Shepherdess Walk

Jaccaud Zein Architects

Rosamund Diamond

The corner plot development of three terraced houses and five apartments by Jaccaud Zein Architects with SolidSpace, close to the Old Street technology hub and the City, is in a piece of London badly damaged in World War II, resulting in a fragmented morphology. A preserved Georgian terrace remains intact along part of Shepherdess Walk, with mid twentieth century low and high rise housing on open plots, recent apartment buildings, a church and a park. The past ten years of development have changed a nondescript mixed use neighbourhood with large social housing estates, into a more predominantly affluent residential area. Massive land value rises have resulted in the recent replacement of nearby warehouses with bland speculative mid-rise residential blocks. Although of a comparatively small scale, Jaccaud Zein's scheme for houses and apartments in two connected buildings, restates residential London as a denser urban proposition in a coherent compositional form.
The massing of the two different height blocks formed from substantial masonry walls, responds to its varied surrounding conditions, and reappraises the terrace structure and form. Its mottled grey brown Belgian brick relates to the soot blackened London Stock brick terrace facades nearby. The Georgian terraced house shaped London's growth between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, homogenising its residential appearance as a city of three to six storey houses. The four storey terrace opposite with its formal hierarchical pattern of separated owners' and servants' entry levels, reflects its repetitive floor plans in its homogenised facade pattern of main front doors, windows and ornamental first floor balconies. Jaccaud Zein's block of three houses on Shepherdess Walk remakes the terrace without formal nineteenth century tropes, maintaining the street's rhythm with carved window openings and ground level doors. Its inflected building line upto the pavement with a splayed corner, enlivens the form, and gives each house an independent relationship to its surroundings. Its substantial masonry walls with very deep reveals in which windows are inset and doors are set back into external porches, substitutes for the privacy layer created in the old terrace by lightwells and elevated main entrances.
On both streets, its unembellished form, generates a screen like quality in which the facade intimates at the floor plates and the rooms behind, without conveying their stepped volumes. On Shepherdess Walk, roof terraces are visible behind equivalent top floor openings. The scheme's stereotomic quality is sustained by the 'absence' of expansion joints, concealed on the houses, or replaced with bed joint reinforcement on the apartment building. On the latter, bands of 10mm recessed pointing differentiate its construction system and its function. The substantial precast concrete coping, flush over the houses1 canted corner and swooping return, and oversailing the taller apartment building, responds to the higher scale of Wenlock Street and consolidates the whole as an articulated urban block.
The projects' exterior covers the spatial complexity of the plans and the concomitant volumes. The houses are arranged over seven levels and the apartments over three to six. Within compact envelopes, a dynamic set of spatial configurations with interwoven split levels, transform the domestic forms of both residential types. Rooms on intermediate floors, interconnected around double height folded volumes, derived from the inflections of the external form, enhance the sense of space. On the upper floors they are connected around roof terraces. By swivelling the plans, light and views are drawn into the houses. Balconied spaces afford long views across tall voids, and enlarged landings make recessed spaces for retreat or work. A potential flexibility lies where room plans turn. Unlike the orthogonal rigidity of the terraced houses opposite, in which subservient extensions are connected to intermediate stair landings, the transverse configurations which cut light into the centres, make the stairs an active spatial component. These rotating configurations recall the notion of 'raumplan' in Adolf Loos' houses, in which social engagement and retreat are inscribed into layered spatial sequences.
The apartments, with lateral plans configured perpendicular to the facade, the largest with rooftop extensions and terraces, are spatially unlike the conventional tightly planned neighbouring apartment blocks where numbers of rooms count for more than spaciousness and quality. They support a richness of inhabitation, appropriate to modern households with extended family groups. Multiple level external access, partly generated by the UK's 'Homes for Life' requirements, means that the apartments, and the houses to a more limited extent, can be partially reconfigured to incorporate independent units, adjusting to contemporary occupation by different generations or as semi-independent work spaces.
Each of the houses and apartments has subtle differences derived from its shifted external orientation and internal cross views. Inflecting the building's facades has resulted in long views across the neighbourhood, and the drawing of open space into the houses and apartments, connecting them to their inner city surroundings whilst increasing their individual differentiation. The buildings draw the open spaces of the church grounds and the local park (including an early project of their collaborators Sergison Bates[i]) into the houses and flats, substituting expanded volumes and roof terraces for conventional gardens. Higher up, the views become increasingly captivating, engaging each unit with its urban setting. At the top of the houses, the loggia like enclosed roof terraces form private external rooms with timber floors carried from the interiors. Whilst the neighbouring standardised exposed balconies feel like rarely inhabited places, these protected terraces tempt an upper floor reconfiguration as living space.
The interior domestic space is enhanced by its careful detailing, designed to support its comfortable dignified inhabitation. The making of their interiors entirely differentiates the project from the usual higher level London speculative housing. The polished plaster and beeswax walls, robust oak floors, deep balusters and walnut handrails with their finely crafted curved ends around stairs, recall the finesse of the Georgian interior. In his 1934 book London: the Unique City, the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen described the Georgian house as one of the city's defining features, albeit mainly for its exterior. The Shepherdess Walk project develops the possibility of London housing into a substantial mainland European influenced contemporary urban proposition.

1Housing Shepherdess Walk 2002, Sergison Bates, housing and crèche rue du Cendrier, Geneva 2011, Sergison Bates and Jean-Paul Jaccaud