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Walmer Yard by Peter Salter: ‘four independent yet intimately related houses’

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Seven years in the making, Walmer Yard in west London is the first UK residential scheme by architectural designer and teacher Peter Salter, writes Will Hunter

CLIENT’S VIEW • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • PLANS

Peter Salter was my introduction to architecture. Half a lifetime ago, as a fresh-faced first year at the Bartlett, my first forays in designing were inexpert imitations of his drawings. He permeated the foundation culture – as if a northern wind had picked up the genotype of his draughtsmanship from the Architectural Association (AA) and implanted it at the neighbouring school. Meeting him for the first time years later was like meeting royalty.

A similar, yet first-hand, induction happened for Crispin Kelly, who enrolled at the AA in 1990 as a 29-year-old father of two, and became, in his own words, Salter’s least appropriate diploma student. Already a developer, he emerged versed in a new poetic language of architecture that he found difficult to fully absorb yet impossible to shake off. This pupil-master bond goes on to explain what may seem a more puzzling later relationship: between an experienced developer with an interest in the ‘good ordinary’, and a venerable virtuoso whose visions had remained largely unbuilt.

Before the AA, Kelly had acquired an old industrial building in west London which he’d turned into studios. In 2003, as these became vacant, he approached Salter about a residential redevelopment, with the rationale that housing’s typically higher yields combined with an up-and-coming Notting Hill address, could justify the expense of realising a Salter design. There was no fixed brief – except the pursuit of maximum density. 

The development is experienced as progressive layers of removal from the city

Previously the site contained a Victorian warehouse wedged between the mid-19th century Norland Estate and the Regency terraces of Ladbroke Grove. Walmer Yard is close to – but not actually part of – the fancy enclave of the latter, and by the time you reach the development, the stucco has curdled into what is now a gappier post-war patchwork. 

With the assumption that more houses would present greater commercial opportunity, the plot was parcelled to create. An irregular site – deep and wide, but with a narrow street frontage – ruled out a riff on the repetitive house forms and rhythmic façades of its surroundings, and instead the quartet is orchestrated around a private courtyard. 

‘The project attempts to reinstate the sense of an interior found in the working mews and pubs that I recall from my childhood in the area, and tries to carry the intensity, the variation, something of the smaller scale of the locale,’ explains Salter. ‘The design evolved as a spatial negotiation of give-and-take. Each house has a particular geometry in its form and orientation, in a “push-me-pull-you” arrangement that maximises the use of floor area across the development.’

Come 2005, the project adopted the conventions demanded of the planning application, with robust responses on overlooking made sharper, and the bulky naked men in the perspectives erased altogether. After gaining consent the following year, a design studio was convened on site with a ménage of associates, the most enduring and instrumental of whom is Fenella Collingridge, the long-standing (now last standing) collaborator, and Kelly’s fellow student in Salter’s diploma unit. 

It is a stunning rebuke to the anaemic offerings for the rich elsewhere on the market

Completing a decade later, the development is experienced as progressive layers of removal from the city. From the outside, there is a self-consciously anonymous appearance, like a famed beauty dressing down to avoid attention. The front is formal, but not quite symmetrical, with two blocks that start out at their neighbours’ height then raise their heads towards each other, as if in conversation. Between this tête-à-tête, a deep crevice starts to reveal the rich spatial composition of the interior. 

Beyond the entry gate you’re led up a gentle set of steps, funnelled leftwards, through the dappled canopy of almost-touching overhangs; then suddenly the full extent of the courtyard opens up on your right, and the sun hits you again. The plans have been manipulated to gain sunlight, and analysis showed that a light scoop was needed in the deep plan of the site, the shape of which was, surprisingly, modelled on Salter’s forearm. 

Conceived as an exterior room, the courtyard is laid with sound-absorbing timber end-grain setts and, inspired by the upper hall of the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, it is timber-lined and has benches set against the wall, here by the front doors, creating a semi-public place in which to sit or a depository for heavy shopping. 

Of the dwellings, three resemble tall townhouses, with reception rooms at courtyard level, bedrooms on the middle level, and entertaining and roof gardens at the top. To meet planning constraints, the fourth is more like a mews house, and is arranged over two floors, with roof-lit reception rooms at courtyard level and bedrooms below. 

The development is made of cast in-situ concrete, with a large transfer slab over the basement car park on which the townhouses sit and into which the mews house is partially sunk. ‘The concrete scales through from structure to detail,’ says Collingridge. ‘The mass of the building gives it quietness, while the surface is highly articulated and responsive to muted light and reflected colour.’ The birch-faced ply shuttering was designed to imprint the concrete like Georgian silk wallpaper, while a vinyl lining created smooth, reflective ceilings. Light isn’t accepted as innocent or insubstantial, but as something complex and almost physical, a dynamic material that can irradiate or obfuscate. Salter designs with shadow as much as light, as a way to choreograph spatial sequences, and it is rare but wonderful to hear an architect speak of seeking ‘gloom’. Tonal difference is more important than chromatic difference, as Collingridge explains it, and materials are stripped back to reveal natural pigments and grains (applied colour is mostly used in the nooks, such as the light scoop or bathrooms).

