Centaur Street housing, by architect de Rijke Marsh Morgan and developer Solid Space Developments, is a prototype for dense urban building and a dramatic spatial experience
When the client turns up for the visit before the architect and talks as an owner of the building concept and detail, you know you are in for something special. The client in this case is developer (and architect) Roger Zogolovitch of Solid Space Developments.
The scheme's architect, de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM), has been working with, as much as for, Zogolovitch - there is a personal chemistry in their open discussion of this scheme and of design generally. The question of who did what in the creation of this scheme is not one either of them is much concerned to answer. The brief came with sketches.
Built hardly a metre from the arches supporting the tracks into London's Waterloo station, this is gritty city rather than prime site. As a developer, Zogolovitch is focused on 'no. one' (ie No 1) Centaur Street as a prototype for high-density urban housing, working with dRMM to explore the possibilities for the basic duplex unit and the extension of the whole both vertically and horizontally; not to mention a focus on costeffective construction, including learning the craft of fair-faced in situ concrete, something of a culture shock for Alex de Rijke, a self-confessed prefabrication freak.
Zogolovitch poses the question of how we want to live now; indeed, how we often do live now in buildings converted for housing, but find ourselves constrained by the conventions of the new-build side of the housing industry. He makes no claim to superiority over the suburb - it is another place with its own imperatives. The city has other things to offer, but it does have comparative limitations in outdoor and indoor space, which Centaur Street aims to compensate for with a sense of spaciousness and spatial excitement often found in conversions but rarely in new build. For future occupants, this is one of Centaur Street's major achievements.
The dwelling typology they have developed might be described as 'the terrace meets the flat'. The terrace is in many ways a very successful urban form. Traditionally, it was four storeys, though in effect two, with servant spaces in the basement and top floor.
It is also highly cellular and thus somewhat monotonous and inflexible. The more traditional housing of the continent - the flat - brings greater sense of breadth and spatial interconnection, plus devices such as balconies and winter gardens to compensate for the lack of direct connection to outdoor private space.
Zogolovitch argues that in much of today's new housing the balance of open and encapsulated space is wrong, and that we need a greater proportion of open space and more flexibility for today's varying ways of living. The dwelling unit at Centaur Street is a duplex, single-aspect, set back to back and stacked vertically. Entry is on the centreline of the terrace where units meet, via a communal entrance in the flank wall. The stacking could also be extended horizontally into longer terraces, as Zogolovitch's sketches illustrate (page 34), with communal entrances either at ends or via corridors from the front. In principle, stacking could also continue vertically, say to 20 storeys.
Each duplex is zoned in three vertically, expressed on the elevations - a doubleheight zone meets a transition zone for circulation (seen in the double-height glazing), then comes an 'encapsulated' space zone of bathrooms and bedrooms, one each per floor, expressed in the single windows. By making the double-height volume/ transition zone floor-to-ceiling heights a little lower than the encapsulated zone heights (2.75m compared with 2.25m of transition zones), the difference in floor levels across the duplexes gradually increases as you move up the building, until at the top the level change across a duplex is around half a floor.
With these multiple levels within a duplex, how did they succeed in having open-plan stairs in the transition zone rather than an enclosure for fire escape? By the simple device of giving each duplex two front doors - two escapes - one at each level where the encapsulated zone meets the common entrance stair. Thus, you retain the spatial drama of double-height space and the open-plan changes of level. And as de Rijke points out, you then have some flexibility to treat the duplex as two layers used separately, say for live/work, for guests, or for a separating couple with nowhere to go.
Interiors have strong volumes and strong textures, dominated by fair-faced concrete.
In the open and transition zones this is horizontally boardmarked, echoing the layering of the spaces. There is a bit of 'could do better next time' about the quality of workmanship, which both architect and client acknowledge. Zogolovitch will persevere; he describes fair-faced concrete as a 'good, luscious material'. Internal landings are diamond-finished, giving a finish like terrazzo. As a counterpoint to the concrete solidity, there are full-height window areas with balconies, glazed in as winter gardens on the front of the building. And on the flank wall of the double-height volumes, small windows frame views; these windows almost randomly disposed like the small windows often found on the rear of terraced housing.
