A plan to build a glass conservatory on the side of a house is not normally a brief to make architects perform at their best. 'There are plenty of the B&Q variety around, ' said architect Andrew Doolan, who died last month, 'but I wanted this one to be something a bit special.' Since his client, Marion Caldwell, was also his fiancÚ, he had a good reason to do so, but the existing stone built house wasn't going to make the transition easy. Situated in Edinburgh's Grange district, it is an area, in Doolan's words, that is 'the most upmarket part of town, full of rich people like lawyers and accountants? so you won't find many architects there'. Since Caldwell is an advocate at the Scottish Bar, I suppose he was half right.
The brief, he said, 'was simply for a ground floor for dining and entertaining, a pond for frogs and a nice kitchen.'
The dwelling is set in a large town garden enclosed by a wall high enough to have originally maintained a sense of exclusivity, remoteness and privacy. Even from external pavement level, though, the new extension is clearly visible. Rising up from behind its defensive wall, and above the cluster of trees, it is a bold addition to the suburban streetscape. It peers outwards or, more disconcertingly, allows neighbours to peer in.
To some this suburban intervention was a stylistic character change too far. Allegedly anonymous locals daubed offensive graffiti on the walls as the building's scale and form became apparent. The local planners, however, argued that it was a 'serious building by a serious architect', and backed it.
Pond life The new entrance is through a discreet gate in the garden wall, a high bare concrete wall that extends above head height like a roofless tunnel. The ground level ramps up so that at about midpoint you begin to see over the wall rising above the water-level of a large pond, and to the glass structure beyond. The pond, which is currently being planted with bullrushes, has been designed as a wild marsh with a graded muddy shoreline. The natural appearance masks a complex, engineered retaining structure below. The pond has been built as big as possible taking up most of the external area, so that it would best reflect the extension, especially at night. (Basic frog care, however, suggests that indigenous amphibian species do not like bright lights).
The ramp gently rises to a concrete walkway at waterline level with a few steps to the 'front' door of brushed steel. This door is the only solid interference in the entire structure, offering a curious semblance of security and anonymity in such a transparent building. There would be no hiding behind the door from unwanted guests.
The extension has been designed to express as little structural framing as possible and by silvering even the internal steel columns - which seems overly decadent but impressive nonetheless - the building has certainly taken on a floating transparency. Doolan casually explained that the steel RHS frame was given a mirror smooth finish to reflect, literally and metaphorically, the high performance stainless steel kitchen units on the upper floor.
The ground floor area is simplicity itself.
A large, clear space surrounded by light with minimal furniture - a Marcel Breuer black leather chair and Bang & Olufsen speakers - positioned on light Italian tiles. The view out is tranquil and is west facing, its aspect partly due to circumstances and partly to receive evening light for a client who is rarely in during the day. The ground floor glazing opens up to the pond for communing with the blinded frogs, and the static glazing walls extend from floor to ceiling and beyond to create a balustrade to the balcony above. This 6mm toughened glass, at 5.4m high, is reputed to be the biggest used in Scotland.
Behind a plaster wall, the timber stair rises to the first floor. The main wall of the house at this level has effectively been removed and beamed over with a massive 8m x 700mm deep lintel. The opening houses a glass external wall with sliding doors onto the timber-slatted balcony. From here, the occupant can see and be seen. This level has been renovated and the old lounge refurbished as a state-of-the-art kitchen. Pristine stainless steel island fittings include a huge Renzo Pianodesigned hob and an extra-large Smeg fridge.
Doolan described the effect as something out of the futuristic '70s 'Smash' adverts. To close off the existing bay window so that it doesn't distract from the new and modern use of the room, an electrically operated curtain draws a 'wall surface' over and creates a more minimalist 'box' plan. Hiding this window also draws the visitor to regard the west as the main elevation, thus distorting the sense of location within the erstwhile traditional structure.
This was a clear winner of this year's Edinburgh Architectural Association Awards. Eva Jiricna, one of the judges, said that it was a 'tremendously competent' building. It is a fitting tribute to Doolan's patronage of Scottish architecture.