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In Conversation with Stuart Robertson of 23 Architecture

23rd Jul 2020

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When 23 Architecture of 23 + GS / 318 were brought on to complete an innovative refurbishment of this Victorian terrace house in Notting Hill, it was no surprise that the completed project was subsequently longlisted for a Dezeen interiors award. Designed for a film director and her husband, the dynamic and modern family dwelling is conceived as a vertical loft apartment which adopts and refreshes the traditional narrow and deep plan that is typical of these Victorian homes. A series of stacked open-plan and interconnected rooms make up the space, and at the centre of the configuration rests the showstopping helical stair, which, paired within a triple-height void, seamlessly ties the entire house together. Collaborating with interior mastermind Fran Hickman of Fran Hickman Design & Interiors, the neutral palette across the materials within, including natural stone, polished concrete, timber and ceramics, present an overall striking yet tranquil feel. Retaining the special heritage of the loft through robust yet refined detailing, Design Director of 23 Architecture Stuart Robertson reflected on the home, the challenges and rewards that came with the project, and how he preserved the home’s history in its reconfiguration. 

How did you approach the refurbishment of this Victorian terrace house in Notting Hill?

Our approach is simply to visit the house, meet the client and understand something of how they live and their needs.  With Horbury, due to its wedge-shaped plan form set within a crescent there was an immediate parameter which did something towards compelling the solution.  There’s an immediacy to feeling how the connection between client and their home perhaps ought to be.  I suppose that comes from experience. 

What aesthetic and style did you have in mind for this home?

We are not a practice who adopts a one design suits all solution. Whilst we work with all types of buildings, old and new, so often in London, the tone is set by responding to the particular building to be altered, adapted and renewed and the set of requirements set by our client.

The vertical emphasis of the building with its teasing narrowing from front to back coupled with the desires of a creative client looking for smooth lines and modern open living led to the clean sculptural  style.

Tell us more about the exceptional staircase that rests at the heart of the home.

From my first sketches, the key to unlocking the interconnecting spaces and split levels which step from front into the rear portion of the building was this sculptural helical staircase.

When I showed these initial loose ideas to my client, they very much embraced the core of this solution. They knew Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘DNA’ staircase at the Chateau de Chambord in the Loire valley and whilst clearly this is a much less opulent scale!, they related to how it would work at the core of the building and also how the light would flow from the roof-light we were proposing overhead.

An aside – for these Covid-19 times – Leonardo’s DNA stair is a good example of social distancing renaissance style! – the double helix meaning visitors needn’t cross paths. I understand the chateau has re-opened for visitors without one of the problems we’re experiencing elsewhere.

A curved staircase is certainly not always the answer but we’ve a wealth of expertise in using such forms at the heart of houses, letting them sit fairly freely and allowing the spaces to flow around them, often with double or triple height volumes adjoining and light flowing from above. There’s also a particularity to how successful a device this is when we are increasing the depth of a building or excavating additional levels.   

What sources of inspiration did you reach to throughout the design process?

Initially we planned to use fair-faced concrete for the staircase, although in the end we moved away from this as we felt it would perhaps just be too heavy an anchor at the heart of the home – physically and figuratively. Recalling Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Pelagos’ sculpture, the stair design evolved to become a delicate ribbon of intertwining materials- an outer surface of polished plaster contrasting with an inner timber lining finished in stained oak.

What made you lean towards using an open-plan configuration?

The design is conceived as a vertical loft apartment, with a series of stacked open-plan,  inter-connected rooms resulting in a dramatic adaptation of the Victorian crescent house, the staircase at its core within a theatrical triple void of the closet wing volume.  This openness brought about by our client’s desire for the interconnection of the main living spaces with the private bedrooms hidden away upstairs. It's modern open, forgiving and so easy to live in. 

Why were you drawn to using a predominantly natural material palette?

With the dynamism of the forms, the material palette is calm and urban yet restrained. We used predominately natural stone, polished concrete, timber and ceramics – somewhat timeless and using such materials is pretty consistent throughout our work. Those details which come into contact to the human touch are embellished, lending a sense of warmth and quality such as the sculpted oak handrail or waxed bronze door handle. We collaborated with Fran Hickman on the interior finishes which then allowed a lovely synergy to the completed furnished house. 

What is your favourite room in the home and why?

There’s a beautiful afternoon light that floods into the building from the tall rear staircase windowand there at the base of the triple-height void of the closet window we left an empty space. It’s an ideal place to sit where you can look onto the lovely gardens or inwards to the first floor living area or entrance spaces below. Sitting at the base of such a space, looking skywards past the sculptural form of the ribbon around the staircase there’s something of a feeling of lightness and tranquility.

How were you able to retain the heritage of the loft?

Retaining the heritage of any building is important for us. The creation of new and multiple meanings when new and old combine is a key component of our design approach. 

We were careful to restore the exterior and throughout we have retained proportions, the window and shutter detailing, that once served smaller comparted rooms, to recall the memory and history of the Victorian house.

What was the biggest challenge and reward throughout the project?

With making such a transformative change to an 1850's building we had to tread carefully, plan each step in the sequence and to make this successful work closely with other professionals. We are fortunate to have strong working relationships with experienced and skilled contractors who specialise in these types of projects and are capable of producing such an exceptionally crafted result. 

The reward was to receive from our client a letter of appreciation for our work and how much the home was enjoyed.  For our part we are most appreciative of the opportunity to produce something unique and the commitment of our client to embracing our design. 

ig: @23_gs_318studio

Horbury Crescent is now for sale.