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Corner House by DSDHA

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A solid and geological, charcoal brick six-storey apartment block is a thoughtful and refined addition to London’s Fitzrovia, says Catherine Slessor

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • CONTRACTOR’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA

In the urban pantheon of London’s Great Estates, Fitzrovia is the mongrel cousin, sandwiched uneasily between the more well-to-do gridded enclaves of Bloomsbury and Marylebone. Being the shared purview of various competing minor landowners, it has always lacked the unifying vision of the truly aristocratic Bedfords or Howard de Waldens, but this is its great charm, giving it a more permeable character that has made it the setting for often tumultuous artistic shenanigans. Former residents include Whistler, George Bernard Shaw, L Ron Hubbard and – most infamously – Dylan Thomas, who caroused his way through Fitzrovia in the pre-war years. And though those days of louche bohemia are now a distant folk memory, the hostelries of Charlotte Street still do a decent trade in three-bottle lunches for thirsty advertising and media folk.  

About half way down Charlotte Street, before it hits its more Dionysian stride, you might well think you’d been momentarily teleported to Zurich. Grafted on to a corner plot is a new apartment block, solid and geological in charcoal brick, marked by a certain Schweizer Präzision. This is the Corner House, a six-storey block of flats with commercial space at ground level, designed by DSDHA for developer Derwent London. It supercedes and overwrites an assortment of 60s buildings that used to occupy, but not dignify, this important corner site. Among the original assemblage was what was euphemistically known as a ‘special clinic’. As to its speciality, I leave you to surmise.

The new building emerges to join the urban conversation in a rich bass-baritone of loadbearing brick

Colourful past wiped clean, the site is currently a model of rude urban health, invigorated by a sense of purpose and autonomy. It now hosts an exercise in clever contextuality, derived from sifting and analysing the runes of Fitzrovia’s Georgian past and using these as a basis for contemporary improvisation. The template is the traditional Charlotte Street terrace, characterised by a tripartite division of plinth, body and roof, and strong horizontal lines, executed in solid masonry, with punched apertures.

From this primer of elements, the new building emerges to join the urban conversation in a rich bass-baritone of loadbearing brick, rather than the gimcrack clip-on kind, giving it an undeniably forceful presence (think Bryn Terfel as Wotan) amid Fitzrovia’s operatic milieu. ‘It’s both monumental and delicate,’ says DSDHA director Deborah Saunt. ‘We were interested in exploring how brick could contribute to the project.’

The calculated game of material nuance adds subtle shifts and timbres to the weighty, brooding facade. It also speaks of a curiosity about and concern for how things are made and put together. Obvious tenets of architecture, you might think, yet increasingly, architects are retreating from the art of building by relinquishing such responsibilities to product suppliers, who are content to wheel out packaged, generic forms of construction. The outcome is facades by the yard, dumbly pasted on to lettable floor area, as exemplified by the redevelopment of the nearby Middlesex Hospital site.

In a yin-yang of gutsy masonry, light and dark conjoin so the scheme presents a different face to different street conditions

Here, however, the difference in approach is palpable. ‘One of the things that occurred to us when we were walking round London looking at residential blocks was their strong sense of materiality,’ says Derwent London director Simon Silver. Responding to the scale and massing of the previous buildings, the main corner element is connected to a smaller rear block, differentiated by the use of pale blond brick. In a yin-yang of gutsy masonry (supplied by Danish firm Petersen, the architect’s brick maker du jour), light and dark conjoin in Tottenham Street, so the scheme presents a different face to different street conditions: rigorously formal on Charlotte Street and more fragmented round the side and in the mews to the rear.

Windows are set in stepped reveals, the outcome of research and testing to evaluate the potential of brick craftsmanship. ‘It’s treated with a plasticity to achieve a dramatic effect,’ says DSDHA associate director Tom Greenall. Specially designed lintels span the bays, which relate proportionally one to another, reflecting a modern take on the geometric derivation of Fitzrovian architecture.

‘Each floor has a slightly different relationship between the sill and the internal floor levels,’ says Greenall. ‘It makes the building appear less relentlessly stacked and more subtly differentiated.’

A secret roofscape of pavilions is sculpted and folded like pieces of urban origami.

When you reach the top floor, the hitherto orthogonal geometry gives way to a more fluid, fractured composition of shifting planes, generated by slightly angled windows, suggesting something unexpected. And above this, shaped initially by rights-of-light constraints but then radically extemporised, is a secret roofscape of pavilions, sculpted and folded like pieces of urban origami.

