Filmic, mysterious and maze like

Ensemble Fitzjohn’s Avenue: Sergison Bates

Ros Diamond, David Grandorge (Bilder)

Seeing the extraordinary plans of Sergison Bates’ residential block, in contrast to its building envelope, reminds one of the potentiality of interior space and its configuration, as a Baroque invention, in which the mind wanders dreamlike, in endlessly connected spaces. The dichotomy of cellular and free space, ‘raum plan’ and ‘plan libre’ is now explicit in discussions of modernism and its interpretations. The potential contrast between the plan and building form is also critically implicated in the individual’s occupation of the city. It has been an ongoing preoccupation of Sergison Bates’, alongside a european urbanity evolved working extensively in Belgium, Switzerland and Austria. Their Fitzjohn’s Avenue project, for an older living developer, contains twenty nine apartments, with a lower ground level spa connected to a communal garden. The result is a translation of continental European character into a London architectural idiom, which is of its context and gratifyingly unfamiliar. Its high budget gave the architects the opportunity to develop a thesis on older living, with an elaborated cellular plan. The project’s dense, apparently inscrutable, apartment plans, arise from subtle humanist observations into personal inhabitation. Fitzjohn’s Avenue is distinguished by its irregular building form, and the depth and layered complexity of its plans, in which networks of largely irregular rooms, composed in narrative sequences, form thresholds of privacy and engagement. In making configurations which override the spatial outcomes of functionalist building techniques, a critical tension arises between the plan and the enclosing form.

Forerunners from Milan

Sergison Bates is one of a few UK architects who, from their start, treated residential design critically, with individual interior needs always offset by the urban condition. Their interest in the relationship of the plan to building form, could also be ascribed to their simultaneous academic studies of some significant practitioners, including Luigi Caccia Dominioni, whose urban blocks in Milan disconnected highly irregular plans from their envelopes1. Although London is full of mansion blocks, developed from the late nineteenth century, it was a largely forgotten form, until the recent housing crisis lead to the densification of the city, and the re-emergence of the mid-rise residential block. London has a long tradition of the six to eight storey apartment block, as a viable means to accommodate more housing in enlarged urban villas, whether modestly developed for the poor, as in the Boundary estate (1894-1900, Owen Fleming) or elaborately, for the wealthy, as with Albert Hall Mansions (1879-86, Richard Norman Shaw). With their utilitarian planning, generic forms and standardised claddings, much so called ‘mid rise’ recent private development, bears little resemblance to its forerunners.

Arts-and-Crafts 2.0?

It is strangely apposite that this project is in the area of Hampstead whose urban residential context was developed in the late nineteenth century under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. Its apotheosis in the next street is Richard Norman Shaw’s own house2. In Fitzjohn’s Avenue a hybrid fusion has emerged between the European residential building and the English mansion block. The scheme is conceived as two connected volumes with highly articulated envelopes, with a unifying base, main body and a tall two storey top, stepped back to relate to the neighbouring villas’ tall roofs. Despite its many additive features, the building is more of an independent folded and curved form. The blocks are connected by a ground floor single storey entrance, like a compressed gate house, negotiating the site’s topography. The dual arched entrance introduces the scenographic qualities embedded in the plan; the entrance lobby, the first of a network of polygonal halls, acquaints one with what is to come in the apartments. Caccia Dominioni is memorialised in the interior layering of offset arched doorways, angled walls and oblique connections, with tantalising views, read from the interior hallway. The spatial order in the communal areas and the apartments, is in a hierarchy radiating from the most geometrically formal spaces. An elongated hexagonal lift hall with access to three large apartments, sits in the centre of each block. Polygonal or irregularly shaped spaces radiate from an octagonal hall in the centre of each apartment.3 The experience recalls Baroque spatial sequences in urban ecclesiastical enclaves: Borromini’s San Carlo in Rome or Guarini and Juvarra’s Santuario della Consolata in Turin.

Labyrinth of halls

The apartment plans have their own sequences of scaled rooms and lobbies as thresholds, configured to calibrate privacy, giving their older owners control over their space, and a rich environment to inhabit for longer periods. The architects treat comfort as a state to improve the mind and body; the former through the psychological experience of control and familiarity, the latter through the idea of spaces for collected furniture and possessions, and in the nooks and pochés the irregularity creates. In the fantastical spatial variation, they are supported by Josef Frank’s claim that the polygonal room is more appropriate for living than the orthogonal.4 For some inhabitants, familiarising themselves with their apartments could be their own mind exercise. In these centrifugal layouts, a ‘Society of Rooms’5 with multiple routes and alternative living options, replaces the corridor and the old social order, described by Robin Evans, which shaped spatial configurations, from the grand country house to the middle class apartment, segregating main rooms from service spaces and owners from servants6. Instead, here, doors are frequently set diagonally, partially revealing rooms, modelled by exterior light, and offering elongated views out. The experience of moving through the Fitzjohn’s apartments is filmic, at times mysterious and maze like, with the promise of unexpected encounters.

Unfolding space

Whilst the plan bears no apparent resemblance to a structural system, the tectonic order can be surmised from the exterior envelope. Detached from programme and an obvious relationship of structural shell to spatial structure, function is re-imagined as an independent internal spatial organisation of adaptable flowing rooms. The ordered geometry of the centre spaces opens to the engrossing perimeter with its free geometry of curved ‘belly bays’ and triangular projections. The full height unencumbered windows and balustrades connect the interiors to the exterior of the facades. In their reinterpretation of the mansion block, Sergison Bates refines the enlarged scale of the articulated envelope through the use of details which reference the neighbouring buildings’ decorative material techniques. The new building reinterprets a nineteenth century language, with elaborated brick entablatures and friezes, window heads and under panels on its main body. On the upper storeys, flat, double half and curved profile tiles, on the window surrounds, and cornices and entablatures below, simultaneously reference details of Milanese or Flemish traditions, and the nineteenth century glazed tiling or brickwork nearby.

In the art of partial revealment, internal adjustments, such as the spatial irregularity and oblique door openings, have been used to enrich these grander apartments. This more radical architectural approach could be used to give the impression of larger space in more modest contexts, testing if fundamental elements could be achieved economically to improve low cost housing. A pity that Sergison Bates proposal for student accommodation in Oxford is unbuilt[vii]. As a development of their practical research in a human centred architecture, it is anticipated that they will continue testing their thesis in both parts of Europe.

Luigi Caccia Dominioni, werk, bauen + wohnen, 12 — 2013.
2 6 Ellerdale Road, 1874-76, extended 1885-86.
3 About this type of floorplans with halls see the essay of Katharina Stehrenberger in: wbw 7/8–2021, S. 6 — 13.
4 Josef Frank ‘The rectangular living room is the least suited for living in; ….I believe that if one were to draw a polygon at random, be it with right angles or with obtuse ones, as a plan for a room, it would be much more appropriate than a regular rectangular one….’…..”Das Haus als Weg und Platz” in Der Baumeister 8–1931, 316-22.
5 "A plan is a society of rooms. The rooms relate to each other to strengthen their own unique nature" 'The Room, the Street, and Human Agreement,' Louis Kahn AIA Gold Medal acceptance speech, Detroit, June 24, 1971, in: AIA Journal, vol 56, Sep 1971 
6 Robin Evans ‘Figures, Doors and Passages’, in: Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, London 1997.
7 Sergison Bates proposal for student accommodation, Green Templeton College, limited competition Oxford, 2017.