Peter Salter’s intricate cluster of houses in west London is a building unlike any other, finds Robert Harbison
We have been waiting a long time for Peter Salter’s houses in Walmer Road and now that they are finished we can see why. An unfashionably slow passage of time is part of this project in a number of ways. First, in the architect’s intensity of focus on the way the experience of space gets translated into buildable form; and then, in the unpredictable time it takes to fabricate eccentric one-off components in exotic materials – exotic in the sense that you don’t usually incorporate straw in internal walls, or make little hinged metal shutters for lights along stairs.
These shutters were the smallest separable element I noticed, but they’re no more separable than anything else. You could describe the project as four houses, but you will have a job seeing where they begin and end, or keeping all the varied spaces straight in your head. The Walmer Road houses introduce themselves in a surprisingly nondescript street-front in grey concrete. Looking more closely you still find the facade uncommunicative in its extreme flatness, as if sculpted from a perfect planar solid. But the concrete is far from ordinary. It looks molten or ruined, in motion or decay. Apparently it is the acoustic medium designed for the inside of Underground tunnels: applied to the buildings, textures normally hidden below ground become mesmerising, like the endless variation common in the natural world.
That is the outside. The inside is a courtyard of indescribably irregular shape, reached up a narrow ramp. There is another, wider ramp leading downward, right next to this one. You only notice turning back at the end of your climb that the path was covered over your head by buildings from either side verging perilously near each other, closing off the courtyard and making it into a sort of interior.
There is endless variety here, of material, colour and form, different metals, wood and kinds of render, window alcoves that stick out, hollows and bulges that signal as yet unguessed functions, all kept distinct by changes of material and little indents expressive of nothing but difference.
There are also surprising consistencies: the ground underfoot is paved with small oak blocks and the walls are partly clad in a kind of wooden furniture, blinds or shutters made of dozens of individual cells each individually adjustable.
The result is an outdoor room of grand proportions that appears to be made primarily of wood. The architect likens it to the big council chamber in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, a dark haven of rich carving and huge canvases painted by Tintoretto. Maybe the sky overhead, fluent and changeable, stands for painting; but there are other references as well. The courtyard is dotted with copper lanterns of faintly Japanese shape that deflect light downward and make crossing the courtyard at night more like wandering in a garden than a city street.
Japan is everywhere at Walmer Road but well absorbed, not advertising itself. It’s there in the love of roughness, bringing outdoor substances and sensations indoors where they undergo a strange refinement without losing their directness. This is most evident in wall finishes that incorporate straw in ochreish clay or in a mysterious plaster like grey metal. Also in absorptive colours which made me think of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s praise of shadows and hatred of glare. Japan – where Salter made several projects and exhibitions in the 1980s and 90s – suggests itself in the whole attitude to light, the cultivation of darkness and the frequent setting of darkness off against light, and perhaps most of all in the appreciation of small spaces and a feeling for scale that achieves great contrasts of scale without resorting to bigness.
This love of smallness comes out most strikingly in tiny ‘gardens’ which appear unexpectedly, little walled-in outdoor spaces paved in very Japanese-looking pebbles (because a single well-chosen natural element can represent the whole idea ‘garden’) or two flat rocks in sand, or window seats which are versions of rooms or studies on the most notional scale.
One of my favourite moments is a minute internal courtyard which happens to be the only double-height space in the entire project. There is more than one way to come upon it: from below, with flaps or shutters opening into it from the rooms above or, as I did, turning away from a stair you have climbed, another kind of abyss, to find a matching tube with nothing in it, a void, a purer kind of space that you look down into.
Perhaps this is one of the moments in which you are most aware of these houses as a fitting or slotting together of spaces, as in a gigantic Chinese puzzle. Perhaps this is a misleading figure to describe a project in flight from white cubes and right angles and general modernist ordinariness. The most striking internal forms are curved: ellipsoid stairs running the whole height of the building; curved bathroom pods of dark steel finished in beeswax like large bits of furniture or rooms within the room; and most astonishing of all, the yurt-like irregular domed spaces, at once the most primitive and most geometrically complex of all. Here you are doubly enclosed, an intensification of shelter like stumbling on a womb inside the house.
Three of the houses have these yurts, three differing bulges expressed boldly on the skyline. The fourth house, D, has lost its top floor, which I took as one of the more extreme instances of the irregularity which pervades the project – which it is, but it is also the architect’s response to a practical necessity, the next-door neighbour’s right to daylight. The house lost its yurt but gained a toplit double-height space.
There is another whole narrative in other responses to brute necessity, like Salter’s decision to cut out chunks of a concrete ceiling to display wiring that would otherwise have defaced some beautiful in-situ concrete. Here modernist pragmatism meets the aesthete’s love of rough edges, like something nature in its innocence has landed us with – another of the moments in which this remarkable project reveals itself as so unlike any other building.
Mole Architects, John Comparelli Architects, Nick Coombe
Shaw Building Group
Crispin Kelly and Seb Kelly, Baylight
Lascaux Studio Paints
Cast glass lights
Davey & Co