In the fit-out of the upper two duplexes, open spaces are little touched, though there are striking perspex balustrades, and in the kitchen area a minimal stainless steel cuboid (as seen from the living side). The top slides noiselessly along to reveal sink and hob. It is a standard product, typical of dRMM's approach of bringing together components from international catalogues.
In sharp contrast to the openness of these zones, the encapsulated zone consists of a bathroom in a wooden box on each floor and a cellular bedroom, giving more emphasis to the secure solidity of concrete - a sense that can be comforting in the city. Typically, bedrooms have some walls and a ceiling in fair-faced concrete, then luxurious timber for the other one or two walls and a floor of Canadian walnut. It is the contrast of the rough and the luxurious that de Rijke cites from Loos. Again the simplicity of planes is retained - heating is underfloor and power and data are set in a perimeter band of the floor. For the bathrooms, they have tried out a number of options, such as bath or shower or steam room.
Working out from the duplexes, parts of the common stair I can only describe as a difference in taste.Wall panelling of pressed phenolic resin-looking timber around front doors has a shallow eggcrate surface; landing floors are in speckled concrete. Colour coding is used at each level. More attractive are the glass balustrades and the way the landings cantilever beyond the flank wall; these ends clad in glass, reaching out as near as possible to the railway arches, providing views in both directions along the narrow slot between flank wall and railway arch. It is de Rijke's favourite view of the building, decidedly a city view.
Outside, the concrete walls are externally insulated, the insulation wrapped in aluminium sheets (see Working Detail, pages 36-37).
On the surface is what might loosely be described as rainscreen cladding in the form of horizontal, Belgian chocolate-brown, cement/resin, timber-effect planking. This stable material has the benefits of low maintenance and of creating a controlled-width, parallel gap between the planks. Gaps between planks increase as they rise up the building, revealing more of the aluminium sheet behind and so lightening the effect of the building towards the sky.
At roof level, this planking reads from the street as balustrading for the rooftop terraces of the top two duplexes. In fact, it is not substantial enough a system for safety, and KeyKlamp railings are set inboard of the cladding to provide balustrading. From this rooftop vantage point the surrounding building roofscape is largely in need of care and attention, that independent spirit among plants, buddleia, doing well. But the draw to the eye is the view over the wall for boys with toys - both Zogolovitch and de Rijke in this case - who delight in the giant train set that is the approach tracks to Waterloo Station. Building in mass concrete and locating the encapsulated zones nearest the railway provide some acoustic protection.
Also from the roof, or rear windows, you can look down on a small, symmetrically wrought rear garden (plus two car parking spaces), the hard landscaping not surprisingly an essay in concrete (sandblasted here) and railway sleepers. Three medlars have been planted, which should grow tall.
There is black basalt mulch, and the same material resin-bound in the matwell of the lower rear unit.
To the simple palette of materials and components used at Centaur Street is added the way they are used in Zogolovitch's pursuit of cost-effective construction. For example, he is looking for designs that avoid the cost escalator of tradesmen returning to the site for a second or even a third fix.While he needs to support architecture first at some points, pragmatism is also important.
So the vertical top-hat sections that support the external planking are spaced to coincide with the planks' available lengths, avoiding waste - the approach, as Zogolovitch remarks, of a tailor's son.
For Zogolovitch, this pioneering development should mark a first step of a wider roll-out, exploring the many options inherent in this prototype. For dRMM, the architect likes it so much it has taken the lower front duplex as its office.
TENDER DATE June 2001
START ON SITE DATE September 2001
CONTRACT DURATION 16 months
GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 618m 2
PROCUREMENT JCT Intermediate Form 1998
TOTAL COST Shell and core: £862,227 Fit-out apartments 3 & 4: £297,268
CLIENT Solid Space Developments
ARCHITECT de Rijke Marsh Morgan: Alex de Rijke, Sadie Morgan, Michael Spooner
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Measur
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Adams Kara Taylor
SERVICES ENGINEER Monalco
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Jennifer Coe
CONSTRUCTION MANAGER White Associates
MAIN CONTRACTOR Parkway Construction
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS External planking Eternit; cladding extrusions, fixings Fischer Italie; aluminium-clad insulationAIM; profiled aluminium roofing Kalzip; timber windows Scandinavian Window Systems; frameless glass louvres Colt International; timber decking HLD; internal glass balustrading, handrails Elite Metalcraft