Jonathan Sergison: When Stephen Bates and I set up in practice we were more interested in housing than houses. We wanted to make a more collective form of architecture that could serve society more widely than the narrow focus that comes from making a house for a single client.
And yet, when I think about the projects we worked on together even before we formally established our practice in 1996, one of the first was a house for a friend of Stephen’s. He had bought an amazing piece of land in the south of Spain, overlooking a hill town with distant views of Morocco and the Atlas Mountains. We worked intensely on this project for quite a while, but unfortunately it was cancelled just before going on site.
At the time we were very inspired by Sugden House by Alison and Peter Smithson, an example of architecture that is explicitly about ordinariness. Similarily, our project, was an exploration of regionalism, a certain kind of normality and ordinariness, of harmony with the site and tradition. Our interest in these themes was helped by this little suburban house in Watford even though the context was so different.
DO YOU THINK THE SUDGEN HOUSE WAS A RADICAL PROJECT IN THE MID ‘50S IN ENGLAND?
I think it really was radical in the way it conceptualised ordinariness. Is it really an ordinary house? Its form could be seen as something very simple, almost banal, dictated by planning regulations. But the arrangements of the openings and the composition of the facade in relation to the garden – that’s not a conventional way of making windows, is it?
Every decision is on the edge of being a little bit strange, even though at first glance it looks like any of the suburban houses we see in the south of England. As an architect, you’re working with a certain kind of creative ambition, and it’s really about the measure and scale at which you try things out.
I remember this was a strong inspiration in the early days of our practice. We discovered that playing with ordinariness could be a strategy to deal with the prevailing conservatism that existed in the UK in the early 1990s. To make something look like it’s not a big architectural statement was, frankly, a way of getting past the scrutiny of planning departments and allow us to smuggle solutions and topics that would make a difference. When we developed the project on Shepherdess Walk in London, I remember that the planning officer, who was rather smart, asked: ‘Can I just be clear? Is this a bad copy of Georgian architecture or is there something else behind your approach, that we should talk about?’ I found that rather perceptive.
In the end, even though the representational character of the project was quiet and ordinary, the reception it got and the way it was perceived by the public was, indeed, that it was somehow different. We failed to make it invisible.
IN THE SUGDEN HOUSE, A TRADITIONAL SUBURBAN REGULAR LAYOUT IS DECONSTRUCTED BY A STRUCTURAL SOLUTION OF CONCRETE BEAMS THAT CREATE A CLEAR MAIN SPACE. WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MAIN SPACE-MAKING ELEMENTS OF THE HOUSE?
The ground floor is inspired by Scandinavian architecture - the promise of a more open way of living, where different territories of the house can be more flexibly organised. Upstairs, it is really about rooms and the proportion of these rooms as a collection of spaces.
I think the combination of these two characteristics produces the spatial richness and is the main architectural quality of the house.
If you judged the building by looking at the first-floor plan only, you wouldn’t get very far. This house must be understood in section.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE IMAGE OF THE HOUSE. IN THIS CASE, THE OPENINGS FOLLOW WHAT HAPPENS INSIDE RATHER THAN ANY IMPOSED ORDER.
Knowing its role as a suburban house, it doesn’t have big pretensions. One of the things I find really fascinating are the L-shaped windows. I’ve often wondered what the motivation was behind the design. It’s more than just composition. I think there’s a certain interest in the way a figure relates to a window. It doubles exposure to the garden for the residents. The upright part of the L-shaped window and the horizontal part connect with the landscape in different ways. It’s an interesting proportion, but also proof of the generosity this house offers. It’s first and foremost about the relationship between inside and outside.
Something else to note is the all-important question of where the window frame sits in relation to the thickness of a wall. In the Sugden House we have the most banal solution - it’s set back by the thickness of a brick. It’s not trying to create a sense of heaviness by setting the window assembly deep within the reveals, nor of abstraction by placing it flush with the outside face. The Smithson’s solution simply says, ‘I’m a brick cavity wall’ - there is no rhetoric. It accepts the truth of the most straightforward way of detailing the window and how it relates to the buildup of the wall.
THE SMITHSONS WERE OFTEN CONTRADICTORY IN THEIR ARCHITECTURAL DECISIONS, BUILDING BOTH MACHINE-LIKE OBJECTS AND COSY HOUSES. HOW WAS IT POSSIBLE TO FIT DIVERSE FASCINATIONS IN ONE CAREER?
