Oliver Hill's 1930s house on a hilltop site in Hampstead gets a new lease of life with careful surgery, restoration and additions by Avanti Architects
The Hill House, Hampstead, has never been one of the canonic Modern houses of the 1930s. Although its architect, Oliver Hill (after whom the house was apparently named, although he claimed it came from the site), was one of the more prolific designers of flat-roofed white houses, only a couple of small examples in Frinton-on-Sea were admitted to the pages of FRS Yorke's The Modern House in England (1937, 1944).
The alterations to the Hill House after the war meant that, although a fine set of original black and white images exists, it was too spoilt for later photography, even though the original fabric substantially remained. Now that Avanti Architects has removed those alterations and replaced them by much more thoughtful and appropriate additions, the Hill House is ready to be looked at again.
For historians, Oliver Hill has presented problems of categorisation. Born in 1887, the same year as Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier, his early career made him famous as an exponent of picturesque eclecticism. His work was mainly domestic, and he showed skill in combining houses and gardens, with an ingenious and playful sense of materials and colour.
When he came to Modern architecture in 1930, it was not an exclusive conversion experience, such as younger architects like Maxwell Fry underwent, nor was it a momentary diversion from his main path - a more typical response among Hill's English contemporaries. Hill's Modern work began slightly tentatively, and his earlier examples, such as Joldwynds, Holmbury St Mary, can be accused of faking the appearance of concrete construction and retaining overtheatrical aspects of Art Deco character (although Hill was far from alone in doing this, and the results have long attracted a non-professional following).
By 1936, when the commission for the Hill House was given to him, Hill had gained experience and found scope within the Modern idiom for his versatility. The Hill House reflects the more diverse palette of materials that typifies Modern houses in the second half of the decade, not only in England but in the work of Le Corbusier and Breuer. It also exemplifies the confident link between a house, its site and its garden that connected English Modernism to earlier cultural traditions.
The design of the Hill House was bound to be led by the individual quality of the site, one of the few then remaining undeveloped on Redington Road. On the south-east face of Telegraph Hill, one of the highest points in London, it is steeply sloping. The clients were Mr and Mrs Gerald Schlesinger; the latter finding Oliver Hill by personal recommendation and, on visiting his office, seeing a photograph of one of his Neo-Georgian houses in Chelsea Square that she had admired some time before.
Like many 1930s clients, the Schlesingers seem not to have had dogmatic views about style, although brick was their choice of facing material and contributed greatly to the distinctiveness of the resulting design.
Such Modern houses as were built in brick up to this date have a slightly apologetic air, compared with the variety of brick found in Modern houses after the war. Even the brick used by Ernö Goldfinger at 1-3 Willow Road, at the same time as the Hill House, is rather institutional looking. Hill was an exception to this trend, being thoroughly familiar with brick from his late Arts and Crafts work. At the Hill House, he chose warmly coloured bricks with a lot of colour variation, but used the bricks in a Modern way, including vertical unbonded courses forming a broad horizontal band between the two storeys.
The use of the highest corner of the site seems never to have been questioned. It produced what is effectively a single-aspect house, with an entry from the narrow face and a long climb up steps from the garage, since it was decided that cars would not be able to make it up to the house. All these conditions contributed to the oddity of the design, but to good effect.
The ascent was dramatised by a flanking wall, like an Italian pilgrimage site, arriving at the semicircular prow of the house, half hollowed out in the form of a porch. This gives access not only to the house, where more steps rise after a circular landing inside the front door, but also to the garden terrace, whose footprint echoes that of the house rotated through 90 degrees.
The space left over on the site, while steep, had more the scale of a small park than a conventional suburban garden. The landscape designer Christopher Tunnard was involved in the planting, although the extent of his contribution to the overall site strategy cannot at present be documented.
A slightly scandalous tale hangs over Tunnard's role, since it seems that he formed a relationship with Mr Schlesinger (leading to a divorce from Mrs Schlesinger), and the two of them commissioned Raymond McGrath to build his masterpiece, the circular concrete house at St Ann's Hill, Chertsey, where Tunnard created a new landscape setting based on an existing 18th-century design. In fact, the McGrath house was finished before the Hill House.
Mrs Schlesinger (who was later known as Juanita Frances) continued to live on the ground floor at the Hill House until her death in the early 1990s. She was responsible for commissioning the addition of an extra storey, letting two apartments which had separate external access from the rear. The lower part of the site was also sold off and a separate house built in the 1960s, when a new driveway was built up the south-western boundary, turning to run parallel to the base of the garden retaining wall.
The house was then sold and, after an intermediate owner had failed - despite the fact that Hill's work was never listed - to get permission to redevelop with a completely new building, the present owner, a developer in several fields of activity, saw the potential, and was recommended to John Allan of Avanti as an architect with a reputation for dealing with Modern Movement houses of the 1930s.
For Allan, the Hill House has been a different kind of job to the works of careful repair and restitution that he has done - for example, at the White House, Haslemere by Connell and Ward (AJ 16.2.94). Allan's personal interest in 1930s Modernism began with a student thesis at Sheffield on Maxwell Fry and then extended into his study of Lubetkin. Before the publication of his original Lubetkin book in 1992, he had carried out repairs to the Penguin Pool, which included alterations under the original architect's eye.
This has led to work on other Lubetkin buildings, and to work for the National Trust on 2 Willow Road (AJ 28.3.96) and, now coming to completion, The Homewood, Esher by Patrick Gwynne, with the original architect still resident there. These and other interventions in buildings of the period have combined historical knowledge with a pragmatic sense of the client's requirements.
