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STANDING STEEL

Probably the smallest-ever subject for an AJ Building Study, this crafted studio in south Wiltshire by Klaentschi and Klaentschi Architects is both office workspace and resonant garden object

Coincidence? A ley - also 'ley line', variously understood as a 'perceived straight alignment', an 'old straight track' or an element in a 'grid of spiritual energy' (see www. leyhunter. com) - runs 18km from Stonehenge to Clearbury Ring, on the way taking in Old Sarum, Salisbury Cathedral and a small standing stone where this new studio has been built. Though neither client nor architect is seduced by pagan mysticism, architect Hans Klaentschi is ready to take the poetic idea of a pilgrim route, with pilgrims polishing the stones as they rub against them, and now the new studio is polished stainless steel along the ley.

Of course, there are other more mainstream architectural reasons for using cladding this way. The 'presence' of the steel is in keeping with the architect's overall approach of letting materials and components speak for themselves, each articulated, creating the sense of a building assembled.

The client found his architect, Klaentschi and Klaentschi, after collecting his wife from a sports club in the area. The Victoria Sports Pavilion had been designed by the practice.

Hans Klaentschi suggests that the client is in fact the only person who likes the building, though he protests too much. It won a Civic Trust Award in 2002. That steel and glass pavilion can be enclosed in storey-height steel shutters of perforated galvanised Csection scaffolding planks that roll or winch into place, and the same inventive approach to materials, components and mechanisms is evident in the client's new studio.

The new building's form and materials also derive very much from its context.

Located in the garden of a listed brick manor house, it replaces an earlier flat-roofed studio, which was largely hidden from the house by a brick garden wall that formed part of its structure. Although retaining a strip of this flat roof adjacent to this wall, the new roof now slopes steeply above it, clearly visible. The new building has the geometry of a rough-hewn monolith. Seen from the house side (the east), the new roof's rainscreen cladding of rusting mild steel plates blends with the colour of the existing masonry, and in silhouette echoes the steep pitches of the clay-tiled house roof. (This polite response has something to do with the client family's differences about whether the architectural language here should be ancient or modern. And it drew little objection from English Heritage. ) Out of sight of the house, the studio's language changes. Its north wall is existing masonry with rusting steel-plate cladding, the plates neatly rounded at each horizontal joint.

The other walls are sheer planes of stainless steel and frameless glazing; fixings countersunk to emphasise the prismatic geometry. On the principal, west, facade, no longer orthogonal on plan, the stainless-steel plane rises to 6m, including a 5m-high door.

Making this door work is typical of an architect who has always made things since he was a small child. He is, he says, 'fascinated by how ready-made things come together'.

He purpose-designed the hinges, and the operating mechanism comes from a company more used to dealing with large hanger doors (see Working Details, pages 30-31).

This hands-on feel to making a building continues within, to the stainless-steel WC/shower pod, the sculpted workbench and to the laser-aligned untreated birch ply lining panels with their precise gap joints.

It is a testing environment, with unexpected strong daylight from a rooflight filling the studio, highlighting every panel joint.

Klaentschi has, he says, 'a thing about the sky'. The architect's own house, a modern reworking of the long barn form, has a rooflight the whole length of the ridge.

The frameless glazing provides a panorama across the garden, the view initially seeming constricted by the low window head height, but providing a sweeping prospect when seated at the desk. This lowering of the window head helps emphasise the dramatic height of the west wall.

Getting such a building built was, unsurprisingly, not that easy. Contractor David Cherrie, a man in the craft tradition, was fortunately already known to the client. The focus on fixings and on joint alignments in particular made big demands. For example, while every steel panel was drawn by the architect, Cherrie preferred to create his own templates at critical points. It was not a quick build, but it is evidently put together with care.

Finding someone to produce the flush glazing units for such a small project took the architect six months. With his experience of building in timber, the architect hoped to frame the building completely with this material. Concerned that the building would blow over, engineer Mark Lovell came back with a steel-framed proposal; a compromise was reached, centred on two steel posts. Overall, steelwork was prefabricated in three pieces and was then welded up on site. Timber framing was done on site and the bathroom pod was first made up in the factory by Metaltech.

The result is an elemental form, not overwrought, the detailing not too precious, the location fitting - in fact and in myth. A set of ideas has been carried through with conviction, without evident compromise (though compromises always happen). This strong personal statement by architect and client should be a stimulating workplace for many years to come.

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