It is refreshing to walk into the home of an artist and his family and to find it as far from the carefully arranged three-lilies-in-a-vase interior as you can get: it feels and looks thoroughly lived in, nothing specially tidied away or carefully arranged. The house is one of the few surviving early nineteenth century residential terraced buildings in St John Street, Clerkenwell, London: tall, narrow and four-storeyed, it was never designed with light and air in mind, nor generous garden space. However, a gradual conversion programme by Trevor Horne Architects in close consultation with the clients has changed all that.
The first shock on entering is the heavy metal fire escape stair, specified by the artist in place of the conventional period stair. Positioned at the back of the house, it occupies a full height void - a feature you might expect in a multi-tenanted block, but unusual for a family home. The landings and balustrades are in metal mesh; a removable wedge of decking at the first half-landing level was designed to allow exceptionally large canvases to be slid in and out of the studio on the ground floor while the artist was working there (artists who prefer top floor studios often have to resort to cranes to bring canvases in or out; basement working is far cheaper).However, the artist has since moved to a larger studio and the room has been converted into a workshop attached to the double-height adjacent space which is being used as a versatile showroom-cum-gallery where the artist's wife is setting up a furniture import business, and where she and her business partner can hold exhibitions.
The showroom can be entered from the street, or from the house. It has no street presence at the moment: the opaque Lexan screen hides the dramatic space from the gaze of passers-by.
There have been no half measures in this metamorphosis. For example, the artist wanted his studio to occupy the existing garden space. Horne's radical solution was to raise the garden and slip the studio in underneath. This raised garden, fenced in by metal plant containers, is now linked to the main living space by a small, slightly lower timber balcony, ideal for outdoor eating.
On the main bedroom level, there is another balcony, overlooking the 'garden'. A new steel frame top floor has a third balcony, but this one is concealed behind the parapet on the front elevation; it commands magnificent views of London's most famous landmarks, such as St Paul's and the BALondon Eye.
Drastic gutting of the original structure necessitated the introduction of a thin, sheer concrete wall at the heart of the building, beside the stairwell; Horne says that it is reinforced 'with a lot of steel'.
In keeping with the clients' relaxed way of life and the prominent industrial-style fire stairs, finishes are tough and rough. Plyboard sheeting has been used to line the front wall and window surrounds of the large, full-floor kitchen and living room, as well as all the surfaces of the versatile doubleheight show-room and gallery space, producing a giant packing case effect. Brickwork in the studio is painted white to reflect artificial lighting; a small, mysterious amount of natural light filters down between the rear boundary wall and the glazed studio wall.
Finishes were not high on the clients' list of priorities, instead they asked for the near-impossible - a terraced house with spacious, light-filled rooms and a 'garden' on most floors.
They got what they wanted.
ARCHITECT Trevor Horne Architects
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Techniker/Dewhurst Macfarlane
MAIN CONTRACTOR A Christopher Builders
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS stair and steelwork Giorgio Metal Works; light fittings Marlin; ironmongery Higrade; cabinetry Rondor Builders; screen panels Lexan; grass roof system Erisco Bauder/ GRM Roofing