A Home Of Your Own Part 3

London

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London is filled with hidden studios, warehouses, schools and chapels that people with imagination colonised before the property boom. One set of light industrial  buildings near me had been turned into homes by a group of old hippies and creatives who had remained through the decades in a kind of collective-living environment, so we moved in with them while embarking on nearly a year’s worth of building work.

In the interim, the entire neighbourhood had ditched its down-at-heel image and had become transformed. This meant losing vast wide views as office buildings crowded in. Then came the arrival of chain stores and hundreds of art students, mostly Chinese and wealthy. There was a new freshness in the air.

A new King’s Cross demarcation appeared, though; the wealthy new-builds on their side, council estates and renovated old buildings on our side. Not a class divider perhaps, but a financial one. High-end offices rose all around. The Google building appeared, promising new prosperity for the neighbourhood. We should have known that was a lie from the moment we heard they had built three restaurants inside their fortress so that their employees wouldn’t have to interact with the neighbours.

Meanwhile the rebuild project became too big to try and handle ourselves. Thanks to a lack of confidence we first made a huge mistake, hiring a design company that suggested this year’s briefly fashionable colours and bits of marble, probably ideal for cash-rich buyers from developing countries but not for us.

We then approached a husband-and-wife design team based in Barcelona who mainly spoke Catalan. Their ideas were far more radical; they thought carefully about the way light fell, and the effect it would produce. They rethought the shape of the property and denied light access in some places, using a system of semi-enclosed rooms divided by sight-lines rather than doors. I had never seen such a design before; it was unusual and more affordable than hiring a UK team. Everything except cupboards would be shipped from Europe because it was cheaper, thanks to the EU allowances on imports which half of our country have now decided they can do without. We could plan it all via Skype and use systems previously untested in a domestic home, including magnetic lighting only previously tried in commercial spaces.

The old flat was demolished. We discovered cracks in the roof that had been causing trouble for our downstairs neighbour. Everything had to be moved in and out by crane. New materials included natural woods, stone and immense slabs of granite and concrete. The kitchen and library became the flat’s heart instead of afterthoughts. We ditched the traditional idea of the English living room, where you walk in to find yourself faced by the back of a sofa and a turned-off TV, so the ‘semi-enclosed’ arrangement allowed for hidden sliding walls that could partition off any section of the space. Each area had an organic purpose. Traditional London terraced houses are filled with passageways and staircases. Freed of that constraint, anything was possible.

The interior was designed with a matrix of laser measurements, planned entirely online with CAD and endlessly rejigged via Skype calls. The designers only needed to fly over and visit the flat twice. In theory it shouldn’t have worked. I had never met anyone who had built a property  from another country. Our team was Catalan, Irish and Chinese. Nobody entirely understood anyone else, but they all liked and respected each other.

There was one screw-up; a measurement changed somewhere along the line and we found ourselves with a substantial gap. In a flat of careful symmetry it would look off-kilter. What to do? At these times you throw the question to the free-thinkers. Our designers said, ‘We build a tree. And we’ll hide a sliding door inside it.’

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The end result was a home that could be both a womb and a space station. It became a safe haven, a place to cloud-watch and free-associate. The physical books came back with a vengeance. We finally own more than four plates. There’s comfort, just not too much to get comfortable –  that would have been too English.

Friends are still vaguely horrified. They come in, look around and nothing they expect to see is there. They can’t settle, and have to be shown how it works. But we figure it must be working because they never want to leave. Last night we went through the building knocking on doors and took everyone to the pub. In my old house I barely knew my neighbours. Yes, it’s very like Heath Robinson’s ‘How To Live In A Flat’ and ‘How To Run A Communal Home’, and all the better for it.

The moral of this story is simple; sometimes we don’t know when we need to make changes. I’ve worked perched on uncomfortable stools at ill-suited drawing boards and desks, one with a raised lip around the edge, which caused severe RSI. I’ve worked facing brick walls in dark corners, in unbearably hot or freezing cold rooms in poor light, without ever getting to grips with doing something about it. There’s no question that environment affects work.

The other rule of thumb; it doesn’t have to look a certain way just because that’s what’s expected. A desk doesn’t have to look like a desk. People can’t find my workspace. Wi-Fi means no cables, and the printer is tucked away; it’s virtually redundant now. The study naturally became a paper-free zone as most of my research documents, photos and letters are stored online. I’ve only kept a couple of book awards – the rest are all stored in an electronic format. My reading chair is a 1960s Eero Aarnio ball chair (known in the UK as a ‘Prisoner’ chair) I’ve had forever – you can shut out the world in it.  The study windows overlook St Paul’s, an inspirational sight for any London writer, and there are 360 degrees of shaded grey curtains that can be shifted one at a time to match the position of the sun.

In North London the Alexander Road Estate, much criticised when it was built, became the first post-war council estate to be granted Grade II listed status. It was expensive to construct because it cleverly hangs over a railway line, utilising an awkward space – but the really cool part is that the interior walls can be removed to make unique spaces. Neave Brown, the architect, was dumbfounded when he was awarded the highest honour for a UK architect, because the building was late and over-budget and killed his career. Now architects come from all over the world to study it. Why? Because it’s not just a unique construction; the residents love it.

And that’s the bottom line. If you don’t love it, find a way to change it.

Participants exploring the Alexandra Road Estate, London. © Kate McMillan / RIBA, British Architectural Library

One comment on “A Home Of Your Own Part 3”

  1. Richard Burton says:

    It sounds like you should have got Mr McCloud in to film the build! It looks fantastic and is pretty inspirational.
    I’ve visited the Google building a few times for meetings. I couldn’t find it to start with, there’s no sign and I didn’t realise it was the whole sodding side of the plaza I was sitting in! The security is a bit extreme, and I feel very old and weird by the time I leave. I usually wander down to Seven Dials and on to Forbidden Planet to renormalize.

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