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buildings - Thomson House, the first of two small projects this week by Richard Murphy Architects, addresses Edinburgh's conservation battle by taking this new build below ground

Thomson House is situated to the southwest of Edinburgh city centre, in an area of substantial villas and extensive gardens that tumble down steep banks to the Water of Leith. The Colinton area has been said to 'still have the feeling of being next to the country? in short, the perfect suburb'. * The architecture tends to the Arts and Crafts. By its own admission, Richard Murphy Architects' reputation and formidable trawl of RIBA awards 'was built on highly crafted and innovative domestic work in the Edinburgh area'. Murphy is well placed to work here.

Edinburgh - ever vigilant through its conservation network, a kind of architectural home guard - wages war on any development that attempts to question its villa policy; that is, no building in gardens. Murphy, like some wily urban fox with years of forays into Edinburgh's leafy suburbs, has managed somehow to build a substantial retirement den in the garden of the Thomsons' original home (now for sale). Using the stealth tactics deployed by many architects in a city resistant to change - it can't be seen from outside the site - the house skilfully uses the steep site to disappear.

Murphy cites Rogers and Foster's Creek Vean as an influence.

The house displays the characteristics of Murphy's well-published repertoire. Linear plans step down the site, expressed and articulated by continuous top light, introduced along the circulation fault lines; open views connect one space to another. Each space is intimate, yet associated with the next, lit by a variety of carefully located windows and slots.

The result is a considered, light-filled sequence of comfortable, eminently liveable rooms for enlightened and wealthy professional clients.

The innovation, though, of Murphy's first extensions and houses seems somehow disturbed. The introduction of the patio, expressed as a semicircular intrusion into the plan, is troubling. Murphy's plans have always been well wrought, richly loaded with movement, layering and transitional spaces. Previously, and still apparent in recent larger projects such as Eastgate Arts Centre in Peebles, the use of the sliding screen and ambivalent framed wall elevated the plan by smudging the notion of threshold. Many of those qualities are in evidence here. However, the primary geometric form produces a touch of petrifaction to the plan and a certain awkwardness in the resultant internal spaces, as well as a formerly avoided overt sense of a distinct inside and outside.

The clients, however, are justifiably thrilled. 'It's like being on holiday every day, ' says Marion Thomson. 'I can't wait to get up in the morning.' Edinburgh has a problem, not only with contemporary society and how it might imagine living; there is also a desperate shortage of decent affordable houses. Murphy, with his proven ability to make houses of character that are genuinely enjoyed by their open-minded owners, would seem to be well placed to contribute to a bigger picture.

* The Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh, Gifford, McWilliam and Walker, Yale University Press, 2002

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