Canadian Architect

Feature

The New English House

Three Canadian architects practicing in the UK have garnered great acclaim for their intriguing design work abroad.

July 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect

PROJECT SALT HOUSE, ESSEX, ENGLAND

ARCHITECT ALISON BROOKS ARCHITECTS

PROJECT KANDER HOUSE, LONDON, ENGLAND

ARCHITECT JAMIE FOBERT ARCHITECTS

PROJECT BRICK HOUSE, LONDON, ENGLAND

ARCHITECT CARUSO ST JOHN ARCHITECTS

TEXT CATHERINE SZACKA

Once upon a time there was a mother pig who had three little pigs. The three little pigs grew so big that their mother said to them, “You are too big to live here any longer. You must go and build houses for yourselves. But take care that the wolf does not catch you.”

Like the three little pigs, Alison Brooks, Jamie Fobert and Adam Caruso left their native Canada in the 1980s when work opportunities were rare, to pursue architectural careers elsewhere. All three went to England where they eventually established their own firms and saw their careers flourish. Although they are relatively unknown in Canada, Brooks, Fobert and Caruso have made names for themselves and appear regularly in the English architectural press. Recently, the three architects have completed individual houses, each of which explores and exploits the potential of one particular material.

A House of Timber

Upon graduating from the University of Waterloo’s architecture school in 1988, Alison Brooks went to the UK, secretly dreaming of a place where she could be anonymous and free to find her own way. She immediately got a job with the Israeli designer Ron Arad, with whom she worked for seven years, collaborating on such projects as the Tel Aviv Opera House and several works in Germany. In 1996, she set up Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) with the aim of focusing more on housing projects and public buildings.

In 2004, ABA was recognized as one of Britain’s leading firms in “the new generation of architects” by Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian. In his feature called “New British Talent,” Glancey described Brooks as someone who is reinventing the tradition of the Modern movement. Last year, Brooks was the recipient of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stephen Lawrence Prize (awarded to the best project in the UK with a construction value under 1 million) for her Wrap House. ABA has also recently won two important competitions: one for the design of a mixed-use residential development in Liverpool (8 million) and another for the Folkestone Performance Arts and Business Centre (4 million). “It took me almost 10 years to make the leap from individual residence to urban scale,” says the ambitious and well put-together woman.

ABA was invited, along with four other practices from the London borough of Islington, to compete for the commission of a small weekend retreat home in Essex (northeast of London) in 2002. Unusually, the competition was private and was organized by the future owner of the house, a wealthy retired accountant living with his wife and two sons. The site lies at the end of a row of 19th-century timber-boarded oyster fishermen’s houses, which are fronted by a communal garden and sheltered by a sea wall. ABA’s Salt House is a hybrid of a North American beach house and a 19th-century English oyster cottage: the design reinterprets the Modern tradition while providing a new analysis of the local vernacular (i.e., hipped roof with chimney and bay windows).

Starting with a typical rectangular-shaped Modernist plan, Brooks maximized the windows by bending part of the plan. The result is that the entire north- and south-facing faades become “bay windows.” By manipulating the faade, the geometry of the roof–which opens into a skylight–becomes irregular, resulting in a non-traditional, crystalline form. Brooks designed the 270-square-metre atrium house to satisfy the client’s desire for complete transparency and visibility throughout. Similar to a tree house, the second floor acts as a viewing platform providing clear vistas of the surroundings. In order to be contextually responsive and ecologically responsible, the steel skeleton of the house was clad in a special Brazilian timber that lasts at least 200 years.

Although built as a site-specific project, the Salt House contains the potential for wider application. Brooks explains: “In the UK there is no tradition of beach houses, so we built the Salt House as a prototype of flood-proof residential construction and a new model of building next to the sea.”

A House of Concrete

Jamie Fobert arrived in London in 1988 only a few months after graduating from the University of Toronto. Based on his portfolio and a letter of recommendation from George Baird, Fobert was hired within the week by minimalist architect David Chipperfield. In 1996, after almost nine years with Chipperfield, Fobert started his own practice.

Since the very beginning, he effortlessly developed a clientele every architect dreams of–composed mostly of artists and photographers. “That all started when Chipperfield referred me to [renowned sculptor] Antony Gormley, who was looking for someone to fix one of his rear windows,” says Fobert, laughing. This modest man claims he never went after publicity nor did he have to start his career entering competitions. He had enough work for his small, six-employee office.

Nevertheless, Fobert has now begun competing for prestigious commissions. In 2004, he won the competition for the extension of a private gallery for Kettles Yard in Cambridge, and in 2005 he won the Tate St Ives competition in Cornwall. Most recently, Fobert won the 2007 Next Generation Award and is now working on bigger and more glamorous projects: the Konditor & Cook cake shop which occupies one-third of the ground floor of Norman Foster’s Swiss Re office tower (otherwise known as the Gherkin) in the City of London; the new Givenchy store on rue Faubourg Saint-Honor in Paris; and the design of the 2006 and 2007 Frieze Art Fair in London.

In 2005, Fobert completed a house for South African fashion photographer Nadav Kander and his family. The clients asked for the complete reconstruction of the Victorian terrace house they had recently purchased in Primrose Hill in North London. “The rear corner of the house was collapsing and was beyond being fixed,” says Fobert. Despite the fact that the house has the same faade as its neighbours, the first and second floors of the interior were completely transformed. “The client wanted a close relationship to the garden and a more open living space for family life,” Fobert explains. “So we decided to split the house into two separate parts and to make the volumes slide back and forth.” The result is a monumental six-metre-high living space with a massive concrete volume that interrupts the space and floats over the kitchen area. The concrete volume lowers the ceiling to 3.5 metres while reinforcing and supporting the structure.

