The steam trains had only recently gone when Richard Rogers and Norman Foster discovered Murray Mews
Murray Mews will be familiar to readers of Bryan Appleyard’s racy 1986 biography of Richard Rogers.
The book details how, after a particularly depressing site meeting sometime in 1965 at the three houses Team 4 was building in Murray Mews, Rogers ‘trudged in the darkness up to Hampstead Heath, ung his head into his hands, sobbed and vowed to give up architecture’. For Rogers, and his then partner Norman Foster, Murray Mews was a watershed in their approach to design - that alone secures this obscure north London street a place in the history of architecture.
Murray Mews is located on the eastern fringes of Camden Town, altogether a grittier and more socially variegated quarter than the genteel avenues of Primrose Hill to the west. St Pancras station, currently a huge construction site, lies immediately to the south. It was the opening of St Pancras in the 1860s that derailed the fashionable aspirations of this area. The Midlands line passed immediately beneath the mews, with smoke vents billowing out the grime of passing trains. The development of Camden Square, immediately to the north, was put on hold for a time and the mews itself curtailed, with few of the coach houses and stables typical of grander areas of London.
The steam trains had only recently gone when Richard Rogers and Norman Foster discovered Murray Mews. Team 4, newly established in 1963 and desperate for work, had initially tried, without success, to build in nearby Camden Mews. At Murray Mews there was a reliable client for the first of the three projected houses at numbers 15-19 in the shape of Owen Franklin, medical practitioner, art collector and the wealthy stepson of the artist (and friend of Rogers’ parents in law) Naum Gabo, who took number 17. Next door at number 19, Graeme and Anna Williams, both young lawyers and recently married, bought into the project with the help of a 7,000 wedding present from Graeme’s GP father, who knew Rogers’ father, a medical consultant. The third house went to Richard de Marco and was the smallest of the three - de Marco reportedly disliked it from the start. Today only the Williamses remain of the original residents.
At Murray Mews, as in the case of Creek Vean in Cornwall (built for Su Rogers’ parents) and the Skybreak House at Radlett, Team 4 remained wedded to traditional ‘wet’ construction of brick cavity walls and concrete oors. The practice poured all its energies into the project. John Young, who joined Team 4 in the summer of 1966, recalled working all night to produce a tiling diagram for a bathroom - to have it ignored by the contractor. He said discovering that an unscrupulous contractor had substituted newspaper painted black for a damp proof course was virtually the last straw. The trials of Murray Mews helped to convince Rogers there was a better way of building - Reliance Controls, Rogers’ Wimbledon House and Foster’s IBM Cosham were the progeny of this rethink, all lightweight steel-framed buildings inspired by Mies and the Case Study Houses. The inuences behind the Murray Mews houses were Wright, Aalto and Jim Stirling (who had taught Foster and Rogers at Yale).
There was also something of the teaching of another Yale tutor, Serge Chermayeff, with his concern for mediating between the public and private domain. The street frontage of the development, set hard against the pavement, is blank save for house and garage doors - narrow windows look out obliquely from the bedrooms.
‘We insisted on a window you could see through’, Graeme Williams recalls. ‘Foster wanted them no more than 3 inches wide!’ Internally, the three houses, each customized to the requirements of the three clients - the Williamses insisted on an open re and space for a huge Welsh dresser, a wedding present - shared a common section, with a double-height living room on the garden side and gallery access to the bedrooms at upper level, all beneath a sloping glass roof, a premonition of ‘High-Tech’. Number 19 was the most elaborate of the three, featuring built-in concrete furniture recently demolished - no small feat - by the present owner.
Though they experienced none of the problems of number 17 (including a serious ood), the Williamses had to wait three years for their house to be completed in 1966. Today, however, they are devoted to it, ‘for all its faults’ (which include the failure of the original underoor heating system). In 1970 they commissioned Richard and Su Rogers to design a glazed extension on top of the house, but planning consent was refused.
With the Team 4 project underway, other architects began to eye the vacant sites in Murray Mews, with themselves as the prospective residents. Typically, they were alumni of the AA and a number worked in the then-booming public sector. ‘It was a matter of architects gossiping amongst themselves and the word getting round about possible sites’, recalls Ian Fraser, who acquired the site for number 34 as the Team 4 houses were nearing completion. Richard Gibson’s house at number 20 was built in 1965-69. Already the planners had begun to take an interest in the mews, prescribing that the house be set back from the street behind a courtyard and faced in stock brick - in the demolition-minded ’60s, recycled London stocks were readily available. Tom Kay bought the site for number 22 in 1964 - ‘the news about Murray Mews had been passed around’, he says. ‘My plan was to put something like a Nissen hut there and go off to the USA for a few years.’ But his practice got established and the US jaunt was cancelled. Getting planning consent for the new house took several years and was only secured on appeal. Kay describes his house as ‘a sideways extension’ of the Gibson house, using the same vocabulary and materials. He was, however, determined not to set the house back behind a courtyard - ‘they were inevitably dank, unused spaces’ - and he won the point at appeal.
