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Interview: Walmer Yard keeper launches public events programme

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Former AJ writer and now chief events organiser and curator at Walmer Yard Laura Mark talks about how the quartet of houses is being used to increase the public’s understanding and experience of architecture   

What and where is Walmer Yard?
Walmer Yard is a group of four houses in Notting Hill designed by Peter Salter. They are Peter’s only building in the UK and were developed by Crispin Kelly (the chief executive of Baylight Properties), who was taught by Peter at the AA. The houses have been designed and built over the past 15 years and are a really interesting example of what can be achieved when an architect with the academic thought processes of Peter, is given time to develop their ideas.

Where have you come from and what is your role at Walmer Yard?
I was previously the architecture projects manager at the Royal Academy of Arts and before that I’d held many different roles at the AJ from intern to Architecture Editor.

I’m now the keeper at Walmer Yard. It’s a slightly odd title which is more common in arts institutions where historically the keeper would be a curator looking after a specific area. At Walmer Yard I look after the building and its day-to-day running and I am also responsible for curating the public programme that will happen there and running the Baylight Foundation – the charity which is now based at Walmer Yard.

When did you start in the role and what have you been up to since you started?
I joined Walmer Yard in October and I’ve spent the last few months really getting to understand the spaces and working out what we might do in them. It’s been great getting to know the whole team, too, from Peter Salter to the contractor Daren Shaw and Fenella Collingridge, who worked with Peter on the design of the houses. Fenella is a real fount of knowledge on anything about Walmer Yard.

Since I started I’ve been working on a book telling the story of the project from start to completion, giving tours of the buildings to architects and students, working on our public programme and developing the direction we will take all the things we do at Walmer Yard – from rentals to film location shoots.

I’ve also appointed an advisory board of great people who will critique what I do and offer advice.

Walmeryd jimstephenson 31 webres

Walmeryd jimstephenson 31 webres

Why were the houses never sold and will they ever be?
I wouldn’t rule out the houses being sold in the future but for the next few years they have been handed over to the Baylight Foundation. It’s a charitable foundation which aims to increase the public’s understanding of the experience of architecture through activities in the spaces at Walmer Yard.

What are you hoping to achieve?
It’s a unique place to work. It’s a real privilege to be given the opportunity to put my own stamp on what will happen at Walmer Yard and to be somewhere right from the beginning.

I hope to develop an interesting programme which challenges the perception of architecture while opening up conversations about how we live and allowing the public to experience something different.

I want to challenge traditional styles of architecture programming and move away from lectures to more experiential events

I also want to challenge traditional styles of architecture programming and move away from lectures to more experiential events and programming which makes the most of the spaces we have at Walmer Yard.

Can people stay in the homes – and if so how do they go about it?
Yes. We rent out Walmer Yard for people to come and stay. Through staying for an extended period of time in the houses you really get to see how the light changes at different times of the day and the way this effects the materials and the atmosphere inside.

Walmeryd jimstephenson 26 webres

Walmeryd jimstephenson 26 webres

It’s an interesting model as the rental bookings are used to support the work of the charitable foundation and allow us to run a public programme at the houses.

We’ve just started taking bookings – and you can find out more on our website.

What do you have coming up at Walmer Yard?
Our first season of events is entitled Domesticity and focuses around the changing nature of the home. I’m interested in the juxtaposition between Walmer Yard, where there is barely any technology and everything feels very slow and almost monastic, and the way the modern home is so often portrayed as a machine with technology and connectedness at its very heart.

We’ll explore this though a day-long event with things happening across the houses, a supper club, a reading group and also a night put on by students at the Royal College of Art (see full programme attached below).

What are you most excited about?
We’ve a full day of events on the 27 April which will really test out what we can do in the homes. We have a keynote in our ‘coats-on lecture theatre’ in the basement car park, and then loads of other things happening across all four houses from a workshop exploring what a feminist Alexa might be, conversations in bed, film screenings and an activity looking at the future of the napkin with Bompas and Parr.

Will you be looking for other events in the near future and can people approach you with their ideas?
Yes – we are going to run two seasons of events each year, one in spring and another in autumn.

We also partner with larger institutions on events and programming and since October have worked with the Whitechapel Gallery, the David Roberts Arts Foundation and the London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF). These are really great for reaching different audiences and introducing them to conversations around architecture. LCMF in particular was really interesting as we had 20 composers and musicians staying in the space and some made site specific performances and compositions which were then played during lunchtime recitals.

We had a really varied audience and it engaged people who would not normally visit architecture in discussions around space and sound.

Which is your favourite space in the houses?
I’ve different favourites for different times of day. The study in House 2 gets an amazing shaft of light in the mid-morning while the kitchen of House 1 has an amazing moment in the afternoon when the sunlight comes through the window and hits the concrete wall. The living room of House 2 is wonderfully cosy while House 4 is open and has more of a sense of airiness and a connection to the courtyard.

What is the oddest thing that has happened at Walmer Yard?
I commissioned the choir Musarc to create some pieces for an event the Royal Academy held at Walmer Yard called Experiencing Architecture. Their pieces were amazing but quite surreal.

They bounced hundreds of bouncy balls down the metal stairs

One involved them creating sound through the chopping of herbs in the kitchen and for another they bounced hundreds of bouncy balls down the metal stairs.The audience was in the courtyard and the stairs are so reverberant – it sounded like the houses were pulsating from within.

What are the challenges of working in a space like Walmer Yard?
It is the challenge that makes things exciting. Houses don’t make natural spaces for events. Some of the rooms are small and awkwardly shaped – not a problem for a bedroom but not so easy to hold a lecture or talk in.

There are many stairs to carry things up and down. Sometimes I feel like I walk thousands of steps a day just locking up all the spaces after a tour. But it is this which makes it interesting – I love working out how to do things differently in these spaces.

Walmeryd jimstephenson 63 webres

Walmeryd jimstephenson 63 webres

Tell us one thing about Walmer Yard that people may not know.
Some of the early designs for Walmer Yard featured a swimming pool. Sometimes I wish they had gone ahead with it.

Tell us one thing about yourself that people may not know.
Before starting at Walmer Yard, I took a month off work and trekked through the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp. I can honestly say it is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Other than Walmer Yard, what other institution do you think best showcases architecture and what architects do?
The Architecture Foundation does great things. It is a lot more nimble than some of the other larger institutions like the RIBA, so it can be more flexible in what it does.

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