Swan House is a Grade II-listed Arts & Crafts style house just off Chelsea's King's Road. The house was built, in around 1915, by Williams & Cox Architects, an architectural practice responsible for much of Chelsea's Edwardian architecture and, according to Julian Williams of Shonfield Williams Architects, 'absolutely in touch with the technical innovations of the day'. The construction is 'brilliant, but really odd . . . we found two-inch breeze blocks and really peculiar concrete work, and asbestos . . . the architect must have been studying working details in The Architects' Journal'.
The current owner's parents lived in the house for 50 years and were sufficiently appreciative of the building's qualities to get it listed - a mixed blessing for their son, who wanted an up-to-date home for his family. 'Ideally I think they would have built a new house,' says Williams. 'It's quite provoking to have a client who wants an open-plan house, and a building which is listed so you can't rip everything out.' But even if it had been possible, such an approach would have been at odds with the Edwardian architecture - 'it's about privacy and secrecy, and the whole thing being held together by the details. It's not like a Georgian house where it's all about proportion and you could strip everything back and still retain the essence of the building'.
Accordingly, much of the work has been at a small scale - adding a new layer of architectural detail which is informed by what was already there. The approach to the architraves is typical: 'We measured the ones which were to be replaced, and did a Venturi on the others - we just made them twice as fat.' Mirrors and glass are used to offer views of space beyond and behind - an elliptical window is cut into a door, another door is glass with an elliptical-shaped mirror. 'There are eyes everywhere in the house,' says Williams. 'It's really creepy.'
This seems appropriate, given that the entire house was 'like something out of a Hitchcock film from the late 40s - incredibly gloomy, with a rather spooky feel to it' - a feeling which was exaggerated by a permanent chill in the air. As well as repairs to the building fabric - much of the steelwork had corroded, roof tiles needed to be replaced, and there were problems with asbestos and timber decay - the refurbishment included re-servicing. 'They had the original wiring, the original plumbing and about four radiators,' says Williams. 'Originally they couldn't see why we wanted to introduce so many radiators but now when you go there the place is like the Caribbean.'
The Hitchcock-esque gloom was most overbearing in the vast ground-floor sitting- room, and prompted a decision to glaze the front bay 'to make that part of the room part of the garden - which is surprisingly small'. A roof of three sheets of glass rests on planks made from two sheets of toughened glass laminated together, creating a structure which is strong enough to double as a glass balcony to the music room above. This intervention was 'astonishingly expensive', accounting for £15,000 of the £300,000, but, says Williams, 'the client was determined to do it'.
The glazed bay is ideal for children's play. It was, says Williams, the client's reminiscences about his own childhood - 'going on to the parapet at the front and dropping water bombs down on to passers-by, climbing out on to the roof' - which brought home the fact that 'a house can be an adventure for a child; an urban landscape'. A look-out point where children can sit has been created half-way up the stairs, and a top-floor roof terrace which was previously unsafe for children now has a bench which doubles as railings.
'We looked at the wider definition of 'client',' says Williams, 'and looked at the needs not just of the father, but of his wife and the children . . . not just now, but as juveniles - their needs will change, and probably much more rapidly than the client's.' This meant creating spaces which allow for varying degrees of privacy, such as the 'family area' in what was previously a corridor on the lower ground floor. This is a gateway space, leading to the lightwell, and to the open-plan kitchen/living area which has replaced 'a butler's space, little offices, silver-polishing tables, all kinds of peculiar spaces'. But it is also a place to linger, with a built-in tv/video unit, and benches tough enough for children's play. As Williams explains: 'There is only one living room and one dining room, but we tried to create other moments in the circulation space, so family life isn't about going into the drawing room and being part of the crowd gathering round the radio.'