Noise and stress slip away as you step through the fence into Takero Shimazaki’s hidden basin of concrete calm
Blink while walking up Tiverton Road in Queen’s Park, north London, and you’ll miss the new house. Positioned just after the railway bridge, its blank vertical weatherboarding runs almost seamlessly into the featherboard fencing of the neighbouring heavily revamped 1940s house. The height is continuous, only the width of the planks and tone of the timber changes – a silver grey rather than the very familiar fence brown.
Step over to the other side of the street, being careful on this peculiarly busy residential back road, and you’ll see only ever so slightly more – a tiny composition of three elevations, layered and rising in height behind to a mini pitched block at the back, all the same silvery material.
This unassuming facade disguises a two-storey 100m2 house squeezed and sunk into a slope on the site of a former garage beside a lane of other garages by the railway cutting – completely undetectable from the road. Like many end-of-terrace plots in London, the adjacent 1940s house included a single garage, and its owners, a writer and photographer, wanted to split it off from the main property and build a house for them to downsize into. Having failed to get planning permission from Brent council with another architect, in 2014 the couple approached Takero Shimazaki Architects on a word of mouth recommendation.
‘All our work is referrals,’ explains Shimazaki. ‘They went to visit our Curzon Brunswick refurbishment and said they really enjoyed the atmosphere and tactile quality of the concrete. They asked whether we could design a house like that.’
This is architectural drama in a tight space
Ultimately, external concrete proved too costly for the fixed budget, so the building is clad in weathered chestnut to give a similar béton brut effect. But it is fair to say, despite this compromise (the ambitions were as grand as 6a’s Photography Studio for Juergen Teller), such is the thoroughness of the architecture in general that it would be relatively simple to guess what the original brief for the building might have included.
Entering through the fence door, you leave the noise and stresses of the wider city behind. The ground floor becomes first floor as you cross a walkway overlooking an unexpected courtyard opening up to the left, planted with a Japanese maple tree. The sound of trains whirring by and the occasional car transporter thundering along the tracks recede and you find yourself protected and enclosed by what is essentially a dug-out concrete tank. The arched repeats in the balcony’s balustrade are reflected in the long windows encircling the courtyard.
Ahead, through an arched porch with a large door behind, the interior continues in raw cast concrete. A long corridor lit by a large skylight at the end draws you towards the pitched volume at the back, used as a study or generous landing space, passing bedrooms to the left and right as you go. Single steps up and down as well as polished floors and rough walls add to the architectural drama in a tight space.
There are as few doors as possible to allow spaces and light to flow. Of the few there are, the frames are put onto the wall to create a deep opening and an invisible frame from the opposite side – as in Sigurd Lewerentz’s St Mark’s Church in Stockholm. A glass panel in the floor allows light from the skylights into the kitchen below.
‘I read In Praise of Shadows when I was a student,’ says Shimazaki. ‘The way it discusses light and shadow has always been an inspiration to me.’
Between the main bedroom and study a tall, narrow, full-concrete perpendicular stair with a fine bronze handrail leads down into the main living area, its end curving into the L-shaped space. The dining area and sitting room cosy around the courtyard for light, while the kitchen tucks behind the stair. An opening in the stair wall allows snatched views into the courtyard from the kitchen too, as well as borrowed light.
Turner’s Interior of an Italian Church (1819), with its high-up arched windows, provided inspiration on how to give the interior an atmospheric quality, showing how the space, depth, layers and facets of the walls can be defined by different light. ‘We used arches for spatial reasons more than a postmodern referential thing,’ explains Shimazaki. ‘The client didn’t want a square box house, the arches help soften the building and volumes’ – they also lead you to believe there is more beyond, another arch, a bit more space than there really is. ‘You see a lot of that in Renaissance work in Italy where spaces are exaggerated by arches.’
Indeed, although there is little expectation from the street that the building is anything more than a garage, passing the threshold takes you to a place that seems monumental and civic in spite of its scale. The rawness of the material has a monastic feel – a home closed off from the city, where everything is hidden. There are no windows to the street at all, only skylights. Inside, the house exists as a contrasting quiet basin of concrete calm. The spaces and materials promote creative intellectual internalisation and soul-searching. An outdoor shower in the pebble-laid courtyard maximises enjoyment of the seclusion. As the garden grows it will have a luscious green and fresh feel.
The owners had to sell the building when it was completed, and continue to live alongside, but fortunately a busy touring singer- song writer bought it to use as somewhere to escape to. It should do the job just fine.