Tony Fretton’s architecture explores ordinary technologies and everyday materials. He is beginning to win work abroad, including an embassy in Warsaw and housing in the Netherlands, but is very much a London architect. This Clerkenwell house is one of many urban projects, including the Lisson Gallery in Marylebone and the Red House in Chelsea.
Architecture is undoubtedly an urban profession, yet the transition in the last century from a rural vernacular as a living tradition to the cosmopolitan demands of the city has left a memory of building and materials that some architects have returned to as an inspiration. Perhaps lvaro Siza stands as the master of this ‘modern vernacular’ in his use of tactile materials and ordinary technologies; no need to build spaceships, blobs, geometric mind games or ambiguous surfaces that appease the media-led fame game - Siza’s work eschews the showy in favour of habitable space that acts as a container for daily experience.
In the UK, the Smithsons led the post-Brutalist drive towards the ‘ordinary’, with a return to the expressive potential of structure, construction and services in the ’60s. One branch split away to produce High-Tech architecture and another led to Tony Fretton, who has become the high priest of a particularly London school of architects that includes Caruso St John, Sergison Bates, Mark Pimlott and Houlton Taylor, and that makes architecture concerned primarily with habitable space wrapped up with no fuss and an interest in the ordinary that, through the use of the everyday and raw materials, produces a pure form of building.
Fretton’s commitment to art (the need to represent) and the need to express ideas in building save him from stylistic constraints. Rather, he neatly occupies a space somewhere between art and work, between a formal economy and functional space.
His working methods seem quite traditional - scratchy line concept sketches, white card models - but the process of team working within his own office and with his clients is emphasised as a fundamental part of the design process. As a London architect, he has produced a consistent body of street ‘infill’ projects, such as the Lisson Gallery in Marylebone, the Red House in Chelsea and the Clerkenwell House. Yet he has also delved into the vernacular with his ArtSway gallery in the New Forest, Faith House in Dorset and work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield. These projects show the same concern for everyday materials, habitation and light that avoids mere style - the London projects showing a more formal concern for context, with the rural projects exploring an architecture that plays with traditional forms in an abstracted way.
Fretton has worked consistently within a circle of contemporary artists and musicians and is now, like many of the most talented architects in the UK who have stayed in the country without sufficient work or recognition, beginning to find more work abroad, with his first large-scale housing project in the Netherlands and a new embassy in Warsaw.
Fretton is one of the most influential architects working in the UK today - not mainstream, but certainly an architect’s architect. He deserves more work here.
ARTISTS’ HOUSE AND STUDIOS, CLERKENWELL This slender, four-storey house stood as a late-18th century clock-maker’s workplace until it suffered bomb damage during the Blitz and was patched up and extended to the rear with a tin-roofed workshop. The current owners - both artists, a husband and wife team with a toddler - sought the help of Fretton, an old friend, to convert and extend the property on a tight budget into a living/working home. The end result, both client and architect are at pains to point out, was a collaboration, and both seem delighted with the result, as a working home and as a piece of almost non-design. This is an object lesson in restraint, pragmatism and subtlety.
From the street, just a stone’s throw from the pell-mell of Farringdon and all the trendy new cafés and bars that have sprung up there, a hush descends - cars don’t seem to venture into this quarter. It is very easy to look straight past the house, for it seems to melt into the street of ordered yet all slightly different facades.
But, once noticed, it has quite an attraction that rewards the eye, slowly revealing its delicate nuances. Peter Buchanan once wrote in an article concerning the then emergence of a new group of architects in northern Spain, that ‘some songs become more haunting the softer they are sung? and, as jazz musicians and gypsy singers know, these tunes may be yet more moving if not stated in their entirety, but only sketched in their essentials - and some of these even only implied by a slur or inflection’. This building murmurs its tune.
Yet most of what you see was there already: the shopfront on the ground floor and the large openings to the upper storeys.
But Fretton and his clients have, with a few deft strokes, created magic. The new German-engineered, powder-coated aluminium composite windows (timber internally) set a sure rhythm. The opaque glazing is slightly recessed, suggesting ‘shopfront’, but masking a new living space at street level. The attic storey sets a well-mannered line with the adjacent parapets using a thin strip of masonry.
Entering the house there is an immediate reminder of the Dutch canal house, with a steep and battered timber staircase rising immediately up from the front door from a tight threshold - the staircase is original and has not been dressed up or tamed.
To the side, a large room fills the ground floor behind the opaque glazing to the street. It seems quite a sudden move to walk into this room, a mere metre from the pavement, and find a rudimentary kitchen that consists of a run of low-level cupboards along one wall and a few tall white cupboards on another. A large table offers the suggestion of dining, but more of work - only a small sofa really represents any sign of domesticity. Sliding doors issue out on to a split-level terrace that is cocooned from the outside world yet embraces the tree canopy of the small park beyond - the upper-level terrace ends with slanted roof glazing above a studio below, and the end enclosing wall retains a dissonant gabled parapet that, while expressing the former tin-roof line, upsets the cubic clarity of the contained spaces.
