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Is Russell Jones’ Highgate Mews more than an exercise in tasteful London Minimal?

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Russell Jones Architects’ mews scheme is a considered piece of architecture that engages with the possibilities of its backland setting, says Catherine Slessor

PLANSSECTIONS • DETAIL • CLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • SPECIFICATION

Secreted behind the blaring artery of Archway Road, Wembury Mews is a typically fragmented north London backland of gardens, garages and vacant lots. Originally decrepit and dishevelled, it is now slowly coalescing into a more unified domestic milieu as new architectural life-forms are implanted within its fragmented armature of sites, spaces and ad hoc add-ons. Russell Jones’s new Mews House is the most conspicuous example of this process, its cube of palely pristine brick suggesting, at first glance, yet another five-finger exercise in tasteful London Minimal. Yet there is more to it than that, exploring as it does a kind of resourceful, small-scale urban ecology that tactfully interrogates place, planning and nuance.

Running parallel to the gradient of Archway Road, the mews is narrow and sloping, its antique cobbles conjuring an aura of period drama or the folk nostalgia of the famous Hovis commercial. However, its quaintness did little to stave off a history of fly-tipping and criminality, and its sullen, lock-up garages still retain a whiff of police procedural. Nonetheless, its seclusion and potential for development were an attraction for Jones, who set up home in the mews and designed his own dwelling there.

Jones’s own house displays a clear formal and material kinship with this mews

Constructed from the same pale brick, dissolving into floor-to-ceiling glazing, Jones’s own house displays a clear formal and material kinship with this, his nearby Mews House, for a private client. Jones describes his approach as a ‘culture of creative economy’, extending across the choreography of space planning, use of materials and choice of fittings. Stripped of superfluity, the outcome is a crisp and considered piece of architecture that engages with the possibilities of its cramped, backland setting.

Invariably, constraint was a key generative factor. Originally accommodating a disused garage in the derelict garden of a five-storey house, the Mews House site was a mere 90m2. The two-storey newcomer is a Chinese puzzle-box of elegantly interlocking spaces, focused around a compact, enclosed courtyard. The delicate lightness of the brick and its lime-rich mortar gives the architecture an almost Iberian quality, reinforced by the relationship of a hermetic street-front to a private inner courtyard. Suggestive of a loosely woven textile, a grid of votive niches in the courtyard wall for accommodating candles or plants adds visual animation.

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

On the street frontage, the wall is deeply incised to create an angular, framed opening lined with strips of white-oiled Douglas fir. This functions as kind of sheltered stoop or decompression zone before entry. A glazed slot admits light but also maintains privacy for occupants. Paved with precast concrete flagstones, the ground floor is a single fluid space wrapped around the courtyard. An exquisitely minimal oiled timber staircase leads up to the upper floor, with its two bedrooms and bathroom. Built-in storage is neatly worked into the compact spaces and cleverly cut skylights exploit borrowed light.

The brickwork is both structure and skin, its surface manipulated by a technique known in Scandinavia as ‘sækkeskuring’. ‘It’s a way of subtly creating a more monolithic appearance without losing the essential brick quality of a wall,’ says Jones. Originally from Australia, Jones lived in Denmark for many years, developing an appreciation of the work of Scandinavian Modernists such as Lewerentz and Jacobsen. In its Gesamtkunstwerk approach to fittings and fixtures, the house bears the lucid imprint of Jacobsen’s forensic attention to detail. But, again, economy plays a part. Most of the expensive-looking fittings are off-the-shelf. ‘It’s all readily available stuff,’ says Jones. ‘It’s just about modifying it slightly for specific applications.’

