David Leech layered historic traces with familiar tropes and playful details to re-imagine the ordinary in this conversion in leafy north London
‘I’m not interested in honesty or authenticity,’ says architect David Leech, rather boldly, as we stand outside 27 Belsize Crescent. ‘I’m more interested in fictions and readings.’ There is certainly more than meets the eye in this far-from-straightforward renovation and duplex de-conversion, and, had I not been in such enlightened company, I may never have seen beyond the veil.
This ‘house within a house’ reminds me of something, but I’m not sure what – an observation which delights Leech. In trying to locate a specific reference, I find myself taking a circuitous route via a grand Victorian terrace, an eclectic urban mews, mid-century Milan, classical ruins, a Mediterranean garden and, unexpectedly, Tate Modern.
Let’s detour here first. Shortly after its opening, in 2000, visitors to Tate Modern would have stumbled upon an unfinished room containing half-empty paint buckets and planks of wood. Only some would have identified this as an installation by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Fewer still would have recognised the assembled bric-a-brac as meticulously hand-carved polyurethane, in a complex exploration of form, function, ‘phantoms’, replicas and visual jokes. ‘As artists, Fischli and Weiss were not really interested in truthfulness but in experience, and I hope that my architecture is an experience,’ explains Leech. Like them, he is preoccupied with the relationship between fact and fiction and the ‘double take’, and shares their slightly subversive sense of humour.
Leech’s clients are a couple with two adult children, and whose work and social lives are firmly embedded in their leafy north London locale. Their ideal would be a house, but property prices rendered that impossible. Instead, they were living across two unconnected flats on the lower-ground and ground floors of a large Victorian townhouse – 130m2 in all.
London’s mercurial property market has influenced the fate of this house since its inception in 1878. Speculative developer William Willet had hoped to appeal to the aristocracy with his large and opulent crescent but he missed the mark in terms of good taste. By 1901 it was already in multiple occupancy, as a boarding house for artists. In the 1970s the property underwent a brutal and expedient conversion, during which it was stripped of all ornamentation, and its original bipartite plan – of front and rear reception rooms – was subdivided into a tripartite arrangement with windows added into the end gable wall.
The return became a separate house, and the five-storey main house was made into seven incongruous units. ‘We had a strange scenario where rooms had three- or four-metre-high ceilings but one room was less than 2m wide – I could put my hands out and touch both walls’, explains Leech. ‘The house as we found it was Victorian in its vertical proportions but modern in its horizontal scale.’
The lower entrance ducked under a flight of stairs which led to the upper flat through the communal front door. The garden was accessed via a bedroom. Exterior and interior characters were disparate and the attitude departed dismally from the original classical building.
The challenge for Leech was to create, from this complex melee, a coherent and connected family home that would pass muster in the Hampstead Conservation Area, and fulfil the clients’ desire for modern luxury within finite means. To this, add the self-imposed challenge of achieving sprezzatura – where highly-thought-through intricacies must appear completely effortless, revealed only when scrutinised.
Given that the house had already been modified beyond recognition, resetting it to a glorious classical past would have amounted to pastiche. Instead, Leech ‘sought to reinstate the “phantom” of the classical design, not through the reintroduction of ornamentation but rather through a spatial elaboration using classical tropes and elements in a way that is overtly wrong, or obviously mistaken, as a contemporary translation or evolution’. The detail had been stripped, but the ghosts of the Victorian rooms, with their generous proportions, remained.
He chose to treat the house’s multiple histories as layers, taking in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ architecture. Such homes were built for an upstairs-downstairs class divide, where cooking and practicalities would be done by staff – anathema today.
Leech’s first step was to stretch the ‘public’ rooms across the two floors: a casual lower-ground floor, linking the kitchen to the garden, and a more formal upper-ground floor, with a salon-like living space. Here, Leech cites the influence of Piero Portaluppi, Giovanni and Muzio and Luigi Caccio Dominioni – architects who espoused an ambiguous relationship between the historic and modern in mid-century Milan. To them, ‘the house is neither historic or modern but instead a contemporary fiction’.
