'Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, ' architect Stephen Chance of Chance de Silva says, while he shows me around Cargo Fleet, 'lived in two houses that were connected too.' And indeed they did; their blue and red studio in San Angel, Mexico, comprised two Modernist 'cubes' - a larger and a smaller one joined by a bridge. Cargo Fleet, Chance de Silva's project, is similar as it links two buildings and will be the home of two creative minds - the architects themselves.
In Kahlo's and Rivera's case, the spatial separation was partly necessary because of, as Chance explains, the 'extra-curricular activities' of Rivera. In the case of Cargo Fleet, the reasons, one supposes, are different, and one can easily imagine an endless series of family constellations and live/work arrangements. The use of the two buildings is 'fluid', Chance and partner Wendy de Silva both insist repeatedly, as it was designed with no particular client in mind. It can even become two entirely separate houses.
Cargo Fleet occupies a difficult wedgeshaped corner plot on Whistler Street, London N5. The cobbled road forms a loop round a derelict commercial laundry near Holloway Road. It feels like a world on its own, like a mining town with terraced workmen's houses on a steep hill on one side and a railway track on the other. This resonance with the industrial landscape of northern England inspired Chance de Silva.
The furnaces, smelting works and signal stations around Redcar served as the aesthetic inspiration for this small, domestic building.
The architect wanted to mirror the decaying beauty of what Chance calls 'the threatened industrial structure' around his home town, where his father and grandfather worked in the steelworks. 'We wanted to find materials that express this passage of time and are evocative of the connection we made, ' he explains. They wanted 'rust', a condition of a material that implies decay, neglect and, as Chance agrees, one that 'signifies its end' - maybe not what one might associate with great architecture. The difficulties of the site, a far-fetched inspiration and the ambition to build two houses on a plot barely large enough for one could have ended badly.
Yet Cargo Fleet is bold, inspiring and gives me hope that architects can think about the people who will live in their buildings and the way society is changing. Single parents, divorcees, part-timers, a family with grandparents, and high-flying professionals - all can be accommodated in Cargo Fleet. The au pair and teenage kids can be packed away conveniently in the smaller building at the back, or the modern freelancer can avoid cabin fever by leaving the house each morning, albeit only through a glass passageway. It is a building that combines the poetics of industrial landscapes with the practicalities of modern living, or, as Chance and de Silva describe it, with 'the everincreasing fluidity of modern domestic life'.
Their design is, they explain, 'a collage that borrows imagery' without copying it slavishly, as the elements have been applied to a domestic building. It is a play of associations rather than an imitation. Cargo Fleet, for example, is the name of a disused station between Redcar and Middlesbrough; the corner windows, which allow a fantastic all-round view, are redolent of signal boxes; and the overhanging timber box that contains the bedroom on the top floor of the larger house is a 'projecting shed'. Chance de Silva achieved the rusty effect by cladding the main house and the wall along the street with panels of Cor-Ten, a special weathering steel that turns first orange and then brown - the same material Antony Gormley used for his Angel of the North.
The project wasn't effortless. In fact, as de Silva recounts, the process was sometimes 'traumatic'. It took a year to buy the plot, a year and a half to get planning permission and another 18 months to build Cargo Fleet.
During this time several subcontractors went into liquidation so that the pair are, for example, on their third window manufacturer. They experimented with materials such as the rough concrete floor in the conservatory link between the two buildings. 'We wanted it coloured, ' Chance says, but the process was 'like a medieval operation'. They went all the way to Finland to see the Cor-Ten manufacturer who supplied their panels.
One of the greatest challenges was to support the neighbouring house, which until then had been held by full-length buttresses. They turned the problem into a feature and united the old with the new by first constructing a free-standing frame for the main house, which left a large gap between the house and the wall.
Then the building was connected with steel to the wall, so that they could remove the buttresses. The gap is now a fully glazed lightwell accommodating the staircase and a little platform that extends on from the kitchen. As you walk up the stairs, the exposed chimney and brickwork, and the black strips where the buttresses used to be - a reminder of the old house that used to occupy the plot - are revealed.
These challenges have resulted in two buildings that communicate with each other subtly. The Cor-Ten panels and the metal staircase dominate the larger 'steel house', but the timber box that forms the top floor links it to the 'wooden house' clad in roughsawn larch, at the back. The smooth and slick wood panelling inside is counterbalanced by rough concrete floors and exposed grey plaster. Not only the materials correspond, but also the shapes - the timber box, for example, is repeated in the rooflight made of polycarbonate. Together this creates a united space, but one which is both distinctively separate and intimate.
Everything, Chance and de Silva insist, is their joint creation, otherwise 'it would not be here'. In their work they complement each other, they point out, as she is 'intuitive', while he 'writes a lot' and 'reasons'. If there were disagreements they have managed to turn them into a building that will certainly become a local landmark. But why, I wonder, do they