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Building study: AY Architects lets the light shine in

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With its Dartmouth Park House makeover, AY Architects has turned a gloomy warren into a bright and airy family home, writes Robert Bevan


If architecture is sometimes a sculptural process then it is usually additive – modelling, assemblage, casting, rather than a subtractive sculpture derived from carving out, a cutting away. Demands for more floor space, rather than less, tend to make this a given.

AY Architects has sliced through this norm with a London house that intelligently defers its gratification, taking away initially but in the end offering more. 

Dartmouth Park is part of the hills and dales of north London, where Victorian villas are infested with psychotherapists and architects – including AY founders Yeoryia Manolopoulou, Anthony Boulanger, and their family. 

The practice’s 2013 Stephen Lawrence Prize-winning and Stirling Prize long-listed Montpellier Community Nursery is nearby, as are other past educational and residential schemes by the practice. It’s a list that demonstrates the virtues of being embedded in a community – especially, they say, with no family in the UK; Manolopoulou is from Greece, Boulanger an American. They met at The Bartlett. 

The Montpellier nursery was where their children went and the project only happened because they helped the other parents obtain a capital grant from Camden Council. 

The theatricality of the staircase creates a sense of movement through the house  

 More recently, the Dartmouth Park House clients came by way of Alison Brookes, another adopted local with whom they used to share a studio. 

Here, AY has remade a short end-of-terrace house – all stock brick and stucco quoins – made narrower by a ground floor shop used as an office. In fact, it wasn’t a house at all but an office with a flat in the basement below and a maisonette on the floors above. The aim has been to re-unite the building as one home for their music industry clients, a role made no easier by later additions that entirely filled the rear garden at basement and ground level. 

Dp aya copyrightnickkane 06

Dp aya copyrightnickkane 06

Source: Nick Kane

Pulling light back into the heart of the building and ridding it of a thousand doors and short corridors was the primary task; creating two slots and articulating the knuckle between the two with a spectacular staircase has been the solution.

For the first, AY has scooped out the gloomy and narrow staircase compartment and a landing bathroom and created a full-height slot some 9m high and glazed to the rear. One client was desperate for a spiral staircase and, in part, she now has it with the new white steel staircase, which is a series of curves, straight flights and bridges from basement to second floor. Both its soffits and treads (fixed either side of folded steel plate) are mahogany, as is a crafted balustrade that winds its slender way up through the house. An equally slender steel stringer outlines the staircase’s course beautifully, negotiating corners effortlessly and, after a 3D laser scan survey, placed just so in the irregular volume within variable tolerances.

The height of the balustrade and its close centres lend a certain Arts and Crafts flavour. The theatricality of the staircase negotiating the angle between these slots creates a sense of movement through the house – it is a place to be discovered, rather than laid out to be taken in at a glance. The iMist fire safety system has allowed a welcome absence of compartmentalisation, with only bedrooms and bathrooms needing doors. 

The second slot was created within the middle of the full-width rear extensions in the form of a courtyard sunk to ground floor level, dividing the living areas from a new bedroom floor across the court on the rear boundary wall. Within this court a lay-light illuminates a basement study, while a second at the upper, surrounding terrace at first floor level is placed above a bath and shower.

The outdoor space is not just what’s left over after the architecture; it can be central to it

The new layout creates a room for entertaining between front façade and courtyard on the ground floor, with a kitchen and dining room at the first floor that have direct access to the roof terrace. Bedrooms and bathrooms are scattered across three floors. Views are possible from the front of the house, through the courtyard and bedroom, and then out to the steeply sloping back gardens. 

‘What the square does for a city,’ argues Manolopoulou, ‘a courtyard does for a house … The outdoor space is not just what’s left over after the architecture; it can be central to it.’ This is a concern that appears in other AY projects, where exterior spaces are protected and incorporated into the architecture. It will also be a feature of AY’s extensions for the nearby Camden School for Girls, currently under way. 

Despite appearances, the Dartmouth Park courtyard has not been so much scooped out as subtracted from a newly built volume of hefty mahogany verticals and framing that replaces the old rear extension. Mahogany seems an unlikely material, but the client had Nicaraguan business connections so the (FSC certified, apparently) timber joinery was assembled there then packed and shipped to the UK after the preparation of voluminous fabrication drawings and numerous Skype sessions.  

Timber fits easily into the practice’s love of the crafted and features conspicuously in other projects, from schools to the birch ply House of Flags installation in Parliament Square for the 2012 Olympics. An inspiration is Louis Kahn’s Fisher House in Philadelphia and Dartmouth Park features similar deep shutters off its rear bedroom. It’s tempting to think that the oft-repeated description of the Fisher House’s cubes as like dice thrown by chance on a table also appeals to Manolopoulou. But, though she is author of Architectures of Chance, she and Boulanger maintain they don’t feel the need to implement their theoretical work in their practice. ‘I see theory and writing as parallel; we don’t force one into the other,’ says Manolopoulou, director research at The Bartlett (Boulanger has a unit at Westminster). ‘Chance is a critique of architectural control where the lack of control is a positive thing. It is a friction with the “other” that is not designed.

‘Our interest in chance is not a formal thing, like Frank Gehry’s, where scrunched-up paper becomes a building; our interest is in [accepting] the messiness of life without undermining the rigour of the design.’ The pair admire Lacaton & Vassal for this reason. One could argue, though, that the precision of the staircase within its imprecise compartment is the chance theory in practice. ‘Architecture has to have its own strength to contain the uncontrolled,’ concludes Manolopoulou. ‘But it’s about letting go, knowing when we’ve done enough.’

Robert Bevan is the architecture critic of the London Evening Standard

Dp aya copyrightnickkane 26

Dp aya copyrightnickkane 26

Source: Nick Kane

Project data

Start on site September 2015
Completion July 2016
Gross internal floor area 216m2
Gross external area 44m2
Form of contract JCT ICD 11
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect AY Architects
Client Private  
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Quantity surveyor Stockdale (stages 0-4)
Approved Building Inspector HCD Building Control
Main contractor Restructure
CAD software used Vectorworks, Rhino


Aya stair details

Aya stair details

A specially crafted staircase links all four floors of the house. It is inserted into the three-storey void that we created to connect the front street elevation with the rear of the house. We aspired to give the staircase a light, hovering presence, while accommodating uninterrupted movement within the house and allowing daylight to filter through to adjoining living spaces.

The structure is entirely fabricated from thin steel plates, welded together to produce a continuous tread and riser. Additional stiffening is provided by the balustrade, bolted and welded along the perimeter of the treads and integral to the stair stringer. This becomes particularly important, both structurally and aesthetically, at the inner radius of the180 degree bends. Here the stepping of the stringer is consistent with the profile of the external radius to invent an unorthodox but key detail. The stringer has a minimum profile depth of 52mm with a thickness of only 30mm at the base of the balustrade. 

The white-painted steel structure is faced with oiled mahogany to form the tread and soffit finishes. A slim handrail of the same timber tops the balustrade, adding a gently curved tactile line to the piece. The collaboration with Price & Myers and CSI Hull and the utilisation of a shared 3D Rhino model ensured that every detail was carefully resolved prior to fabrication. 

Anthony Boulanger, co-founder, AY Architects

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