We got to know the owners of the Sugden House, Derek and Jane Sugden. Derek was very candid in the stories he told about commissioning of the house and working with Alison and Peter Smithson. He chose to work with them because he knew them, they’d met through his work as an engineer at Arup’s.
At the time the Smithsons were considered an up-and-coming young practice. I remember he told us that when they presented their first ideas for the project Jane Sugden immediately said there was absolutely no way they were going to have a house with a butterfly shaped roof. They wanted something that would be easier to maintain. They said they were not going to climb up a ladder every autumn to clean the leaves out of the gutter. Alison stormed out of the meeting. She was very upset with any criticism of their work. It was Peter who said: ‘Well, you know, we’ll find a way of responding to your critique. If we can’t design a house for you, then who can we design a house for?’ This anecdote shows their character and their ambition to make radical architecture, but also Peter’s wisdom in elegantly accepting the clients’ criticism and responding to their needs.
SHORTLY AFTER THEY FINISHED THE PROJECT, THEY DID THE HOUSE OF THE FUTURE, SOMETHING TOTALLY DIFFERENT. HAVE YOU ALSO ENGAGED IN EXERCISES OF THIS KIND?
We did work on several commissions which, like the House of the Future, were not intended for a particular site, but had a prototypical character. One was a building that could be used in a garden as a home office, that could be bought and assembled in a garden.
In a similar spirit, we were commissioned a building to accommodate showers and changing facilities for people who cycle to work. We also designed a school building as a kit of elements. We worked on a number of ‘place-less’ projects.
However, a strong aspect of our approach has always been a sense that the place where the work is situated should inform the approach to building. We believe that place should be part of the answer and inform the design. For me, it’s much more interesting to explore possible responses to place. I would also argue that geographical variations are definitely an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. I think familiarity can be stifling, while richness stems from diversity.
WHAT COMPONENT OF THIS HOUSE COULD BE SEEN AS UNIVERSAL, TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT?
Its simple form, for instance; it’s almost like a child’s drawing of a house . The house is also a prologue to the Smithsons’ description of the simple qualities a house should offer, published in ‘Changing the Art of Inhabitation’ in 1993, which also has a very universal character.
There you can find a series of notes and sketches – made by Alison Smithson, I believe. They talk about what a house should be like. It’s a wonderful sketchy essay on thoughts about inhabiting a house: a creeper growing around a window, the way the light falls on the floor, ways of seeing a view from different positions. It talks about very basic and rather poetic observations about what is important in making a house. Stephen and I found that really touching and certainly very inspiring. It made us re-think our own approach to domesticity.
What I like about the Sugden House is that the Sugdens bought the plot in Watford, which is part of the wider suburban area of greater London, as a young family and built a house with limited means.
It’s a modest house of standard construction, and they lived in it all their lives. In some sense, it’s a beautiful story of a commitment to something that serves simple needs. This is another universal aspect of it, it has nothing to do with composition, but it is closely connected to our attitude to architecture and dwelling in general.
IF I ASK YOU TO THINK ABOUT HOUSES YOU LIKE THAT ARE VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE SUGDEN HOUSE, WHAT COMES TO MIND?
When it comes to concrete examples, I find John Winter’s house in Highgate an amazing building, explicitly connected to his experience of living and working in North America and to Mies van der Rohe’s late work. And I’ve always had an absolute fascination with the work of Konstantinidis, with his almost archaic approach to the making of houses within the Greek landscape. I am also profoundly interested in the houses Siza made at the beginning of his career.
Another house I think is wonderful is Tony Fretton’s Red House, in London… I also stayed at Villa Além, which was built by my friend and colleague, Valerio Olgiati in Alentejo. I think it’s a masterpiece, a wonderful example of domestic architecture. I’m also rather fond of the houses I made for myself – the remodeling of a Georgian house in London, and of a 350-year-old Ticino house in Monte, above Mendrisio.
The lives of houses have always interested me, and I am always stimulated by their stories. In Japan, for example, it is common to make houses that last for the residents’ lifetime and are then demolished. But in Italy, you have grand houses that are passed from generation to generation, to heirs who feel responsible for maintaining their spirit and original grandeur. The way in which diverse cultural and physical conditions affect architecture is, in my opinion, an ever-fascinating field of exploration.