On the first floor the stairs open into the middle of another open room, with tall doors opening out across the rear terraces, and a more domestic aura ensues. This room contains only a double bed placed at the far end and awaits more seating near the balconied doors that will create a sitting space. But a blank pair of doors to a solid wall open, surprisingly and delightfully, into a shallow bathroom that occupies the entire frontage of the house on to the street - this room, which is flooded with light from the large window, protected only by white roller blinds, offers not only a clever acoustic buffer at night, but can also allow the entire floor to be lit and cross-ventilated during the day from both front and back. Finishes are simple - white-painted plaster to walls and ceilings, grey rubber to the existing floors.
Radiators, lights and even a downpipe are all exposed, celebrated even, against a backdrop of space and light that provides the setting for everyday life in the house.
The stair climbs again and this time arrives at the back of the building (the choreography of arriving at a different part of each floor is a theme that Fretton often employs by the use of straight flight stairs, demonstrated in both the Lisson Gallery and the Red House) and this second floor provides two bedrooms, planned around a central bathroom. Switching back to another short run of staircase, arriving again at the rear of the building, there is the attic floor, a single space with plywood floor panels that forms one studio. This calm space has large windows front and back that peer out across two segments of the city.
The house sandwiches life between art, as the second studio occupies the lower-ground floor, so that the three living spaces are bordered top and bottom by studios. The lower studio is 20m long (the house is only just over 4m wide) and it is here that Fretton’s intervention is apparent, for the split-level terraces at ground-floor now reveal the logic of flooding the far end of the basement studio space with natural light, the split section allowing a fairfaced concrete roof to hover as a plane between rooflighting.
A single blank door provides a pressure-valve - like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland - that opens into the small park beyond.
From the front, the house sits quietly but surely in the street, tall and elegant in a dark red-brown livery with nicely proportioned fenestration that culminates in an implied attic storey. From a small park to the back, the house sits up from its rear extension that contains the lower studio and terraces, while above, the back wall rises with neat new windows beneath exposed steel lintels, set within a patched brick facade that, like an old boxer’s face, ravished by time and experience, holds another kind of raw, honest beauty.
A STORY OF THREE FACADES Tony Fretton entered the architectural elite with the 9H Gallery exhibition (and accompanying book) Reality and Project: Four British Architects in 1990. This showed the card model of the new Lisson Gallery in Marylebone that was completed two years later. The facade, perhaps inadvertently, helped to launch the current fashion for ‘shuffly windows’ (hardly a building in London lately avoids this trend for things sliding around on each floor, purposefully reinforcing the free facade’s liberty to avoid gravity). But the design presents a purely sophisticated, four-storey frontage that not only picks up on the rhythm of the street, but adds a hint of abstraction - the shift towards relationships of one part to the other within the composition; the solid upper floors above the open lower; the subtle planar shifts within a ‘flat’ facade. This apparently white facade of impeccably balanced elements reveals itself as a series of Mondrian-esque non-whites. The Lisson Gallery is a very significant post-war London building that has already proved to be very influential.
In Fretton’s more recent, well-heeled Red House of 2001, the same concerns with making alignments and connections to its neighbours are employed in a well-mannered frontage that recalls Adolf Loos’ Tristan Tzara and Moller Houses, which both presented a basically symmetrical facade with central bays - one inverted the other projecting - with stripped down planar facades above expressed bases. The Red House even repeats the twin entrances of the Tzara House (with one entrance into a service apartment, the other into the house itself), with frosted glass screens that are identical; enigmatic perhaps, but paired around a central, stone-clad garage door. This seems to deny both entrance and the prominence of the car. Again, Fretton uses colour, this time a French red limestone, to clad the building - which creates a mini-palazzo that makes for a vastly increased sense of self-esteem and, in a Chelsea street, this is maybe not too surprising. But, in the context of Fretton’s usual restraint, this turns the volume up so loud that the subtlety of the design is compromised by grandiloquence.
Perhaps the richness of material, although beautiful, is just too strong for what is a otherwise a sophisticated composition.
In Clerkenwell no such ostentation exists and the delicately reworked facade again echoes Loos. This time it appears as if it were a slice of the garden elevation of the Steiner House, while the wide window apertures are given the rhythm that recalls the Moller House garden facade, with tall vertical mullions, here flanked by very narrow solid panels that open up for trickle ventilation. But the insistent melody that plays in the back of the mind is not the harmony of the street that this all fits into so well, but the surface - a terracotta Sto render that the artist/clients have overpainted with a dirty-coloured, translucent mineral paint. The result is the most extraordinary dull iridescence, a burnt-umber colour that throbs with hints of orange or red and London grime - a Rothko-like depth and resonance. This authenticity of material combines with a mysterious, enigmatic quality that is quite haunting.