A deathly feat of architecture overlooking Highgate Cemetery
PUBLISHED: 17:31 09 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:31 09 September 2016
With Halloween on the horizon, head to Highgate Cemetery to celebrate spooky season in true north London style.
With September upon us, autumn is stealing in to Highgate. Mornings are charged with a crisp tang in the air and there’s a chill that creeps into the evening shadows.
Next month will see the London Month of the Dead, a series of talks and workshops investigating the city’s relationship with its dearly departed residents, encompassing everything from forensic pathology to the paranormal.
The events are based around the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries, a septet of Victorian private burial grounds that fall within a six mile radius of St Paul’s Cathedral and showcase some of the capital’s most magnificent neo-Classical and new-Gothic architecture.
On October 16 there will be a guided tour of Highgate Cemetary by Dr Ian Dungavell, architectural historian and chief executive of Karl Marx’s final resting place.
Tickets are £12 and 20 per cent of the profits go towards an array of restoration projects to keep the cemetery in all its gothic grandeur.
Begun in 1839 and modelled on Père Lachaise in Paris, the cemetery occupies an elevated area with unparalleled views across London.
The capital’s Victorian elite were prepared to invest in a grave with a view (much like today’s live house hunters) and the funerary site enjoyed a wealth of wealthy burials.
While Halloween season is still pretty far away, for one house bordering the cemetery spooky season is a year round affair.
Sandwiched between two architecturally imposing houses on Swains Lane, this Modernist house was looking a little outdone by its neighbours.
Flanked on one side by Eldridge Smerrin’s Glass House, recipient of a RIBA award, and one door down from Dominic Mackenzie Architects Eidolon (meaning phantom, apparition, double image and idealised) House, winner of the Sunday Times Home of the Year 2014, the property’s location was enviable but its street presence less so.
The brief was a steep one: update the facade to complement the existing designs on either side; live up to the award-winning pedigree of the street; and reflect the history of the setting.
Denizen Works were invited for a competitive interview for the project in early 2015 and pitched an audacious plan.
Described by the architects as an act of “urban generosity,” the updated facade completes an unholy triptych and riffs off its neighbours’ design concepts as well as the deathly name given it by its current residents – Valhalla.
Christened for the Norse hall of the worthy dead, a sacred place where the mythological god Odin presided over his revenue of fallen warriors, the house uses ‘traumatised’ wood, “as dead as we could make it”, in the form of heavily charred larch fins.
The blackened beams have been fastened in vertical slats, contrasting with the white wall underneath to striking effect.
From dead-on the effect is uniform, but when seen from different viewpoints along the sloping street the effect is a trick of the eye, with differing depths creating an optical illusion as a street-level visitor passes by.
The overall effect is designed to “reveal the ghost” of the house, tracing the lines of the dwelling beneath the dark wood. The act of walking past triggers an encounter with the apparition of the old house.
Valhalla’s neighbours also reference the necropolis across the road – Eldridge Smerin’s glass house rises transparently from the cemetery, with graves knocking up against the property’s boundary, while the mirrored walls of Eidolon House reflect its surroundings, shrouding it in a ghostly invisibility cloak.
But the residents of Valhalla have perhaps the greatest taste for the Gothic – according to the architect they had already cut their plants in the shape of gravestones before the house was given its dramatic makeover, and let’s not forget that name.
A very modern haunted house, the home by Highgate Cemetery straddles the architectural worlds of the living and the dead.
All photos by Ben Blossom