At the Hill House, there were some elements of careful restoration, such as the cedar-framed sliding windows on the ground floor and the decayed stone linings of the portico. Brickwork has been repaired by reusing the original material. The loggias on two levels at the north-west end of the building had been filled in long before to make an extra room, and there was no compelling reason to reinstate them.
Internally, the original staircase had already been lost, and the only room to retain its character was the dining room, whose outlook is partly sheltered by the portico. This room was lined by Hill with rough plywood - an original choice, typical of his love of contrasting textures - and fortunately this treatment has survived. The back wall of the original living room, containing the fireplace, had already disappeared when Avanti began work in 1998, and although some of the integrity of Hill's plan was lost, the ground floor plan trades corridor for room space.
The old top floor addition cried out to be removed, but the space it represented was needed for two additional bedroom suites. It was therefore decided to mount two new levels on the original base and, rather than continuing the brick style, to make them light and transparent by contrast, giving them a greater volumetric independence with setbacks from the original parapet line.
These additions look entirely natural, perhaps because so many street buildings carry this kind of lightweight, set back superstructure. The projecting sunshade wrapping round the second floor adds to the compositional coherence.
Inside, the continuous low window timber seats with ventilation grilles, also installed on the ground floor, span the languages of 1930s and 1990s Modernism. The sweeping curve of the end bedroom is a bonus - totally glazed, and looking into the trees of the neighbouring property to the rear, the astonishing Neo-Tudor house, Sarum Chase, designed for the painter Frank O Salisbury in 1932. The room on the roof, described as the 'Lantern', is equipped with kitchen facilities and seating. The house seems almost over-provided with viewing decks out onto which one can step, but these also continue the theme of the original design, and with such a view, one could hardly expect less.
The original staircase had long disappeared, and Avanti's replacement, nearer the front door, is a clever design with travertine treads and a stepped soffit that remains in style with the house. It extends the building in the form of a turret on the rear elevation allowing for little slices of external views on the way up. The rear extension continues along the back of the house with a narrow top-lit kitchen.
If Oliver Hill belongs at a theoretical distance from Berthold Lubetkin, with whose work Allan is so closely associated, so the treatment of the Hill House has been different to his treatment of 'white Modern' buildings. The client's preference for rich dark materials has been backed up by a supply of salvaged building materials, yielding stone and marble claddings in the same way that fragments from antique buildings were applied to the facades of St Mark's in Venice.
There is a wider cultural implication in this, since most of the original Modern Movement houses were in choice locations which tend now to command high prices.
The high-minded simplicity and austerity associated with the movement can no longer be expected to appeal to new owners with greater expectations of comfort and images of affluence. There have been notorious examples, like Chermayeff 's Bentley Wood, completed in the same year as the Hill House, where the effect of the original architecture has been virtually destroyed even when the original fabric largely survives.
Fortunately, any potential discrepancy at the Hill House has been resolved, partly because the original building allowed for more variety, and partly because Avanti, while finding itself in unfamiliar territory, has been able to maintain the logical integrity of the house as a whole. Central European Modernism was less hung up on the virtues of discomfort than France or England. The Hill House always had a suggestion of Central Europe about it, perhaps evoking Vienna, and this sombre richness has been reinforced.
The story does not end here because, apart from the proposed addition of an outdoor studio and pool at the top of the garden, and well away from the house, the client has succeeded in buying the property on the lower part of the site, intending to demolish the existing house and replace it with something more sympathetic. Avanti has designed a new self-contained house, whose roofs follow the contours of the original landscape scheme and allow for a better relationship between the Hill House and the road down below.While this is not a restoration in itself, the perception of the Hill House will be greatly enhanced by these changes.
Avanti is not a practice that has previously shown a strong organic or ecological tendency, but the indoor pool that takes most of a rectangular site stepping down the hill is to have a grass roof. There is a deliberate separation (apart from a single level link) between this and the main living space of the new house, in order that the sightline of the original staircase ascent from the street is recreated.
In its restored form, this does not provide a physical access route, but instead is a vista embellished with water in a stepped pond.
The bedrooms are on the ground floor, and their roofs form a terrace for the main living rooms above, intended to be fringed with planting and thus, from the street below, forming a kind of return to the original landscape effect.
When this part of the project is completed, the Hill House will have had the best form of reconstructive surgery that its formerly distressed condition could have expected to receive, and the stock of Modern houses of the 1930s will be enriched by a healthy hybrid.
CREDITS CLIENT/CONTRACTOR JJ Portfolio ARCHITECT Avanti Architects: director John Allan, job architect Amir Ramezani STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Engineering Design Associates SERVICES ENGINEER Max Fordham and Partners QUANTITY SURVEYOR BDB Surveying Services SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS joinery Stiltlands; steel windows Metal Casements; timber windows Bucks Joinery (MFG); Aluminium sliding doors/screens Structura/Saper Glass Industries;
architectural metalwork Southdown Construction; lift Stannah Lifts; insulated render ECL Contracts; roof glazing/lantern ESB;
precast concrete Evans Concrete;
EPDM roofing Imperial Waterproofing Systems; fabric repair Pendragon Building Restoration Services; pressed metal copings Scrutton Engineering; stone flooring Livra;
electrical Avon Environmental Services; mechanical Isis Engineering Services; ironmongery Allgood WEBLINKS www. avantiarchitects. co. uk www. maxfordham. com