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Artist in Residence

RIBA Journal, March 1996

by Naomi Stungo

'Cullum & Nightingale Architects' new house for artist Shaun Stanley and his family is more than an artwork, it's a stage set for living.'

'Screens fold back to reveal a hidden spiral staircase, wooden floors with inset glass panels give glimpses of activity on floors below, the glass pod shower stands sentinel in the middle of the bedroom.

'There is an quirky theatricality to Cullum & Nightingale Architects new house in London. Unlike some contemporary houses where the occupants can but mess up their perfect, abstract form, this is a house deliberately designed for the inhabitants to engage with and enjoy.

'The house was commissioned by artist Shaun Stanley and his family. Stanley had found the site - an amazing ramshackle collection of buildings of differing dates and varying stages of decay, hidden away down a narrow alleyway in one of north London's more salubrious neighbourhoods.

'After seeing an interior project Cullum & Nightingale Architects had designed for his brother, Stanley asked the practice to design a new house on the site for him.

'The only proviso to this otherwise dream commission was that Stanley wanted, if necessary, to be able to change the design as it went along. To do this, he wanted to control the building work himself, so that instead of employing a main contractor, he appointed directly all the sub-contractors.

'Instead of simply imposing an arbitrary new design on the site, Cullum & Nightingale Architects' new house deliberately retains something of the original character of the site.

'The main body of the house is rectangular, with two wings joined by a conservatory running between them. The rectangular part of the house is a new, three-storey block and cylindrical staircase tower which houses the kitchen and the main living area. The bedrooms are above ranged over two floors.

'At ground-floor level, this links to a series of single-storey additions that cluster round it. A reminder (albeit much neater and more organised) of the jumble of small buildings that formerly covered the site.

'Walking into the house, the first room you enter is one such space. The entrance hall and granny flat, which gives off it, are glazed single storey spaces just like the lean-tos that formerly stood on the site.

'From here, you enter either into the main, double-height body of the house, or head straight into a single-storey conservatory which runs along the length of house's west facade and opens out onto the garden.

'The only original construction that has been retained is a l9th century laundry building. This has been knocked through to link into the main body of the house at ground-floor level. Stanley initially intended to use this as a studio, but the building now forms an additional sitting room.

'The result of this collection of different spaces is a house where the rooms each possess remarkably different characters.

'Instead of the homogeneity of mood you tend to find in modern houses, the building, with its range of atmospheres - from the open-plan modern space of the main body of the house, to the restored laundry and the glass and steel conservatory - is like some wonderful, rambling old country house where you are not quite sure what to expect on opening the door to the next room.

'This relaxed, undogmatic style is typical of Cullum & Nightingale Architects. It is not that the practice's work is without rigour and consistency. Buildings such as the Central School of Speech and Drama ( RIBAJ, July 1994 ), the classrooms at North Westminster Community College (1991) and Richard Nightingale's own house (1988) all display a shared palette of materials - white render, glass and steel - and a common interest in the expression of structure in a decidedly modern but definitely not high-tech manner.

'But the practice, unlike some other young firms trying to establish themselves, is not obsessed with stamping its identity over a building at the expense of comfort and individuality.

'Perhaps this has something to do with the Cambridge tradition out of which both Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale come.

'Both studied at Cambridge under the guidance of Colin St John Wilson when the influence of Sir Leslie Martin was still strong, and both subsequently worked with Wilson. That Cambridge fascination with what Wilson calls the 'other tradition of modern architecture' - the warm Scandinavian modernism of Aalto and Asplund - can be seen in Cullum & Nightingale Architects' buildings with their unaggresive yet clearly modern style.

'The same Cambridge style is perhaps also partly responsible for another Cullum & Nightingale Architects trait: the practice's fascination with details. In some of the practice's work this can go too far, so that the buildings end up looking over-fiddly.

'Purists might make a similar jibe about some elements of the new house.

'The quirky cylindrical shower, the curved panel that can be pulled round the bottom of the spiral staircase to cut the conservatory off from the main living room, the twiddely balustrades on the second staircase could certainly annoy in any other building type. And yet in the house they seem fun and playful.

'Like that seminal Cambridge house, Sam Ede's house at Kettles Yard (extended by Martin in 1970), the house also has huge numbers of shelves and ledges on which to display objects.

'Whether it is a conscious move or not, this use of detailing also helps to create a sense of engagement with the building. This is architecture that you can take part in: you can pull the screen round the spiral stair and close it off, you can look down through the glass panel in the floor and see what's going on on the first floor, you can feel the texture of the rough brick back wall - the party wall with the neighbouring property onto which the house is built.

'Clearly detailing of this kind does not come cheap. It also takes time, and in this Cullum & Nightingale Architects was helped by Stanley's decision not to have a contractor and to allow changes to the design as it went along.

'But it still seems that, in a country where vast numbers of people feel completely alienated by and disengaged from their surroundings, that thinking about ways in which architecture can be used to make people feel involved in their environment is, and will continue to be, an extremely important issue.'