The architect has reinstated a crafted element to Utzon’s only UK project, a Grade II-listed house in Hertfordshire
Sited in Harpenden, the Ahm House is one of the most important modern houses in Britain. Designed by Jørn Utzon in 1961 for structural engineer Povl Ahm, the house has just had its interiors comprehensively restored and reinstated by Coppin Dockray.
Ahm, who worked for Ove Arup & Partners, collaborated with Utzon on the Sydney Opera House from the late 1950s. Influenced by Japanese architecture and ancient building cultures, Utzon’s Ahm House was inspired by ideas of ground and sky.
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Grounded in the landscape along one edge of the site, a later extension by Ulrick Plesner, a Danish architect with Arup Associates at the time, was added in the 1970s, enclosing the garden.
The original house is constructed out of Aylesbury buff brick walls, board-marked concrete, a pale ceramic tiled floor, irregularly spaced timber mullions and glass. The white Swedish Högamäs tiles used on the floors were also used on the roofs of the Sydney Opera House.
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Coppin Dockray was commissioned to carry out interior works – including reinstating original joinery, designing bespoke furniture and selecting soft furnishings, lighting and decorative objects. The furnishings were chosen to reflect the house’s historic context and its Danish roots.
Some of the original joinery was reinstated in line with Utzon’s standard details – in addition, Coppin Dockray created a bespoke headboard and bedside tables lined with deep teal linoleum to match. Materials have been chosen to be long lasting, while reinstating a natural and crafted element to a protected house.
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Our approach is to reinforce the visceral experience of the architectural journey, providing punctuation with key pieces where there are natural pause-points along the route. For example, at the top of the entrance steps a black Spade Chair by Faye Toogood is placed perpendicularly to the viewer, and the vintage Cees Braakman sideboard with Chillida Collage rug by Nanimarquina above are positioned asymmetrically to subtly indicate the onward direction of travel and to pique curiosity about the spaces beyond view. In other locations such as the upper seating area in the main living space, the choice of furniture allows the eye to effortlessly slide around the soft curves of the Jacobsen chairs and into the lush green of the mature garden beyond.
The sitting room at The Homewood– a house designed in 1938 by Patrick Gwynne for his parents – was a key reference for us in the design of the furniture groupings for the main living space. We enjoyed the careful compositional balance of the furniture pieces and rugs at The Homewood and the sense that everything could be pushed aside with ease for a party. We opted for two main furniture groupings in the living space: a more formal cluster around the open hearth, and a looser, more organic collection at the higher level.
The client brief initially called for the TV at the higher level in the main space together with a large L-shaped sofa. We modelled the furniture to demonstrate that this arrangement worked in contrast to and against the architecture.
The master bedroom is located in the 1972 extension, which has a tremendous ‘pillow view’ looking back at the 1961 house. Here we have shifted the colour balance by introducing a fresher palette of blues, turquoises and whites. Inspired by the colour scheme at Jacobsen’s SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, a floor-to-ceiling curtain of pale blue linen gently encloses the sleeping area, hides a large TV and covers two walls of yellow brickwork. We created a new bespoke headboard and bedside tables, both lined with deep teal linoleum and timber edging to match the beautiful existing timber joinery in this room.
Careful repairs were carried out in the 1961 house, including reinstating some of the original joinery based on Utzon’s standard details. This is a knowing client who understands and appreciates the value of this house, and is taking a long-term view in wanting to protect it and to enjoy family life here for many years to come. In so doing, the material qualities of the interiors, like the house, are natural and crafted, deliberately chosen to be long lasting and to develop their own patina over time.
Coppindockray ahmhouse gfplan
Completion date December 2018
Gross internal floor area 418m²
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect Coppin Dockray
Joinery Kacper Kruglik
CAD software used Vectorworks