The Gibson and Kay houses, and some of the other early houses in Murray Mews, reect the broader debate about housing that emerged in the 1960s. Darbourne & Darke’s ground-breaking Lillington Gardens scheme in Pimlico went on site in 1964, inspired no doubt by Stirling and Gowan’s Ham Common. There was much talk of community; of streets and squares; and of the proverbial ‘Italian hill town’ as an alternative model to the Corbusian point block and slab. Aalto’s S乮䴳alo civic centre was surely another background inuence. For Kay, ‘brick is about secure space, a sense of identity and place’. (A house he designed in Hillgate Street, Notting Hill, was disparagingly compared to a Medieval castle. ) While Foster and Rogers moved on to a new way of building, Kay stuck with masonry construction. His vision of architecture has always been unequivocally social, even crusading - he spends half of each year teaching at a Palestinian university.
Back in the ’60s he was one of a group of friends who helped Ted and Ros Cullinan self-build their house in nearby Camden Mews, a structure that combined solid and lightweight construction, a dialogue between London and west coast USA.
Kay’s house was designed for family occupation, with a possible small element of ofce use included. The plan is rigorously axial, with a central concrete beam dividing the use structurally at upper level and dening the main rst-oor living area, a generous space, day-lit principally from the roof. The kitchen area is a step down to the north, the rationale being that the family member doing the cooking would be on the same level as the dinner guests enjoying their aperitifs. The house is entered at this level, up a ight of steps from the street, past a small external patio where you can eat out, with a view of the street, without being overlooked. From the front door, a very steep (47º) staircase leads down, somewhat intimidatingly, to the garden level, where a garage had to be provided. Most of this oor is now used as Kay’s studio.
Kay describes Murray Mews as ‘40 years of what’s current in architecture’. Other houses in the street politely refer to the vernacular and Post-Modernist fashions of the ’70s and ’80s.
In 1989 Sean Madigan completed a house where the stock brick idiom reappears in a highly formal manner - the house was built for a developer, not for Madigan’s own occupation.
Murray Mews is no longer quite the architects’ compound that it used to be, and there is just one site now left for a house. This makes the completion earlier this year of Hal Currey’s house at 32 Murray Mews something of an event. Currey (ex-RRP and a partner in FLACQ Architects, a young practice with all the energy that Team 4 had 40 years ago) beneted from a less prescriptive planning regime than that earlier builders in the mews had faced.
In particular, there was no longer an insistence on brick or on the need for houses to directly abut the street, though the planners wanted limited fenestration on the street elevation. The setting back of the house to provide a paved area was Currey’s choice.
The space is dened by a concrete arch: there are no walls or gates and nothing of the stress on ‘defensible space’ seen in earlier developments in the mews. The 149m 2 site was acquired in April 2000 and work began on site later that year. Currey and his family moved in a year later, but the fit-out of the house has been completed only recently - as usual, the exigencies of practice took precedence. The cost of the house was around 250,000.
The house is steel-framed and structurally simple, with conventional joisted floors. Externally it’s clad in zinc panels, with sliding window frames of aluminium - a radical innovation for Murray Mews. Internally, a central blockwork shaft provides a measure of structural restraint. Blockwork is used as an inner skin throughout, providing thermal and acoustic insulation - all steel houses have problems in this respect. A high degree of insulation is provided throughout. Currey admits that earlier houses in the mews were a point of reference, especially the Kay house, with its staggered section. With young children, Currey wanted to create a workable mix of communal and personal spaces - and plenty of storage. The diagram provides for living spaces on the ground floor and at the top of the house, with three bedrooms and a play area sandwiched between. Visually, the levels are connected by a staggered void that extends the full height of the building, useful when it comes to summoning the kids to supper and enhancing the sense of space in what is a relatively small house.
Currey has, in fact, managed to inject an entirely new element into the Murray Mews scene, subverting the old rules to allow for the use of zinc cladding, exposed steel frame at top oor level and plenty of glass. On the ground floor, where the kitchen/ dining space is the natural heart of the house, internal and external space merges when the sliding doors are thrown back in fine weather. The top floor is set back on both sides to provide external terraces.
Currey is no Rogers clone, but nobody emerges from RRP unmarked by the Rogers stress on legibility and the clear expression and delineation of structure and services. This is a house in a great tradition and, 40 years after the completion of Team 4’s Murray Mews houses, a reassuringly fresh statement about the role of modern architecture in enriching the established urban context.