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Pastoral bliss

Buschow Henley’s conversion of a warehouse in London’s Shepherdess Walk conjures images of neighbourly interaction over the garden fence, five storeys above the city.

Appearances can be deceptive. At first glance, Buschow Henley’s conversion of a nineteenth century warehouse at Shepherdess Walk, Shoreditch, has all the language of a tasteful but tame conversion of an industrial building. The 10,000m2 warehouse which lines all four sides of an internal courtyard is handsomely constructed using polychromatic brick work. The architect’s alterations to the external structure are low-key. The delineation of functions is subtly articulated, with timber window frames on the ground floor to represent commercial space whilst the upper floors have retained the original steel fenestration to represent the domestic space.

 

On closer inspection a series of low-key interventions reveals a subtle interaction with the existing fabric. The building is crowned with a roofscape of zinc-clad pavilions which sit amongst roof terraces allowing for a more than generous slab of patio or lawn.

 

The building wraps around a narrow courtyard running from North to South, incorporating commercial space on the ground floor, accessed from entrances at street level. Upper floors are given over to residential space totaling fifty units. The courtyard acts as a green refuge in this dense urban area. The sympathetic developer supported the courtyard proposal rather than the normal knee-jerk reaction of filling it with car parking space. Provision for parking was made by excavating the area under the courtyard to extend the existing basement. Three paper birches have been planted in pre-cast concrete troughs whose rhythm reflects that of the structural supports underneath. The rest of the courtyard is minimally landscaped with Scottish beach pebbles and paving stones.

 

By reconfiguring the original plan and restructuring the building, Buschow Henley has designed a building which offers a variety of shells that range from 85m2 to 220m2, and an interesting variety of floor plans. The west block is divided by load-bearing party walls to create four tenements and the east block divides into five similar tenements. In turn, each tenement is divided in relation to the original party walls. There is a gradual breaking down of the mass of the building internally which allows the building to be interpreted as nine different blocks. Circulation routes have been worked out to enhance privacy. The main entrance provides access onto the courtyard. From there staircases lead up to the apartments, each staircase serving no more than six units.

 

The decision to divide the tenements to correspond with the original party walls imposed a different working order on the fourth-floor west elevation which syncopates with the original floor plan. In addition this generates L-shaped apartments providing the potential for an internal arrangement which masks the services.

 

The new construction has been conceived as a series of views constantly reframing one’s journey through the building. From street level one is only allowed glimpses into the building. Pulling the main entrance away from the pavement - a decision arrived at in accordance with the planners who specified that the original wrought-iron gates should be retained - one ascends a gradual rise of concrete steps leading into the reception area. This area, which is constructed using timber and steel with a polished- concrete screed, steers one’s view onto the courtyard through a large picture window. Floor-level coloured glass lights the passage way, a familiar Barragan technique that works convincingly.

 

The lift, which has etched glass on two sides and clear glass overlooking the courtyard, again orientates one’s vision towards the open space. Rising from the basement car park, the lift provides access to all the flats on the third and fourth floor. Limited lift access was aimed at reducing the construction of decks so as not to encroach on the courtyard space which already has a vertiginous effect. A free-standing steel frame is used to support the balconies on the North side.

 

Moving onto the roofscape, the architects had their chance to individualise the scheme. As the building is in a conservation area, any plan to drastically raise the building height was rejected. The standard addition of a gull- wing extension or extruded barrel-vaulted roof was therefore vetoed, enabling the architects to apply a more sensitive solution. The building originally housed skylights which the planners were in favour of replacing. The architects proposed an exaggerated version of the skylights in the form of a series of detached pavilions. This was agreed by the planners as long as they were not visible from the immediate neighborhood. The design of the pavilions was influenced by the surrounding roofscape which makes up a rich bricolage of roof-top additions, amongst them Simon Conder’s polycarbonate greenhouse and Greenpeace’s wattle-and-daub enclosure. Enclosed by picket fences, the pavilions conjure up future images of neighbourly interaction over the garden fence, elevated five floors above street level. The subversion of this very urban model by topping the roofscape with a sample of suburban dwelling, enhances the building’s outline, whilst the zinc-clad pavilions with horizontal openings are reminiscent of Californian free-style architecture.

 

Sold as shells, the design can accommodate a variety of layouts. The skylights on the east side are designed to allow a portion of sky light and west light to penetrate. The mezzanine may be placed completely under the skylight, in front of the west-facing screen, or turned through 90 degrees to bridge the light from the west and from the sky.

 

Alternatively a single-run ladder can take you up to the rooftop.

 

The architect’s choice of materials is in response to the economy required. Standard steel sections are used for the balconies and lift frame. Iroko timber is used for the infill of the balconies and decking. The gradual weathering process where the zinc and wood will turn to a matted silver completes the simple palette of materials.

 

In response to the speculative brief, the architect describes the scheme as ‘both conventional in accommodating speculative homes, and unconventional in mediating demonstratively between the building’s original and proposed use’.

 

This subtle grafting of interventionist techniques, from the introduction of the steel framing to the rooftop pavilions, enhances the building’s new function without dressing up its appearance.

 

The architect’s reconfiguration of the building does not intend to be a blueprint for living. Instead, it enhances the inhabitants’ sense of occupancy in the surrounding urban environment and permits the architecture to recede into the background.

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