With the Kander House, the principal idea was to create a new type of house inside the Victorian shell. Fobert’s design creates a living space divided between two very different atmospheres: a concrete-dominated, monumental and quite dramatic space at the lower level, and a more private, traditional and “warm” space at the upper levels.

The reconstruction principally uses a special concrete cast from plastic. This process was tested previously in other projects by the architect including the Anderson House and the Cargo nightclub, both in London. By being cast in plastic, the concrete is rippled and has an incredible lustre. “I am not looking for innovation,” says Fobert, referring to his unusual approach to concrete. “Innovation happens slowly, whether you like it or not.”

Fobert likes to develop a close relationship with his clients. With this house, he had to be persuasive, as Kander initially refused the idea of using in-situ concrete for his family home. By the time the project was finished, the client completely trusted his architect. “They were the perfect clients,” says Fobert, “and they even asked me to design thei
r door handles.”

A House of Brick

When Adam Caruso finished studying at McGill University about 20 years ago, there was no work in Montreal. “Everybody was waiting to see what would happen with the political situation, and the atmosphere was quite depressing in Montreal’s architectural studios,” he told me during a phone interview. Because he was familiar with London and had family in the UK, Caruso decided to go there on a two-year work permit. Initially, he worked for Florian Beigel and then Arup Associates, where he met Peter St John, a graduate from the Bartlett School of Architecture, with whom he started Caruso St John Architects in 1990.

Their office began slowly with small residential projects, and they entered numerous competitions along the way. Then, in 1996, Caruso St John won a prestigious competition to build the 21-million New Art Gallery in Walsall, England. This project was highly publicized and was a finalist for the Stirling Award, giving the firm great exposure. Yet Caruso St John are seen as strange kids in Britain. As Kieran Long wrote in Icon magazine: “Their work has more similarities with architects in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Austria than it does with British architects, and while this makes them one of the few British offices truly respected on the continent, they are sometimes seen as somewhat aloof from the scene here.”1

Despite being known as very modest and simple people, Caruso and St John were once again thrust into the spotlight when their Brick House was nominated for the 2006 Stirling Prize alongside Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, and Richard Rogers. The Brick House was constructed among dense residential buildings in a busy part of West London. Located on a horse head-shaped, residual site that previously had no property value (similar to laneway sites in Toronto), the house is surrounded on three sides by other buildings. As a result, it is only accessible from the street through a narrow archway and an austere corridor leading to the house. Almost entirely made of brick inside and out, the building is described as “an enveloping body, emphasizing a skin-like character over any tectonic expression.”2 Caruso’s great achievement with this project was his ability to imaginatively utilize a conventional material in a modern, simple and highly sculptural way.

The client, a wealthy couple and their two daughters, live in New York but wanted a London base, something that was more loft-like than the standard, cellular London house. They requested that the architects build a house with as much communal open space as possible; hence, most of the first floor is an open plan. In addition, the design also boasts several skylights which allow light to penetrate and counter the enclosed feeling of the interior. Caruso St John’s inspiration developed from the idea of camouflage, to shape an original living space, “a place of escape and dreams.”3

Despite coming from different educational and professional backgrounds, Brooks, Fobert and Caruso possess a similar approach to materials and continue to design unique dwellings. All three houses have achieved great recognition in the UK: the Salt House was shortlisted for the 2007 RIBA Award and won a “Best New-Build” Grand Design Award; the Kander House won a 2007 RIBA Award; and finally, the Brick House was shortlisted for the 2006 Manser Medal, the 2006 Stirling and Mies Prizes, and it claimed the 2006 RIBA London “Building of the Year” Award. And, unlike the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, all three houses can stand on their own.

1 Long, Kieran. “Caruso St John.” Icon 03 (July/August 2003).

2 www.carusostjohn.com

3 www.carusostjohn.com

Catherine Szacka is currently a PhD student at The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College in London.

SALT HOUSE

CLIENT John and Margaret Skerritt

ARCHITECT Team Alison Brooks, Angel Martin Cojo, Juan Francisco Rodriguez

STRUCTURAL Price & Myers

MECHANICAL E.O. Jones & Sons

ELECTRICAL/LANDSCAPE/INTERIORS aba

CONTRACTOR E.O.Jones & Sons

AREA 300 m2

BUDGET 550,000

COMPLETION May 2006

PHOTOGRAPHER Cristobal Palma

KANDER HOUSE

CLIENT Nicole Verity and Nadav Kander

ARCHITECT TEAM Jamie Fobert, Kevin Allsop, Liza Thomson-Farrell, Michael Gollings, Pierre Mar, Hoi Chi Ng, Emily Roberts, Tessa Schaap

STRUCTURAL Elliot Wood Partnership

SERVICES Mendick Waring

CONTRACTOR Hom construction and Parkway Construction

AREA 274 m2

BUDGET withheld

COMPLETION September 2005

PHOTOGRAPHER Sue Barr

BRICK HOUSE

CLIENT withheld

ARCHITECT TEAM Adam Caruso, Peter St John, Rod Heyes, Lorenzo de Chiffre, James Payne, Tim Collett

STRUCTURAL Price & Myers

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Mendick Waring

CONTRACTOR Harris Calnan

QUANTITY SURVERYOR Jackson Coles

AREA 380 m2

BUDGET withheld

COMPLETION April 2005

PHOTOGRAPHER Hlne Binet, Ioana Marinescu




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Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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