Forget RIBA House of the Year – Richard Murphy’s Edinburgh home is the AJ’s house of the year, writes Rory Olcayto
Photography by Keith Hunter
In the monograph Of its Time and of its Place, Edinburgh architect Richard Murphy explains that his practice’s beginnings were ‘confined to back gardens, extending middle-class Edwardian houses out of sight of the public realm; only there was any kind of experimentation allowed’. Not surprising really, if you choose to set up a business during a recession in a city with a conservative planning regime. Yet out of these constraints grew a remarkable body of work. In parallel with the extensions – 1991’s Blythman house, the Francis house three years later and Harrison house completed in 2000 – he also undertook a number of mews conversions which filmmaker Murray Grigor has described as Murphy’s ‘string quartets’: developments of architectural ideas in miniature themes and variations.
Those early Murphy projects may be small, tiny even, but they are still a big deal. The forceful compositions, the elemental materials – stone, wood, lead – their rootedness, in that they seem to grow out of and repair their context, get to the heart of what good architecture can be. The influence of Murphy’s heroes and mentors – a pantheon of macho Modernists – can be keenly felt too: his controlled use of natural light to define interior space feels like Soane, the disappearing corner windows feel like Wright and Rietveld, and the arty crafty Modernism feels like Cullinan and MacCormac (for whom he once worked). Murcutt is there too, especially at the scale of 1:5.
But the biggest influence on Murphy’s work – apart from Edinburgh itself – is Carlo Scarpa and the notion of ‘creative demolition’ the Italian architect explored so thoroughly at Castelvecchio in Verona (Murphy’s 1991 book on the subject remains a key text). Because many of Murphy’s early projects dealt with sandstone buildings, the careful redeployment of the 600mm-thick blocks, irreplaceable given the quarries they had come from had long since closed, became central to his developing architectural language. This too – the idea of inhabiting a ruin – informed another aspect of Murphy’s emerging tectonic philosophy: wherein the roof, whether pitched, flat or valley-ed, is manifestly apart from the main structure, and is presented as a thing in itself.
Murphy was the first architect to be nominated twice for the Stirling Prize
Murphy’s rigorous virtuosity did not go unnoticed. One of his mews projects, 17 Royal Terrace Mews, was shortlisted for the first Stirling Prize in 1996, as was, a year later, his Maggie’s Centre Edinburgh, the charity’s first, making Murphy the first architect to be nominated twice for Britain’s premier architecture prize. His recent work is another story: good but not great. Which brings us to Hart Street, Murphy’s new house, designed for himself, and a kind of symphonic brew of all his ideas. It’s his best work for many years, in this respect, a proper return to form. By rights, had RIAS not overlooked it this year, Hart Street would surely be vying for the RIBA’s House of the Year award.
Hart Street is in part of Edinburgh’s New Town that the architect describes as a ‘cock-up’. The site marks the spot where two early 19th-century estates, seemingly developed without knowledge of the other, converge. This mismatch is evidenced by a widening of the road as it runs southwards towards Forth Street, whose gable ends are misaligned with the Hart Street facades. In addition, the Hart Street gable ends terminate at different points, and the exposed rubble gable end on the west side has prominent bodged masonry at high level where it flanks another storey added in the sixties. He was keen to explore how his building could add to Hart Street’s facade as well as bookend one of its gables, and how the right to light of a basement flat to the rear of the corner block on Forth Street could be respected without compromising on form. On a philosophical level, it was business as usual for Murphy: how do you place a new building into a reasonably old context? Nevertheless, together these observations would go on to give shape to Murphy’s architectural response.
Consequently, the house’s wedge-shaped form derives directly from the right to light angle to that basement flat and doubles up as an urban bookend to the neighbouring gable, obscuring the bodged infill work. In this respect, and this must have pleased the planners, Murphy was able to suggest his architectural intervention was ‘repairing’ – or at least making sense of – the uncharacteristically skew-whiff townscape. The roof – south facing, 45 degrees – encouraged Murphy to adopt a progressive energy strategy as well. It is glazed, mostly, but incorporates solar water heating panels and photovoltaics. Beneath these, there is a series of insulated shutters which can close in winter or at night and open in the summer and the daytime.
