By the beginning of the millennium, East London was one of the most emblematic representations of the wave that, at the time, was transforming entire areas of large cities — in the very middle of a deindustrialisation phase — through art and through the settlement of what Richard Florida had just christened the creative class. It was a season in which the foundations were laid for different phenomena: gentrification as we know it today, for example; but also a very contemporary sensitivity to the reuse of existing architectural heritage, the spirit animating David Adjaye’s project, that Domus presented in December 2002, on issue 854.
The house of the artist
The clients for the Dirty House, Sue Webster and Tim Noble, are jointly responsible for a distinguished body of artwork. Some of their pieces are assemblages onto which light is projected to produce self-portraits, in silhouette, of the artists. In one work, Dirty White Trash (with Gulls), the material used for this purpose consisted of the artists’ domestic rubbish from the previous six months. Based on discussions with Webster and Noble, David Adjaye designed the Dirty House to provide studio space that is specifically suited to their work as well as a permanent home. London’s East End has had a long engagement with contemporary art, largely thanks to the presence of the Whitechapel Gallery and the availability of relatively cheap studio space. More recent developments have been centred in or near the Shoreditch area, where two leading dealers have opened new spaces, and in Brick Lane, where a number of younger artists live and work. David Adjaye’s involvement in this situation dates back to the early 1990s, when he first met some of these artists when they were students at the Royal College of Art, where he was studying architecture.
In 1994 he set up a practice in the East End and has completed projects for a number of artists, including Chris Ofili and Jake Chapman. He also designed the art space Modern Art Inc., which is just to the north of the Dirty House and is where Sue Webster and Tim Noble regularly show their work. As the exterior suggests, the Dirty House is composed of two main elements: a solid base, corresponding with the shell of the building that previously occupied the site, and an additional floor whose cantilevered roof suggests an entirely different form of construction. This distinction is a direct response to the need to provide accommodation for working and living in the same location without inducing a sense of repetition and tedium. In the base, the requirements relating to the studio spaces are paramount and there is a need for privacy from the adjacent streets. Although Webster and Noble collaborate on an ongoing basis, they need to be able to work on separate projects and at different scales.
This is made possible by the relative sizes of studio one, which is slightly shorter than the maximum width of the site, and studio two, which is smaller and top lit. On the floor above, the living requirements take priority and, due to the vertical separation from the street, the need for privacy is reduced. The strategy for recycling the existing building reinforces the architectural definition of both the studio and residential elements. In order to start with a free volume, Adjaye removed the internal structure of the original building, leaving only the outer walls. Taking account of their position, the steel structure that takes the load of the residential floor follows the same pattern as its predecessor, with additional support coming from the inner walls of the studio spaces.
Along with down-pipes and other vertical elements, the new columns are placed directly against the existing walls and contained in a lining that increases the depth of all openings. The existing window openings have been reused, as have the ground-level doorways, and full-height ventilation panels have been inserted against the outer edges of the doorways that previously existed on the first floor. The frames of the new fixed glazing are set in the reveals, and the ground floor render and first-floor brickwork were carefully repaired before the application of a dark-brown anti-vandal paint, which matches the new glazing and unifies the various forms of construction that contribute to the present identity of these walls. Material differences are also reflected in the circulation patterns on the two main floors.
The studios are organized en filade and provide a choice of route. For a visitor, the route operates on a counter-clockwise basis, starting in the lobby and ending in an external court or the study, both of which are accessible from studio two. For Webster and Noble, the route begins in the study and becomes increasingly public as it approaches studio one and the lobby. On the residential floor, the centre of the plan is occupied by the main living area, while the smaller spaces – the kitchen, bathing area, bedroom and terraces to the south and west – are located in a peripheral band. The centralized character of this arrangement is given further emphasis by a roof-light in the middle of the section and the cantilevered roof. Acting with the parapet wall below, it frames a panoramic view that demarks the outer edge of the living space. The roof-light itself prevents glare in the depth of the section and provides a level of natural light comparable with being outside. As in other projects by Adjaye, there is subtle balance between the overall organization of the Dirty House and the detailing of different areas.
At ground level, the continuity of the route through the studios is maintained by attention to the architectural incidents at each change in direction. Opposite ends of the lobby, for instance, are marked by a side view of two steps and a narrow return wall that indicates the position of a surprisingly small door. On the residential floor, Adjaye unites the central and peripheral spaces by utilizing standard timber decking in all areas. The directionality of this material is particularly strong as it is used with its reverse side facing up, exposing the drainage channels that otherwise would be invisible. The same material has been used to clad the internal face of the external parapet, and the section incorporates low-level lighting that is reflected off the floor onto the underside of the roof. An emphasis on continuity, however, does not preclude other possibilities, such as a glazed ventilation slot cut through the back wall of a shower. In the development of Adjaye’s practice, the Dirty House is the second project in a sequence of three that starts with the Elektra House, completed in 2000, and ends with a house in West London that will start construction in 2003.
Each of these homes has certain features in common: entrance spaces that are tall and narrow, the creation of highly differentiated levels in section, a selective use of roof-lights and the creation of private external spaces protected by walls, making small courts. Apart from these similarities, the projects are different in scale and character; in Adjaye’s words, the Elektra House was ‘casual’, the Dirty House is ‘informal’ and the third and largest house will be ‘formal’. Each residence combines a sense of being rooted to its location with an awareness of more distant possibilities. In the Dirty House, the walls of the existing building represent a certain stage in the vernacular history of Shoreditch, whereas the terrace, with its cantilevered roof, makes a connection with other aspects of the city. In this respect, it is comparable to Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House no. 22, which embraces a view across the Los Angeles basin.
In its programme, the Dirty House updates the studio-house model in a form that addresses a range of contemporary criteria. Although the studios are intended for making art, they are equally well suited to its presentation, either to visitors or by means of photography. In this respect, the space standards of the Dirty House are likely to have a direct impact on the design of other art spaces in the near future. In its architecture and detailing, the building combines organizational clarity, as reflected in its external appearance, with a range of details that explore the diverse implications of this clarity with considerable finesse.