Featherstone Young’s Waddington Studios is an essay in architectural smoke and mirrors, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Tim Brotherton
The phrase ‘The camera cannot lie’ is now almost universally accepted as a falsism, and it seems apt that Featherstone Young’s Waddington Studios, commissioned by a photographer and completed in October, is an essay in architectural smoke and mirrors. For starters, it’s not just a photographic studio. Behind a Corten facade which might appear to spell authenticity lies layer upon layer of photographic and artist’s studio space, office accommodation, flats, garaging and storage, plus a courtyard house - quite a concoction for its essentially residential setting in Church Walk, a mews in Newington Green, the neighbourhood between Dalston, Highbury and Stoke Newington. The owners, who occupy the courtyard house and artist’s studio, are among several end-users and let out the other studios and the flats.
Waddington Studios’ scale is enigmatic. Its brick-faced neighbours, with bay window on one side and sawtooth roof end elevation on the other, volunteer helpful clues through conventional windows and an arched doorway. But Waddington Studios is resolutely poker-faced, its Corten panels with suppressed joints obscuring the studio windows and deep balcony parapets. Variously-sized door leaves sit flush in its rust-red and timber-clad walls and a toughening-oven defying sheet of glass seals the opening punched into the angular rooftop eyrie. The latter slices through the top storey and looks inquisitively down the mews like a mini-MAXXI, a stealthy winch hanging from its soffit. Unfazed by the planning submission drawings, perhaps because they offered more clues to scale, the local residents found the built reality much bigger than expected.
But the abstract forms of this mews facade also yield a recurring figurative image. Perforations in the Corten panels form patterns derived from the reverse faces of the Waddington playing cards manufactured at the factory that once stood on the site. So the building could be construed as coyly holding a hand of cards that can only be read from within.
‘If you have no idea the house is here, it’s quite a little surprise,’ says director Sarah Featherstone. Twin narrow passages, discharging into the mews tunnel up to the photographic studio and below it to the courtyard houses, with turnings leading to the artist’s studio and flats, which are very narrow in places and have claustrophobia-inducing lobbies, with washroom doors opening into them. No ambiguities of scale here: these spaces are tiny. Having negotiated these fire escape-like spaces, you sense method in the madness, entering a 5.5m-high photography studio with banks of rooflights and east-facing windows equipped with various daylight control mechanisms. It’s that rare creature, a new-build photography studio. ‘Most studios are in existing buildings, which force you to compromise,’ says client and studio director Pete Moss.
Moss and his family also live in the courtyard house that finally reveals itself. The five-storey terraced houses at the back of the site, and their occupants, had scuppered others’ development proposals and effectively dictated windows in the new residences that looked away from them or, at a distance considered acceptable for privacy, at oblique angles to their facades.
Surrounded by utility space at the boundary with the terraced houses on one side and the back of the artist’s studio on the other, the house’s courtyard is unusually quiet and secluded, but retains the big scale of the Church Walk elevation.
Folded extensive roofs over the surrounding living, kitchen and dining areas spiral round the courtyard and frame clerestory lights with an organic but faceted geometry, softened by a pebbledash-surfaced pod, which you round as you enter the house. As in the photographic studio, the fenestration fragments light into vibrant patches. Moss doesn’t seem over-concerned about the solar gain from all this east and south facing glazing and, along with natural ventilation, there’s a heat exchange system at work behind the scenes.
Waddington Studios demonstrates two different types of ingenuity. The first wrestles value out of a daunting site, whereas the second involves creating surprising, animated and beguiling spatial sequences and materials combinations. Featherstone takes particular delight in the development’s priest hole-like interstitial spaces. On the house’s west boundary, an en suite bathroom leads to a utility room, then a storage area that opens onto the kitchen. ‘It’s quite theatrical, because you can just pop out,’ she says. There’s also an exhilarating moment where the cedar-clad rooftop eyrie flies through a stairwell, like a fairground haunted house train. ‘Fun is serious,’ a sardonic audience member once shouted out after a lengthy avant-garde improvisation at a Don Cherry concert. The jazz trumpeter’s cool response? ‘There’s nothing more serious than fun.’