The scheme draws on London’s eclectic heritage of backland modernism

Jones also draws on London’s eclectic heritage of ‘backland Modernism’ and the houses it spawned, which were usually small, yet complex and distinctive guerrilla tactics in a wider war on the cost and availability of land. Today, as London casts around for space to build new homes, Jones feels that redundant back lots should be pressed more vigorously into service. He now has his eye on the site of the decaying lock-up garages for a future residential development, thus further transforming the mews from its ‘ad-hoc disarray’ into a viable and civilised community. With their inventive colonisation of disregarded sites, the dwellings completed to date are a compelling demonstration of the art of the possible, providing a paradigm that could be fruitfully replicated elsewhere.

Location plan

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Ground floor plan

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

First floor plan

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Roof plan

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Section A-A

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Section B-B

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Detail

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Wienerberger Marziale bricks were used as the primary material for the house. Marziale was selected for all external and internal structural walls, and precast concrete paving stones in a light tone to match the brickwork were used throughout the ground floor interior and exterior.

The quality of the brickwork has been enhanced through the use of a carefully applied and selected mortar, using white cement, lime and washed river sand. A subtle manipulation of the surface texture is achieved by sponging excess mortar over the surface without losing the identity of each and every brick. A small niched section is incorporated in the courtyard brickwork. Careful placement of stainless steel bed joint reinforcement preserves the wall’s structural integrity.

Douglas fir was used for the timber flooring in the first floor rooms and for the entrance joinery.

The staircase was formed in solid Douglas fir treads, fixed into the Douglas fir-faced structural S/BB plywood balustrade and stringer, forming a cantilever. This was intentionally pulled away from the brick wall surface to allow continuity and articulation of primary materials. White oil was applied as the finish to all timber joinery.

Russell Jones, principal, Rusell Jones Architects

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Source: Rory Gardiner

Client’s view

I first came across Russell Jones’s work after seeing his own house under construction nearby.

Having been unsuccessful with previous planning applications on land to the rear of my own property and after receiving a recommendation from a local estate agent, I approached Russell to develop a proposal to realise the potential of my site, which faced onto a messy and neglected mews carriageway. Given Russell’s success with his own house and several others in the mews, and an ongoing relationship with Haringey planning department, Russell was entrusted to take the preferred proposal to planning and beyond.

The approved design exceeded expectations and the choices of materials, attention to detail and close supervision on site produced a completed house that is robust, full of light, and a joy to live in.

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Source: Rory Gardiner

Project data

Start on site November 2014
Completion October 2015
Gross internal floor area 68m2
Site area including mews carriageway 90m2
Form of contract JCT IC11 Intermediate Building Contract 2011
Construction cost Undisclosed
Construction cost per m2 Undisclosed
Architect Russell Jones
Client Private
Structural engineer Techniker
Quantity surveyor Halstead Associates and Consultancy ‘31’
Approved building inspector LABC and Haringey Building Control
Main contractor D F Keane
CAD software used AutoCAD
CO2 emission rate 22.75kg/m2
Target CO2 emission rate 23.81kg/m2

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Source: Rory Gardiner

Specification 

  • External and internal bricks by Wienerberger Marziale
  • Precast concrete paving slabs by Blanc de Bierges
  • Douglas fir timber floor boards by Reevewood
  • Staircase and external joinery by K and D Joinery
  • External windows by Velfac
  • Rooflights by Sunsquare
  • Metal cappings by Contour Casings
  • Underfloor heating by Nu-Heat
  • Worktops by Worktop Express
  • Boiler by Worcester Bosch
  • Rainwater harvesting tank by GRAF
  • Photovoltaic panels by Sharp

Mews House by Russell Jones

Mews House by Russell Jones

Source: Rory Gardiner

 

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • These challenging sites in London mews and lanes seem to bring out the best in architects - just across the Archway Road, at the corner of Tile Kiln Lane and the end of Winchester Road, lies the ingenious six-house self-built co-operative development of Tile Kiln Studios, designed by another antipodean - Peter Beaven - back in 1980, after he'd decamped from Christchurch to London for a while.
    Not Modernist, but certainly not pastiche, and reminiscent of some uniquely New Zealand style 20th-century housing in Christchurch and Wellington.

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