Visible only to pigeons and drones, it’s a fascinating fifth elevation, but as Saunt points out, the ubiquitous technology of satellite mapping and Google Earth means we’re now much more used to seeing buildings from above, and reading the urban terrain in a different way. ‘It’s an alternative dimension from which to visualise things,’ she says. Like abstract, warped versions of the traditional French mansard, the glass and zinc pavilions of the Corner House add to an expanding repertoire of covert rooftop structures.

The pavilions form an armature for the stratospheric perks of penthouse living, which, apart from the usual panoptic views, also extend to a lift disgorging you directly into your living room. But were you to take the stairs, forged from wafer-thin steel sheet with sinuously curved flat handrails, you’d find another example of DSDHA’s concern for the art and craft of making.

Aside from the duplex penthouse, there are 10 ‘normal’ apartments. Nine are for sale (prices start at £1.75 million) with the two flats on the ground floor set aside for social housing. These are discreetly sequestered away from the main part of the building, each with its own entrance. It might be tempting to see this as a microcosmic reiteration of the obnoxious ‘poor doors’ policy, which preserves a cordon sanitaire for affluent occupants in socially mixed developments, but here it was partly necessitated by the social landlord being unable to take on the maintenance costs of a shared core. The alternative would have been to omit the social component altogether.

Individual entrances also help to activate the street frontages and deter deviant behaviour, and though private and social apartments are effectively separated, the level of interior specification is the same throughout. High ceilings and the wall-to-window ratio give all flats a sense of Scandinavian lightness, amplified by bleached wood floors and white walls. Plus everyone gets a ringside seat for the intrigues and goings on of Fitzrovia, now rather less of a mongrel cousin with such a thoughtful, refined project in its midst.

Corner House by DSDHA

Corner House by DSDHA

Brief

Deborah Saunt, director, DSDHA

DSDHA has worked with Derwent London to deliver a discreet yet alluring brick corner building in Fitzrovia, central London, which brings delight to its surroundings while engaging in an active dialogue with the wider context of the city.

Corner House provides a mix of private and affordable homes, along with a commercial space on the ground floor. Over its six-storeys the building comprises 11 apartments, nine private and two affordable, all of which offer double or triple aspect rooms with exceptional levels of daylighting.

The original site comprised three distinct buildings, which were subsequently replaced by a large modern scheme. Corner House brings back the character of the original structures, consolidating their identities into a single block that reflects the urban hierarchy of the surrounding streets – the grander Charlotte Street, the quieter Tottenham Street and the more utilitarian identity of Tottenham Mews.

Corner House by DSDHA

Corner House by DSDHA

Architect’s view

Deborah Saunt, director, DSDHA

Corner House strives to introduce a new type of beauty; one that is less ostentatious yet captivating, able to build on the qualities of its location, very sustainable and embodying high-quality design and craftsmanship.

While at an urban level it celebrates the ordinary street corner, Corner House inverts this typology, typically presenting a more articulated treatment of the facade at the ground level, and places two jewel-like crystalline pavilions on the rooftop, opening up a series of unexpected views on to London’s roofscape.

The roof pavilions offer a hidden terrain to the project that only becomes apparent upon enquiry, occupying as they do the rights-of-light envelope established by neighbouring buildings. Corner House does not disrupt the consistent morphology of the solid brick facades that characterises the neighbourhood, but the shifting planes of its slightly angled windows on the uppermost floor suggest something unexpected.

The articulated geometry of Corner House’s facade and pavilions multiplies focal points and dissolves traditional linear perspective, thereby suggesting an alternative dimension from which to appreciate the building and its surrounding views. Technically challenging yet appearing disarmingly simple, they are in an effortless dialogue with other roof structures scattered on the horizon nearby. This careful consideration of the fifth elevation – giving a building’s roof the same importance as the ground-level entrance – is something we had already started to experiment with while working on an earlier conversion for Derwent London, Suffolk House on the nearby Whitfield Street, and it has become a recurring theme in a lot of our urban projects.  

Corner House by DSDHA

Corner House by DSDHA

Source: Helen Binet

Contractor’s view

Lee Stark, project manager, and John Knight, director, Knight Harwood

A good deal of our focus was directed towards delivering the building’s striking envelope, predominantly built in brickwork. The use of precast brick panels was discussed at early stages of the design, but the architectural brief of creating a product that would sit sympathetically within the surrounding area led the team to select handmade bricks.

A large proportion of the bricks were manufactured in bespoke shapes and sizes to meet the design for the stepped reveals to the load-bearing piers and stepped lintels over the punch windows. Long lead durations for the bricks meant that extensive detailing and setting were required early on in the design phase.

The handmade bricks presented the additional challenge of dealing with materials that were irregular in form and size and outside of normal tolerances. The construction of a facade mock-up assisted in the co-ordination of the brickwork, glazing and architectural metalwork.

