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The Height of Inspiration

The Evening Standard, 29th July 1998

by Mark Irving

'An awkward site plan for an artist's studio provided a challenge for the architects. The results are a triumph.'

'While an Englishman's home might be his castle, an artist's studio has to be a great deal more, for it is not simply a space where the artist stores the paints, canvases and brushes. It has to serve several functions, simultaneously being a working space, exhibition area and a refuge.

'When artist Kate Whiteford commissioned Richard Nightingale of Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale Architects to design her a new studio in leafy Dulwich, she drew on the creative relationship she had already enjoyed with them on their spectacular commission for the new High Commission in Nairobi Kenya, where her monumentai linear artworks now grace its cool interior.

'Whiteford's needs were straightforward: the lease was up on the studio she had been renting in Brixton, and she wanted her own space. However the site on which this new studio was to be built was anything but straighfforward: seen from a crow's-eye view, the site plan was an irregular, serrated triangle, its sharp nose pointing down Half Moon Lane. Moreover, the plot formed part of the Dulwich Estate, that patrician institution which keeps an imperious eye on development in the area.

'Instead of kowtowing to conservative taste, Nightingale came up with an idiosyncratic design that, while incorporating many of the architectural features of the traditional studio, gives their dimensions and inter-relationships a twist. Technically a garage, laundry and studio at the same time, the single-storey building squats low in the site, the eaves of the roof reaching far down to the yellow brick walls, resulting in a double-height internal space with a floor measurement of over 75 square metres.

'On the northfacing elevation, essential for that diffused soft light necessary to painters, two dormer windows have been pulled like elastic, forming two elegant slits reaching beyond the profile of the roof. Between them, a tall, thin galvanised steel door starting high within the sriking copper-covered mansard roof plunges like a metallic proboscis into the ground below.

'"Copper has a life of its own; it goes green and ties in with the surrounding trees, while lead looks rather heavy," says Nightingale. "The views at floor level are deliberately restricted so that you have total privacy, but when you open the doors they rest flush against the side of the building, making the walls seem permeable."

'Once inside, you get an immense sense of uplift created by the white walls and the ceiling, where immensely fine steel rods in tension can be picked out.

'Twinned skylight windows pause like resting wings across the peal of the mansard roof. Below, the grey-painted concrete floor is heated from underneath, leaving the walls unen. cumbered by radiators. At one end of the studio, a mezzanine level has been introduced, providing enough living space above the unstained timberpanelled floor for a divan bed while also covering the washing and showering areas below. A cast concrete worktop and sink rest on painted building blocks, with hospital-style taps completing the functional appearance. Plywood walls panel the shower-room, which consists of basin, toilet and a shower that drains away into a hole in the floor. Simplicity replaces prettiness.

'The studio is not without its own humour: look at the ceiling above the mezzanine on a grey day, and you might detect something odd about the way the spotlights are dotted across the slopes of the roof. "It's actually the same shape as the constellation of The Plough" says Whiteford, much of whose work is tied to the elements. "At night the ceiling vanishes and it seems as if you are looking into the naked sky.'