Spanning over seven floors with seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a spa, wine cellar, cinema room, library, glass lift, glass bar and numerous intricate bespoke details, Oblong House is a tour de force of residential refurbishment. With a contract value of £12 million, the brief was to restore and rationalise an existing property in South Kensington, which had been separated into seven individual flats, and return it to its original state as a single dwelling. The client specified an ultra minimalist design, with deep, rich colours and textures for a compelling, contemporary twist. Taking advantage of the building’s spectacular height and layering, Paul McAneary Architects devised a concept that separates the various functions into a legible hierarchy linked by new vertical circulation. The topmost floor houses a library and office, then as you descend, you are taken on a journey through the different domains of private to public, work to relaxation, culminating in a luxurious cinema and spa in the basement.
Conceptually, the different layers are united by a series of specially designed oblong features, from a minimal glass lift shaft to an oblong, back-lit, polished glass installation floating within the entrance area. Physically, floors are united by a 16m high section of a tree, which extends the full height of the house, set vertically in a new glass lift shaft and visible from the glass lift car. Light illuminates the striations and textures of this arboreal relic, so that it appears to be organically rooted within the building. The tree itself took time to find, as it was important, from a perspective of ecological responsibility, to source a specimen that was already fallen. Continuing the theme of nature, a planted green wall reflects the horizontal rhythm of the architecture with even bands of vegetation animating an otherwise unusable area of wall.
The ambitions of a radical contemporary design had to be balanced with the preservation of period features. Paul McAneary Architects response was to create a series of striking modern elements that contrast but are not at odds with the historical fabric, inculcating an elegant synergy. The rear facade is distinguished by the largest double glazed unit in Europe. At 4m high, it had to be specially craned into place. Coupled with internal glass floors, it forms a dramatic vertical light well, bringing daylight into the depth of the plan and can be completely opened to form a dramatic entertaining space. A frameless structural glass floor emphasises the visual connection down into the basement, encompassing the entire rear facade. The floor uses glass spacer bars so eliminating the need for steel supports, an new technique specially developed by Paul McAneary Architects to ensure the most minimal design possible. Low iron glass, characterised by its extreme clarity, is used throughout the project.
Acting as a historic backbone to the building, the original stone staircase winds up seven storeys. Juxtaposed against this is a self-illuminating glass art piece that floats above the steps, spiralling up the stairwell with an effortless grace. Designed and fabricated in collaboration with glass artist Jeff Bell, thousands of pieces of roughly textured handmade glass are attached to a steel core. Walls are finished in smooth, polished plaster, an extremely refined and layered plaster made from crushed marble, designed to counterpoint the rough glass and mirror the glowing form of the installation.
A basement cinema room sits below the structural glass terrace. The basement was excavated and the house underpinned to achieve a more elevated ceiling height. A TV is built into the wall for everyday use and a retractable projector screen can also be deployed. A huge horizontal black out blind transforms the space into a cinema. Another project-specific innovation, it measures 8m x 4m and runs under the glass beams across the entire ceiling. Once the blind is drawn, the room is plunged into darkness; perfect for film viewing.
The juxtaposition between traditional and contemporary is also apparent in the breakfast room. Restored architraves and skirting boards frame the room with their opulent patterns, while the floor to ceiling stone fireplace forms a powerful contemporary focal point. The stone chimney breast stops before reaches the cornice, giving the illusion of the smoke mysteriously disappearing. Built-in lighting creates the visual illusion of it lifting off the wall.
A barrel-vaulted wine cellar is set in the basement. The curve of the ceiling meets the walls with geometrical precision as a perfect tangent. Wine fridges line the walls encased in precisely detailed joinery. A cantilevered staircase descends into this viticultural trove, its treads made from blocks of dark coloured wenge to match the solid wenge floor. Piercing the curved ceiling is a seamless shard of glass which appears to hang from the roof, levitating off the ground. On the floor above it acts as a banister.
Bathing is elevated to a fine art. In the master bathroom, a monolithic shower is set in a shaft lifting straight up to a skylight. As you shower under a rain sky shower head, you are bathed in natural light. All visible drains are removed to achieve a completely pure form, emblematic of the project’s theme of dark, contemporary minimalism. Principles of hotel design were incorporated in order to increase the pressure of the entire water system by 15 times the normal rate. For the baths, a specially designed hyper functional steel faucet was created after considerable research. Capable of filling a large volume Boffi bath in well under two minutes, it is a unique and incredible feat of engineering.
Inspired by the Japanese concept of tsukubai, a traditional washbasin provided at the entrance to sacred places, PMA developed a bespoke stone basin. Made from semi-porous travertine, the silver-grey basin is rough carved with polished inner faces. Smooth timber joinery accentuates the natural texture of the stone. Steam room walls are clad in slate, a material traditionally used for waterproofing. This creates an intensely dark, organic space with clean lines and natural materials. Steam condenses and runs down the walls, adding to the exotic atmosphere.
By contrast, the bar area was designed to be as transparent as possible. Made entirely of UV bonded glass, there are no steel connections creating a spectacular set piece for entertaining. Behind the shelves, a glowing wall emphasises the sense of ethereal transparency, creating warm, colorful patterns as the light shines through liquor and bottles.
Oblong House was an an extremely challenging yet highly rewarding project for Paul McAneary Architects. The complex refurbishment saw the team work on every detail at every scale, from the huge glass rear facade to the design of each individual door handle. Devising customised elements and pushing boundaries were the key to realising this powerful, contemporary twist on modern minimalism. Yet it is also a sensitive renovation that respects the historic elements of this handsome London townhouse, giving it new life through new interventions designed to stand the test of time. [By Catherine Slessor*]
Contract Value £12M
Date 2008 – 2011
Design Team Paul McAneary Architects
Design Service From design concept to detailed design, interior design, lighting design, glazing design, furniture design, survey,building control, 3D visualisation
Press 2013 BD New Architects