To ensure the integrity of the facade design was met, shelf angles were limited to the larger spanning windows on the Tottenham Mews elevations, sitting more comfortably with that particular elevation. Precast brick inlaid lintels were used within the remaining facades, with the load of lintels and brickwork above being transferred through the piers.

A combination of two different lime mortar colours and three mortar depths further defined the differing elevations. Lime mortar was used to minimise the architectural impact of movement joints, with the brickwork being load-bearing. Careful planning of the facade construction was required to ensure the longer curing periods for lime mortar did not delay the programme.

Corner House by DSDHA

Corner House by DSDHA

Client’s view

Simon Silver, director, Derwent London

The Corner House  offered us the opportunity to explore how to put back an original but distinctly modern building into the historic streets of Fitzrovia. We had worked with DSDHA before, including on the nearby affordable housing refurbishment at Suffolk House, and here was the chance for them to try something new.

This corner site enabled us to provide windows on two sides for most of the apartments, with some on the upper levels having three, thereby maximising natural light in the apartments. The results are stunning, with rooms which feel generous and spacious with great views out, giving a real connection to the area. A typical slice of London is framed in most rooms, whether of the neighbouring terraces, BT Tower or emerging skyline at the upper levels.

We were keen to use a material finish which reflected the fabric of the area, and had been working with the Danish brick company Petersen Tegl on a number of our other projects. Here we chose a dark and textured handmade brick, reminiscent of the originally yellow stock brick elevations which were darkened by London’s past pea-soupers. DSDHA has employed this beautiful material with real elegance and originality; the double rebated brick window reveals create depth and modelling which adds a sense of layering and texture to the elevations. We focused on details such as railings and spent a lot of time researching local examples, coming up with a contemporary but classic interpretation. Inside, other details include fine reeded glass doors in Crittal frames and smooth and robust Dinesen timber flooring. The twist was saved for the upper floors, where the roof-form angles and pivots in response to local sight lines which makes for fun and dynamic spaces.

The building has been a lesson in how to craft something original yet fitting, modern yet refreshing and the result, we think, provides enduring quality and a great architectural legacy.

Corner House by DSDHA

Corner House by DSDHA

Project data

Start on site April 2014
Completion September 2015   
Net internal floor area 1,365m²
Form of contract single stage Design & Build
Construction cost undisclosed
Architect DSDHA: Deborah Saunt, Tom Greenall, Matthew Lambert, Arnold Seligmann, Deb Adams, Natasha Reid, Luke Jackson, Jeremy Corminboeuf, Marine Fleury, Marianna Filippou
Delivery architect Veretec
Client Derwent London
Structural engineer Elliott Wood
MEP consultant GDM Partnership
Quantity surveyor Core 5
Project manager Gardiner & Theobald
Fire consultant BWC Fire
Planning consultant DP9
Planning authority London Borough Of Camden
CDM coordinator Jackson Coles
Approved inspector MLM
Main contractor Knight Harwood
CAD software used Vectorworks (preconstruction) and Autocad (construction)
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 152kg CO2/m2  (commercial: 20kg CO2/m² / residential: 132kg CO2/m²)

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • plans would be nice

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  • You don't mention how much the 'duplex penthouse' costs, but building flats that start at £1.75 million in the middle of a housing crisis is a disgrace, only compounded by this article's rhapsodic and slightly ludicrous ('a rich bass-baritone of loadbearing brick'?) fetishisation of the building's materials and forms.

    So far so standard for an architectural magazine. But I admit you've surprised me by celebrating a building that uses architecture as a form of social segregation, in this case with the design of 'poor doors' for the social housing component. Your dismissal of this as a financial necessity is the same argument employed by all excusers of this disgraceful policy, from the poor doors at One Commercial Street to the rich gardens at One Tower Bridge.

    I will be making this article and this building public to those in London's housing movement who, admittedly, cannot afford a mortgage on a £1.75 million flat, but who take a critical and active approach to such social segregation, and the complicity of architects in designing its attitudes into our streets and homes. I wonder what this 'thoughtful, refined project' will look like with a group of banner-carrying protesters standing outside.

    I hope this article isn't a sign of what's to come under your new editor in chief, but it's not a good start, is it?

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • For Geraldine Denning / Simon Elmer:

    Anyone concerned at the way London's going in terms of social housing might like to check on just what is likely to result from TfL's recently announced framework deal with various developers to realise the value of spare TfL land.
    For anyone with the skills, perseverance, and knowledge of London I'd like to bet that they'd find TfL has a significant number of small parcels of land that would be less attractive to the big developers but just right for the sort of low cost - maybe self-build - housing initiatives that were championed by Walter Segal & friends in Lewisham around 30 years ago, are the subject of the current exhibition at the AA, and now being revived in a different form in the same area.

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