Jean-Paul Jaccaud explores the Corner House by DSDHA
DSDHA’s Corner House occupies a prominent site in Fitzrovia, central London, bordered by three very distinct conditions: the relative grandeur of Charlotte Street to the front, the quieter residential scale of Tottenham Street to the side and the more utilitarian Tottenham Mews to the back. The project draws on these differences to articulate a building that accepts complexity as its guiding principle, and carefully stitches itself into its surroundings.
Seen from the corner, its massing offers a subtle response to this complex situation by distinctly articulating two volumes of different scale that refer to their immediate contexts: a three-storey block on Tottenham Street and a more prominent six-storey block on Charlotte Street. Looking more closely, their facades have differentiated treatments: an elaborate configuration of stepping characterises the windows of the higher volume, whereas the lower volume has more simple perpendicular reveals. Along with the different colours of the bricks, this reinforces their fragmentary appearance and the links of each to the specificities of their context.
Appearances are not everything, however, and the internal organisation of the building immediately contradicts this apparent order: a single stairwell indifferently distributes dwellings in both volumes and in plan the distinction is apparent only through the slight syncopation of the facade rhythm. The complexity of the massing is further emphasised when one turns the corner into Tottenham Mews. A third volume, not immediately apparent from the street, joins the other two in the composition, picking up the alignment of the mews facades and giving them a clear termination. Once again, the expression of the building is adjusted, with a more utilitarian character shown through the introduction of larger scale openings, metal lintels and a reduction of the depth of the facade. What appears to be a separate building is not, and a quick glance at the plan is sufficient to understand that, here too, the external differentiation participates in the subtle stitching of the project into its surroundings without a direct functional correlation.
To the south, Charlotte Street comprises four- and five-storey Georgian terraced houses interspersed with modernist office buildings of similar scale. The original Georgian plot structure is still perceptible, with single-, double- and triple-frontage buildings giving a distinct rhythm to the streetscape. This consistency is altered as one moves north, with the appearance of taller buildings, long frontages and breaks of the historical alignment that deeply alter the character of the street.
The Corner House is located at a point where the scale of buildings shifts and, looking again at the Charlotte Street facade, one notices that the dark brick echoes the material quality of its neighbour – the appropriately named Collaboration House. The two buildings’ cornices align, and the additive nature of DSDHA’s composition is here extended to include its more awkward neighbour into an ambiguous reading of the scale of the whole. This blurring of the scale of the project echoes the change of character and scale of the street to the north.
On close inspection, the top windows seen from Charlotte Street are different to the others, with single panes of glass replacing the French windows below. The glass is slightly angled, catching diagonal reflexions of the rooftops and hinting at a different functionality on the top floor. From the street, this is the only sign of the complexity of the building’s roofscape, where two small, lightweight zinc-clad volumes appear as if they had been added to an existing building. The complexity of the Charlotte Street facade continues in its detail. The stepping of the reveals to one side of each window moves the opening to the side, emphasising the angle and contradicting the apparent symmetry of the five-bay composition.
The weight that is suggested by the depth of the brick facade gives the building a strong presence on the street that is reinforced by the pragmatic stacking of the structural elements. This notion is modulated, however, by the opening of the corner – a reference to modernist curtain walling detailing – and by the increasing slenderness of the vertical elements as the building rises. The Corner House therefore shows signs of being both heavy and light, big and small, loadbearing and clad.
These apparent contradictions echo the larger-scale ones of the massing, emphasising the complex ordering of the project. It is a building that revels in multiplicity. It enjoys being at the same time ‘something’ and ‘something else’ and, in being so, powerfully echoes the complex and contradictory order of the city that surrounds it.