As you enter a house, you are coaxed into the darker depths of the interior, before reaching a stair or entering a room and retrieving the sunlight. The elongated circulation heightens a sense of spatial deferral; movement through the house feels subtly slower, as if the atmosphere is a little thicker than air. The use of each space is hinted at in the fabric, with timber used in private rooms like a rug that you step on to, and a hierarchy of windows placed to suggest different activities, such as a slot window at pillow height in bedrooms and windows cut for views in sitting rooms. 

There are quirkier moments, such as the rooftop yurts, designed for dining sat on cushions; the experimental panels of tufa to passively filter the air; just gorgeous leather-clad handrails; and the thoughtful cedar-lined window boxes where you can store cashmere safe from moths. 

This really is speculative housing at its most conjectural; it defies ordinary categorisation and cannot be judged in conventional terms. It doesn’t relate to contemporary and urgent discussions around housing. It offers dense urban living, not to those whose budgets prescribe it, but for wealthier buyers. In that sense it is a stunning rebuke to the anaemic offerings for the rich elsewhere on the market. It should perhaps be sold not as expensive houses, but as an undervalued artistic masterpiece.

Recalling other buildings with similarly expansive gestation periods, the British Library and the Scottish Parliament come to mind – both elaborate public buildings with a status in national life. This is a domestic project. But how fantastic, actually, to give so much consideration to the everyday, to how lives could be lived. 

A lesson in craft – not only of technique but also of thought – the building is not an assembly of parts or systems, but a handmade artefact, a burnished singularity a decade in the making. Its spatial dexterity and tautness shows up the terrible thinness of so much parametric wobbling. Here geometries are invested with meaning; spaces formed by the rituals and patterns of use imagined for them. 

It is a tremendous achievement. And now an architecture that has lived so long in the imagination of its creators must be handed over to new occupants, and another fascinating chapter of its story must begin.

Garage floor plan

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Upper ground floor plan

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

First floor plan

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Second floor plan

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Roof plan

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Project data

Client Crispin Kelly and Seb Kelly
Principal designer Peter Salter
Associate designer Fenella Collingridge
Collaborators Mole Architects; John Comparelli Architects; Antoni Malinowski
Site architects Hugo Keene with Peter Salter and Fenella Collingridge
Structural engineer Parmerbrook (Tony Holdbrook and Chetan Palmer)
Approved building inspector MLM
Quantity surveyor Jackson Coles
Main contractor Shaw Building Group
Project manager Baylight Properties
CDM co-ordinator Sebastian Kelly

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Source: Helene Binet

Architect’s view

Walmer Yard is constructed of in-situ reinforced concrete, largely because of its material quality as a hand-made and crafted construction. It also offers a sense of permanence beyond the usual indemnity period for workmanship and material. 

The brief for the housing design explored a notion of close living synonymous with the urban environment and required an architecture that exploited the full range of the site’s capabilities, both above and below ground level. Thus in-situ concrete was used for retaining walls below ground, with street-level construction using double-skin concrete spandrels stretching between perimeter columns. Single-skin spandrels were constructed around the courtyard to act as edge beams to the floor slabs. These walls were cast using birch-faced formwork in order to encourage shadows across  the wall surface of the interiors. These cast walls also reflect noise from either the courtyard or the room. The concrete work was insulated on the outside, wrapped to make a warm construction. 

The floors are highly reinforced, to carry the heavy steel of the bathroom pods; the floor slabs transfer the loads to the perimeter columns and to the concrete elliptical staircase. The concrete uses 38 per cent ground and granulated blast furnace slag as a partial substitute for the cement content. This produces a more creamy-coloured finish. 

The in-situ concrete work throughout the project was cast with particular finishes, as part of a vocabulary that enables the reading and orientation of the different spaces. The retaining walls below ground level were constructed with sacrificial protruding fillets, which were sometimes hammered or chopped with a glancing blow to form a striation across the fair-faced surface. The front elevation and other important wall surfaces, both inside and out, were cast using strips of wire-brushed redwood; inset or projecting, these laps between 40mm and 75mm high form a board mark finish. The modulation of the cast board catches bands of daylight 3 to 4mm high and undercut shadows with depths of approximately 50mm. The entrance doors to the houses are cast as fluted concrete door cases that match the digits of one’s hand, following the exquisite example of the Georgian door case. 

All the formwork was made off-site in the contractor’s joinery workshop, with the same precision and elegance as the doors and other joinery.

Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Source: Helene Binet

Client’s view

I bought the land at Walmer Yard in 1986, and divided the existing buildings into workspaces, which were then let on 15-year leases. I went to study architecture at the AA, and spent two years in Peter Salter’s diploma unit – a juggling act, as I was running a property business as well as being a parent. I did know when I left the AA that I hadn’t learnt all I could from Peter.

So when the leases at Walmer Yard eventually came to an end, I thought he could design new buildings for the site – houses rather than offices, to capture the high residential values that would be needed to pay for complicated and expensive buildings.

This was not going to be a normal client/architect relationship. Rather, I was going to be restarting my architectural education watching Peter – first producing the building’s plans, then tackling the process of construction. I was always client, with a position on the layout and the number and size of rooms. But as work progressed on site, it was as a student of Peter’s that I progressively appreciated the richness of his imagination and the weight of the words he used in his teaching: threshold, patina, touchstone.

Crispin Kelly

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Source: Helene Binet

 

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