Art-itechture: The Clerkenwell practice treating design as a work of art
PUBLISHED: 15:00 30 August 2017
William Tozer Associates treat architecture as object d'art, and it's all down to their sculptural approach to space
Based in Clerkenwell, architectural practice William Tozer Associates have taken on a number of north London projects in the last few years. Faced with the challenge of transforming old Victorian houses (alongside upscale coffee shops, restaurants and San Francisco food halls) the practice takes a unique approach to refurbishment; with the emphasis falling on the journey and construction process.
It’s all down to the theories of Modernist master, Adolf Loos. Head of the practice, William Tozer himself, completed a PHD on Loos’ work, and has carried forwards his theories of neutrality, open plan spaces and natural materials ever since. Their homes are testament to the firm’s inspiration.
Their chosen neutral colour palette is demonstrative of this. “Part of the reason for the neutral colour palette is that it doesn’t date… We’re not having feature colours where in two years time you’ll say ‘well that duck egg blue is so 2010’,” says Tom Shelswell, senior associate at William Tozer.
Their choice of materials follows suit, working with classic natural materials such as timber, stone and concrete. “We’re interested in raw, natural materials that are used in the construction process,” explains Shelswell.
In Highgate, their Soupçon Brut project required the refurbishment of a disused basement in an Italianate, Victorian terraced home. As with any refurbishment, the new design had to build a harmonious relationship with its contiguous structures. With the garden overlooked by a nearby estate, the new creation had to maintain that dialogue with its Brutalist neighbour.
“The concrete materiality of that overlooking the back garden, we referenced that with particularly the terracing in the garden and the concrete retaining walls and steps that delineate the sunken terrace,” says Shelswell. The practice chose a pared back, white, raw concrete frame, left exposed rather than painted, with which to envelop the living area.
To allow flowing conversation between the inside and outside, the firm opted for frameless windows, large glass apertures and the permeation of light into the living space through any possible means, even including the small spaces left open by open tread staircases.
In Soupcon Brut, the tiled floor seamlessly blends the boundary between the kitchen and courtyard. “Victorian terraced houses are very common around here. A lot of our clients are after this openness out to the garden, the sense of bringing the outdoors in,” he says.
In Stack House, another north London project, the roof standing over the shower room was removed and replaced with a glass aperture, a hat tip to the open skyspaces of artist James Turrel.
Back att Soupcon Brut, the large glass doors span the entire void left by the removal of the back wall. “When you open up an old building like that, why would we need to put anything back in its place? They’re such lovely spaces when you’re half way through construction,” says Shelswell.
That love for the process of construction leaves no space for competition with the ornate detailing of the already existing Victorian fabric of the buildings so trypical to north London. Instead, William Tozer’s refurbishments are the more subtle of the two styles.
“We’re not trying to combat that detailing. It’s not really one competing with the other,” he maintains. Indeed, there is a marked absence of intricate finishing details to surfaces that are left stripped back.
Instead, the practice treats the space as a blank canvas for its own distinctive brand of modern art. “We see it as an art piece. It’s a fine art the kind of architecture we’re trying to create, but on a large scale. In Soupcon Brut, the whole lower ground floor is our sculptural object as it were,” explains Shelswell.
That often means redefining the spatial layout of the home, he says. “Architecturally, we’re interested in composition of three dimensional volumes and planes. We’re trying to create abstract, open spaces; we don’t want it to feel like one room with a doorway to another room. We’re trying to create a sculptural space through our work.”
In their project titled Raumplan, spatial complexity was maximised by creating double height spaces and stepped platforms which contradict the generic first, second and third floor layout of the traditional home.
That modus operandi runs in direct contradiction to the floorplans of traditional Victorian family homes. It’s all a question of interaction; “Looking back at the Victorian layout, they’re all individual rooms with individual functions, but we’re trying to create something a bit more complex than that,” he says.
Despite the complexity of the end-goal, it’s all about the process of construction and design for William Tozer Associates. The final result is one of an immense sense of space and light, and a flowing dialogue between each livebale space in the home, spared the fussiness of detailing and the complications of colour. Although William Tozer are finished with their work of art, the canvas is effectively left blank for clients to put their stamp on.
“It’s a neutral background for our clients to put their own personality on.”