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The Ideal Villa

The Architects' Journal, 7 December 1988

by Diana Periton

'The Nightingale House, designed by Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale, is hard to define. Not quite a single-person house, nor a bachelor pad, it is spacially complex and sophisticated, part suburban, part Palladian: the grand idea writ small - an ideal villa in model form. Diana Periton appraises the building and outlines its development.'

'Richard Nightingale was amused and perhaps slightly embarrassed by the idea of his home being dignified with the title "The Nightingale House" - it was initially rejected by the planners who condemned the design as "inter-war suburbia style". The house was never meant to articulate some grand, public statement; its designers see the relationship between built space and inhabitation as both individual - we despise a variety of "settings" by drawing on recollections of experienced examples - and collective, "all the settings in out repertoire being firmly embedded in our culture in their ultimate, mythical form". 1

'Ideas for the house began to emerge in 1983 when Richard Nightingale bought the site in Belsize Park. He was working for Colin St. John Wilson on the British Library. Hugh Cullum was teaching at Cambridge and writing his PhD thesis "La Venaria Reale; a study in rhetorical space". Cullum and Nightingale did much of the building themselves, making changes as they went along - even now, the design is still evolving, sometimes to accommodate new ideas, sometimes for purely practical reasons.

'The site is tiny - 4.5m wide, next to a four-storey Victorian semi. The house extends slightly beyond the permitted limits, set back from the street at the front, with a small garden complete with pear tree at the back. Its height was not to exceed that of the porch next door, so the structure is sunk into the ground, which is cut away in front, to allow enough room for two floors.

Spatial Concerns

'The primary concern was simply to fit the appropriate spaces in to a small volume so that they would work together as a whole and not just be a collection of individual parts. It was crucial to create a feeling a space - to make something much more open than a typical English town house of comparable size. A lot of the early design work was done using models to explore relationships between the internal volumes. The resulting building feels a bit like a scaled-up model, perhaps a little ponderous and "blocky" - a building where the space rather than the structure has been carefully articulated.

'From the street, a column set to one side of a window at an angle points the way down dark-tiled steps, where the buildinghas been cut back to leave access to the next-door basement flat. Proustian ideals of inhabiting space, settings which are "reshaped in (their) ... inhabitation by the individual imagination" 2 are obvious concerns even here. What looks like an opening in the white-rendered wall at the end of the passage turns out to be a panel of glass blocks; the front door itself is to the left. Once inside, full-height mirrors on either side of the hall reflect the tiny space (and its occupant) to infinity. Doormat-sized, it serves as a kind of initiation space, with echoes of the labyrinth. The main living area is further round to the right, hinted at through the glass blocks at the entrance.

'The main living space is a double-height central volume, topped by a skylight, which makes manifest its "aspirations to perfection" in its four-way symmetry, and in a way in which it reaches from the sunken ground floor up to the sky. Darker colours at the bottom - a floor of graphite cement screed and green Cumberland slate - change to pure brilliant white, metal and glass at the top. Planes of colour move away from the centre, "clarifying and dramatizing the spatial relations", 3 leaving the double-height volume immaculate and undisturbed. The dark brownish red fireplace seems almost chthonic, like the polychrome altar of a Baroque church. The stairs wind up behind the glittering chrome flue, so as not to disrupt the central symmetry.

'Other rooms work away from the central, introspective space, mediating between it and the outside world of the garden or city. A dining table sits comfotably under the balcony to one side; beyond it is the kitchen with the angled window of the entrance passage. The cupboards, shelves and window seat are faced in a rich oak veneer, warm and homely. Red flecks in the predominantly dark green terrazzo top are picked up by the deep red of the opposite wall.

'Directly above the kitchen is the guest bedroom, with a wooden seat in the angle of the window. Next to it, the bathroom is a curved object sitting neatly on the balcony surrounding the central space above the basin and lavatory, so that the curve of the wall is reflected and becomes a circle. It is lit from a rooflight sunk deep into the ceiling, so that the person at the basin is bathed in light, standing at the apparent centre. The bath itself seems to be in its own little room of mahogany panelling - a comfortable gentleman's club. Shower head, taps and control knob are displayed like pictures on the flat surface of the veneer.

'At the top of the stairs, a tiny square window looks out over the entrance passage to the street beyond. The space in front of the window has a slightly lower ceiling, creating just enough sense of enclosure for it to become a small "study", where you can be St Jerome or Victor Hugo. The balcony rail looking out over the central space is a wide, flat piece of oak-veneered wood, which is separated from its solid oak trim by a fine strip of aluminium - it is ideal for leaning over or sitting on. Metal mesh panels set towards the front of the rail leave space for Chareau-like bookshelves behind, reached from the balcony.

'The balcony continues round the perimeter of the central space to the niche of the "master bedroom", the culmination of a joinery through the building. Commanding yet hidden, it surveys the entire domain: a small window gives out on to the garden at the rear, and an internal window looks back over the stairs across the study and then out to the street, giving an axis right through the house.

'The perfect centrality of the house is disturbed by a double-height window, which is pulled away from the rear façade in an irregular curve to create a mediating space between interior and garden. Both this window and those at the front use materials which draw attention to the opposition of internal and external space. The walls, matt elsewhere, are gloss-painted, as is the wooden panel of the ceiling. The window seats are thick pieces of oak-veneered MDF with a clear gloss varnish. Every surface is smooth and hard, like the faience interior of a loggia. The window mullions, slender yet deep, reflect light far into the building.

'If asked, both architects will insist that most of the considerations involved in building the house were purely pragmatic. Richard Nightingale claims that the flue was positioned 1m away from the party wall simply so that it did not have to be built to the height of the adjoining building. Hugh Cullum says that the dropped ceiling which creates the study area is the result of a rain-water pipe from the roof which appeared lower than expected. But it reads very strongly as a complete composition, a villa in miniature, its grand sense of scale is borrowed from the apparent double height of the front windows, and its rusticated base is deep purple on the lower half of the façade. The tiny garden boasts a path whose gentle narrowing perpetuates the grand illusion. The introspective central space of the house is ordered and four-square; here is the complete seclusion of the vita contemplativa, but here also is room for the pursuit of more hedonistic pleasures, for dinner parties and the like - this city villa, set like a jewel in suburbia, is more than just a meditative retreat.'

1,2 Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale, UIA International Architect, December 1985.
3 Le Corbusier, Polychromic Architecturale, 1931.