Behind the public spaces, and shielded by ante-rooms, are the private spaces of bedroom and guest bedrooms – the former upstairs, to benefit fully from the grand bay window, and the latter downstairs, with its quiet dialogue with the garden.
The living spaces are mediated by ‘transitional objects’ – a loggia, a porte-cochère, an ante-room and a new internal stair – tropes which allude to a fictional historic past. These elements bring a coherence to the disparate spaces, negotiating between their different atmospheres. ‘These are recognisable as part of the classical vocabulary but the way they are used and detailed is unusual or even wrong and then therefore contemporary or surprising’, explains Leech.
Take the loggia for instance. Despite its setting in a dense London suburb, the view from the upper flat is surprisingly sylvan. To connect the upstairs with the garden and views, a reverse bay is carved into the corner of the salon. Windows removed on two corners and angled glass doors form the loggia, which, with its brick slip flooring and marble tiled walls, would look at home in southern France. Thanks to the vertical application of white paint and the angle of the doors, it looks like a flat rectangular window when viewed from the mews behind. The trompe l’oeil is rather astonishing. There are also oblique parallels to a nearby row of 1970s maisonettes.
Inside, rather than acting as a separator between public and private, the stairway is a connecting element. It needs to invite people upstairs, and does so by extending its protruding handrail beyond the lower step into the kitchen. This forwardness, along with the diagonal directionality of the flooring, draws the visitor up the light-filled stairwell. From above, the stairs and handrail intrude less overtly, since one has already arrived upstairs, but the scooped ceiling above subtly leads one down again.
Downstairs, the severe angularity of the final step is undercut by a slightly raised curved tread at the bottom which puddles outwards. The same curved element exists around the front door. These details spill into and out from different spaces, creating playful visual links and symmetries.
Similar playfulness appears in the skirting board in the main bedroom, which at one point grows to waist height to form a headboard. No architectural element is taken as read, nor takes itself too seriously; every intervention which might be accused of being grandiose is deliberately undermined.
Moreover, anything which could be considered a ‘ruin’ is allowed to become a ghost. Repairs are made and covered, for instance with paint, but traces are always visible. ‘When the palimpsest is there, we elaborate on that’, Leech explains. ‘It becomes the starting point for a pattern. It’s about working with chance and contingency.’
The original front door for instance, is still in place, but its glass panes reveal it to be blocked off, an almost eerie artefact, but also perhaps a reference to a 1970s photograph of the house, showing stripped-out internal doors reused as hoardings.
The clients had originally stipulated a luxurious-feeling house. Leech’s approach was both to accommodate and to challenge this ambition; in light of budgetary realities, the designs express luxury not through expensive materials but via a meticulous approach to joints, fixtures and fixings. To Leech, materials need not be either solid or truthful but interest lies in allowing ‘the minor elements to sing the loudest’.
‘This house was built up in layers of small ideas, each reacting to the other, sometimes strengthening and supporting what went before, and sometimes undermining it,’ Leech says. But if there is one overarching concept, it is that the notion that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Like Idris Khan’s ghostly composites of industrial structures – original components illegibly blurred while simultaneously creating new, illusory, wholes – this ‘house’ (in fact an apartment) is itself a composite fiction.
Architecture has an equal responsibility, believes Leech, to the building’s occupants, visitors and passers-by, which is why he deems multiple interpretations and parallel narratives fundamental. ‘What I want from my architecture is that there are multiple readings, that there is no hierarchy of what’s more important’, he concludes. ‘I want my work to reimagine the ordinary, and re-evaluate what is around us’.
Architect David Leech Architects
Contractor Ask Interiors
Structural engineer Structure Workshop
M&E engineer Ritchie & Daffin
Heritage consultant Dorian Crone