A Machine For Living Part 2



Cathcart exterior

I had lived in the cluttered little Kentish Town house above for 25 years, and the move to an apartment came as a shock. You can’t really change the layout of a terraced house without compromising it. They weren’t built to be messed about with. I had tried removing walls, but my actual use of the rooms never changed and it didn’t really work. A nice little garden was always overlooked and drained away water to leave the lawn dead (it was built over a tributary of the River Fleet), and as it was impossible to insulate it grew unbearably hot in summer.

So we purchased the minimalist apartment (which had been on the market for 3 years without a buyer, in an area described by real estate agents as ‘best avoided’). Altering our way of living had a downside. A bare space is stunning in summer but bleak in winter. The flat looked like an iceberg. You’d think when there’s nothing in a flat there’d be nothing that could date; you’d be wrong. It dated – fast. The thinking about new ways to live was right – but the actual design needed study. The English do something weird for estate agents’ photographs; they tend to push all the furniture back against the walls as if there’s going to be a dance held in the room. We wanted the new home to look European. The flat wasn’t a conversion; it was purpose built, and Europeans have a specific style for purpose-built flats.


There needed to be plenty of space for physical books, some creature comforts, and no dead TV set sitting beside a sofa, the back of which is usually the first thing you see upon entering a room. We wanted a break from convention, and that meant not practising our own DIY this time. So we first made the mistake of hiring an on-trend design company which created show-flats for new developments. They waved pattern books about and suggested this year’s colours (muddy lime!) and bits of marble, ideal for overseas buyers who’d seen county houses in magazines. I nodded along but found  their ideas horribly old-fashioned and conservative. Instead it was decided to hire an outsider with a fresh eye who understood that a curved space with 360 degree glass required fresh thinking.


The last of our old furniture went to charity. We planned to use natural materials, mainly wood and stone. The interior of the flat was demolished and some good came of it when we discovered cracks in the roof that had been causing trouble for our neighbour. Everything could be lifted in by crane. We moved out for nine months, living just around the corner in an AirB&B, and the space was completely gutted.

We approached Jordi and Yolanda, of the design team Estudinoon, based in Gracia, Barcelona. Their ideas were modernist and radical; to rethink the space and redirect light, using a system of semi-enclosed spaces divided by sight-lines rather than doors. In earlier homes the kitchen was always at the back of the house. Here, it became the flat’s centrepiece.


It was decided to install walls that rolled and moved, with shifting pools of light, no handles anywhere, no entirely solid walls, and angled lines that broke up the space into areas of specific use. You shouldn’t be able to see the whole of an open-plan home upon entry; there should be discoverable spaces, few dead-ends, circulation. The flat has two generous terraces so you need access to those, which means you can’t put the bedrooms near their doors.

We wanted it state-of-the-art, so we fitted power outlets with computer ports instead of 3-pin sockets, adding features like recessed shelves that could be hidden from view. Even the most robust materials can change colour in bright light; reds become pink, blues turn grey. Everything had to be tested against glass.

‘You have a view of St Paul’s,’ Jordi said, ‘why aren’t you making the most of it?’ We mapped out the apartment 3D space with lasers and planned everything long distance. The construction took place via Skype.


We added systems untested in a domestic home, including magnetic Floss lighting previously tried in commercial spaces, a freestanding black wall that turned into a kitchen and looked like the robot in ‘Interstellar’, and a carved tree that became a door. A sliding system of different floor-to-ceiling materials would move to screen the sun. Each area could be sealed off or left entirely open.

To make the space more interesting, a corridor of uprights was built that partially obscured views. Break panels were inset in the floors so that computer equipment could be moved without cables.


Bathrooms kept the minimalism with concrete and a hand-built marble water platform (you can hardly call it a sink as it doesn’t look like one). We rethought how sofas should look, opting for segments With a central spine. Much of the apartment is operated from our phones – security, heat, music, TV, even the front door. No air-con was necessary; twenty windows and doors open all the way around the entire flat, bringing cross-breezes from the front and rear terraces.

The smartest part was hiring radical thinkers, and best of all, by challenging existing thinking and going with a team we trusted rather than someone with an expensive portfolio the total budget was a fraction of what it could have cost. It took a leap of faith and nine months of living out of a backpack, but thanks to modern technology this was fairly painless. My work output was barely interrupted.

The resulting space is light and airy, but cosy and private too. An ideal place for thinking and working as well as relaxing. Do I miss living in a house? Nothing on earth would make me move back to one.



7 comments on “A Machine For Living Part 2”

  1. Sarah griffin says:

    I look forward to seeing how the new way of living affects your sense of space and how it models the British mind or how the past can be viewed differently without clutter and bumph. Meanwhile as an aside my mother in law is staying with us recovering from a hip replacement. Enforced stillment has provided time for her to get into the B and M book “off the rails” she has never realised that London contained people who are homeless and desperate enough to sleep in disused underground stations. She is entertained but enlightened to other worlds of experience not bad for a well meaning Tory lady who has happily voted for out of the EU. And got the point over better than hitting her repeatedly with a rolled up Guardian. Telling a story is better than a lecture in this case.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Back in 1973 Victor Papanek (who was a UNESCO International Design expert) and Industrial Designer James Hennessey published a book called Nomadic Furniture: a DIY guide of how to build your own lightweight furniture that ‘folds, inflates, stacks, knocks down, or is disposable and can be recycled’.

    These crazy designers (design was HUGE in the 1970’s) recognised that , even then, some people could move house over 20 times in their life – their response was to declutter and build / buy cheaply when you move. Part of their concept was ‘living cubes’, the idea being to construct a living environment inside a space – a ‘cube’ that could be taken apart and reassembled within any available space; a ‘sleeping cube’ with bunk beds or hammocks, a ‘working cube’ with desks, storage, equipment, an ‘entertainment cube’ with hi-fi, 35mm projector, screen,TV. Fantastic stuff, but it didn’t seem to include a ‘bathroom cube’ or a ‘kitchen and washing cube’.

    A bit hippy but, nevertheless, an interesting, pre-computer, view of how we could reject the idea of ‘valuable objects’ or ‘nice furniture’ and concentrate on what makes our life really work as we wander around this decreasing planet.

  3. Coincidentally, Jancis Robinson and Nick Lander have made an almost identical move from a terraced house in north London to a penthouse flat in Kings Cross. She wrote an article about the move in the Weekend FT recently. They worried that they wouldn’t have enough space but have found, like you, that the move has been liberating. You wanted to keep your books safely, she her wine. I’m not ready to make the move yet from my west London terraced house.

  4. Rachel Green says:

    breathtaking. Great call on the designers – Barcelona has some of the most beautiful living spaces I’ve ever encountered.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    Decluttering has become part of office life too. “Agile Working” means no permanent desk, just a locker to which all physical objects must return at the end of the day. Workers are discouraged from thinking of any desk as “theirs”, so no objects of sentimental value, no newspaper cartoons cut out and stuck up on walls or partitions, no personal space. Existing is something you only really do at home. I’m not clear why reducing the employees’ emotional connection to the workplace is seen as a good thing by employers.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    Finding the ‘right’ home (and working) environment is difficult and subtle. We have a lot of practical and also deep psychological needs that are far from clear to us and probably even in conflict with each other. What might be clutter to Mr May and make it difficult for him to see that 2 + 2 = 4, is the vital random excitation that helps Mr Bryant to discover that x + y = z.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    This is such an exciting space now. It must be wonderful to change the configuration to match what is going on and the idea of of isolating areas using sightlines is fascinating. Doors are useful if there are more than two people in the household, however.

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