‘Modernism has really struggled with winter’, says Murphy
There are two more aspects at play here: one, the classic Murphy trope of expressing the roof (which is also an ‘Old Town’ idea in the New Town where roofs are usually screened by parapets) and two, the expression of a building built for all seasons, one that changes through time and adjusts to suit the comfort of its users. ‘The 20th century was very good at summertime architecture,’ says Murphy. ‘But Modernism has really struggled with winter.’ Murphy adds that he ‘moved in on the shortest day of the year. Edinburgh is a very different place in the winter. In Scotland you can go from five hours of daylight in December to 19 in June.’ It’s an interesting point and one explored, not only by the animatronic roof at Hart Street, but by invoking the Scottish castle-wall aesthetic externally and inhabited wall metaphors in plan.
In elevation we also see aspects of Murphy’s ‘ruined’ aesthetic, this time manufactured from scratch, with the base of ashlar stone apparently pulling apart as it rises and turns a corner, becoming more rubble-like on the lane side by the Hart Street gable and to the rear. The rear facade has an especially strong, castle-like appearance (and, in truth, is not very pretty).
Elsewhere the entrance is denoted by a modest, timber-faced painted door, alongside a rectangular grid of glass blocks and a garage door that slides open courtesy of big wheels set within an I-beam above it; tricks first applied in his mews projects. Above this, though not visible from the street, is one of the building’s most startling reveals: a sunlit concrete terrace with its own Scarpa-style fountain decorated with Venetian glass. The abiding impression, however, is of Murphy refining his central idea of constructional contrast: between the masonry base and the emergent glazed structure above. At Hart Street this is clearly expressed.
Internally, the home is arranged around a first-floor living room that leads on to the Scarpa terrace and is overlooked by a mezzanine kitchen. It is reached via a tight dog-legged staircase, with a zigzaggy handrail and a smooth, waxy, pinky-red render finish to the walls that wrap around it, all of which is made to feel more busy – and expansive – by the clever use of mirrors and bookcases, with obvious nods to Soane and MacCormac.
In the master bedroom the building enters Transformers-style territory
On the day of my visit the sun shines and we spend much of the time in this space and on the terrace, but sadly the roof, which opens to the heavens, is not working. Nevertheless it is a remarkable space and one can imagine how it would feel when open and during winter – cosy, basically, in a Scandinavian way – when the shutters close over. The same possibility is afforded in the master bedroom, perched under the summit of the sloping roof, and it is here that the building enters Transformers-style territory, with its hidden bath – a panel lifts up to reveal it in the corner of the room – which sits beneath a disappearing corner window, which in turn gives views on to Hart Street, and curiously, the bodged part of the gable end. There is also a kind of non-skirting board detail here, in that there is nothing there at all apart from fresh air, giving views back down on to the main living space and terrace. The feeling is one of a complex puzzle box, of sliding planes and folding panels, of trap doors and secret rooms, and the sense that you could slide yourself outside if you were to lean on a panel in a certain way. In other words, underneath all the serious architectural intent, this home is fun, in a James Bond or Bruce Wayne manner.
A very snug study, packed with books and a deep desk, is tucked under the kitchen, and on the ground floor there is a spare bedroom with another partially dug into a basement level. Everything else is detail and incident: artful shelving, slit windows, triangular rooflights and waste disposal tubes that flume down through the layered section.
Murphy puts it best himself when describing his influences: ‘A quarter Soane, a quarter Scarpa, a quarter eco-house and a quarter Wallace and Gromit’. For that description alone – which rings true – it’s the AJ’s house of the year.
Start on site June 2012
Completion December 2014
Gross internal floor area 165m²
Form of contract and/or procurement Unorthodox
Client Richard Murphy
Structural engineer Create Engineering
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor McLeod and Aitken
Lighting consultant Scott Kelly
Colour consultant Linda Green
Main contractor Inscape Joinery
Annual CO2 emissions 14.99kg/m²