South Truro (1930), Warren comments: 'I feel as though I am on the point of moving out of the picture along the railway line, but that motion seems frozen in time and I remain in the same place.'
Warren is recognising in the heart of the Hopper image a dynamic between presence and absence which finds a condensed form in the 'was here' text. Similar equations occur in other Warren and Mosley art works. For instance, a video loop of an arm extended at right angles to the body takes as its title a passage from Marguerite Duras' The Atlantic Man: 'You have remained in the state of having left. And I have made a film out of your absence.'
The formation of an image at the intersection of tenses is the purpose of the single most unusual feature of the house: the triangular mirror appendage in the centre of the front facade on the first floor. This comprises a metal armature projecting out from a square aperture, with mirror glass on all internal and external surfaces. The principle internal mirror is mounted at 45infinity, and immaculately replaces the scene that would otherwise be the east-facing view across the street, with a north-facing one down the street, to the open vista onto the Bristol docklands and beyond.
The structure is reminiscent of the internal mirror mechanism of a camera, creating the suggestion that the house is one enormous recording device, its shutter always open, constantly exposing its interior to the past tense of the photographic image.
Warren writes: 'The view of the street reflected in the mirror objectifies an experience you have just had - the physical experience of walking through the city is now experienced as a purely visual one, where time appears rooted in the past and seamless.'
Of course, the mirror image is also one of movement and incident. This, too, seems uncannily displaced and distant, producing a filmic or dreamlike effect of watching events from an unspecified moment in the recent past, unfolding and keeping pace with the present.
The wall directly opposite the aperture within the room is inclined, sloping backwards at 79infinity, implying a reclining figure.
This intensifies the analogy with the camera apparatus, proposing a relationship between the total volume of the room and the mirror aperture.
Moreover, it recalls that antecedent of the photographic machine, the camera obscura, which was originally a room into which a viewer had to enter in order to contemplate the image.
This is one of two inclined walls in the house, the other being in the passageway from the front door, which slopes outward at 87infinity. These angles were determined by eye with the use of full-scale plywood mockups. Their original purpose was to mediate between interior tectonics and the moving figure by way of increasing the volume of space at the level of the head and upper body - the space of thought, perception and gesture.
As well as having the angled, left-side wall, the ground floor entrance passageway is also a ramp, sloping upwards from the door at a subtle gradient of 4infinity. Here, the notion of tense could be said to shift slightly to become one of speed. Architectural expressions of relative speed in the built environment were one concern for Warren and Mosley during the production of a body of work on the environments of motorways and service stations, entitled M5 Southbound: Welcome Break.
The ramp slowly begins the process of ascent through the house, and leads to a narrow, central stairwell. This space of movement at the core of the house is also intended to mediate between its two halves.
In particular, it addresses the influence of the two contrasting zones of implied speed which make-up the front and rear exterior prospects: to the west, the 'fast perspective' of the railway cutting; to the east, the conventional pedestrian speed of Alfred Place.
It is a means of total spatial communication between the different volumes of the house, which also contributes to the staggering and reorientation of space between the front and back, absorbing the impact of the railway vista as it powers its way through the west windows.
Number 2 Alfred Place - a modest address for the death of the distinction between art and architecture. May the perpetrators of the public art programmes of the Bristol docklands take note. But amid all the subtlety of Warren and Mosley's experiments, we should not lose sight of the fact that the house also exists as a true and functional pocket of contemporary, domestic design; a genuine piece of urban hardware. It achieves this with ease and assuredness, suggesting that such things were the norm in Britain. That is, it plays at such a fiction very well.
Recent work by Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley will be on show at The Station, Redcliffe Wharf, Bristol, from 16-29 November (weekends noon-6pm, weekdays by appointment) Work from M5 Southbound: Welcome Break has been shown at Prema in Gloucestershire, Gasworks in London, and Frederieke Taylor in New York. Using still photography, video and model installations, lighting and sound, the exhibition presented a survey of 'environments edited out of our consciousness', focusing in particular on the Taunton Dean service station, south of Bristol.
Warren and Mosley describe the work as locating 'a tension between the exterior and interior landscapes of the motorway and service station, encouraging the viewer to encounter a sense of their own physicality in relation to them'. The model describes a motorway service cafe as an interior reduced to a floor, two walls, chairs and light. The viewer inhabits this interior through the sound of a person describing a visit there. An image of the model's floor pattern is projected to real scale close by.
ARTIST/ARCHITECT Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Structural Solutions
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Gardiner and Theobald
MAIN CONTRACTOR Pyramid Construction (UK)
SUPPLIERS Roofing Sarnofil (subcontractor Hodge Single Ply); windows Senior Aluminium Systems; timber seal Sadolin (Supercoat); underfloor heating Warmafloor; sanitaryware Villeroy and Boch, Twyfords