Lanchester Road is a typically north London suburban architectural menagerie. It is a fruity mix of mock-Tudor, postwar flats, brick, pebble-dash and half-timbering. Even amid this variety however, it is difficult to miss the latest addition to the streetscape, Highgate House. An austere brick mass with enormous windows, it looks like a carefully composed, serious-minded construction of a kind only rarely found in Britain. And it is one of the finest new houses in London.
Designed for a young family by architects Carmody Groarke, the house responds to a wedge-shaped site determined by its position on one corner of a U-shaped road. Its massing is determined by the houses to either side and the shape of that site plan. In its composition, if not its aesthetic, it bears some similarities with surrounding properties. Like some of those medieval-style houses, it has at its centre a hall, expressed to the street by a double-height opening in the tallest central block. Through this a circular roof light is visible. This acts as a kind of pivot around which the plan revolves and which casts a striking disk of light that moves across the interior surfaces during the day.
Despite its imposing mass, this is not a big house. Certainly that double-height hall/living space has great presence — and another double-height window gives an epic view of Highgate Wood behind — but the spaces here are at a domestic scale. The simple fireplace with its inglenook and travertine bench seating brings a more intimate scale to the volume. To the far side is a long, narrow pool space, lined in rich chocolate-coloured travertine. To the other side is the kitchen. The rooms are encased in dark fumed oak and the ceilings are in polished plaster, which gives a subtle sheen.
Upstairs a landing overlooking the central hall acts as an elevated living space or library, with one wall cloaked in dark oak bookshelves. To one side are the children’s rooms, to the other the adult bedrooms. There isn’t a surfeit of space or the kind of hyper-inflation of rooms and bathrooms that often comes with new houses. The floorspace is apparently approximately the same as that in the house it replaced, the house in which the client had grown up. The attention here has instead gone into the quality of materials and the crafting of the spaces, which are deceptively simple — seemingly straightforward but actually complex in the way they interlock and interweave. Sliding doors allow spaces to flow into each other but also allow the retention of discrete rooms rather than a vague open plan.
The openings very clearly express the scale and location of the rooms inside and the blocky, stacked composition allows for the creation of first-floor terraces. The rear of the house is not overlooked at all, allowing enormous openings while maintaining privacy. Where there are concerns, the architects have used perforated brick walls with translucent glass, creating a fuzzy checkerboard of light inside.
The Danish bricks used throughout are exquisite. Long, flat and variegated in their tone and texture, they have an almost Roman quality, appropriate to the sheer mass of this curious suburban house. The walls are load-bearing, which is unusual in Britain today. Although most new developments are faced in brick, the material is only used as a cladding. And you can feel the difference: the walls here seem to be working hard with a physical presence. There are hints of Adolf Loos and of the cosier end of Scandinavian modernism and yet more still of Swiss contemporary architecture; the perforated bricks in particular recall the work of Peter Zumthor. But they are blended into a north London tradition that spans from Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne, right through to a more modern idiom such as Jonathan Woolf and Tony Fretton. It is a rich and compelling addition to that varied, fascinating Finchley streetscape.
Photographs: Hélène Binet
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