Palm Springs Comes to Surbiton: The Airy Villa That Shakes Britain’s Quintessential Suburb | Art and design


isIt is surprising, for a profession dedicated to building very large, very expensive, and very durable structures, that architects never learn how to actually build. During the five years of teaching in Britain there is the occasional module on structural principles and the strange lecture on bricks, but most students graduate without knowing how to construct a building.So when you meet this rare species of architect who worked on a construction site, it shows. Design decisions take into account the practicalities of how things go together, rather than an idealized image passed on to others to be solved. Things like the weight of a cinder block and the process of manually scribing a concrete floor are given due consideration, as are ways to save time and money.

This hands-on experience is refreshingly evident in the work of Surman Weston, a young duo who, just a few years after graduating, have already built a number of small projects. Their first commission came while they were students at the Royal College of Art in London, building a cafe for the sculpture department in the form of an elegant wooden cage. Designed and made with his comrade Joseph Deane, it wasn’t just a cut above the institutional canteen – it looked like it could be displayed alongside sculptures in the college’s summer exhibition. Then came a shingled writer’s shed in London, which spawned several similar garden constructions, laying the groundwork for their latest and most important project: a quietly radical house in Surbiton.

Like a child’s drawing… the front of Ditton Hill House. Photography: Johan Dehlin

This archetypal suburban haven on the south-western outskirts of London isn’t known as a hotbed of contemporary architecture, and the new house doesn’t jump out at first glance. Set back from the road, it looks like a child’s drawing of a house, a flat white cutout with a pitched triangular roof, a large square grid window, and an oversized front door. The cartoonish manner continues with a faux Tudor structural grid running through its facade, the diagonal bracing cutting through white painted bricks. But here the grid is not glued wood, like its neighbors, but a steel frame, the bearing bones of the building that allow space gymnastics to occur inside.

“It was a pretty weird file,” says Tom Surman, who was a site foreman for a year after graduating, and spent several summer vacations working with his uncle builder. “The client loved the mid-century Modernist homes in Palm Springs, and she also wanted an elevated industrial space, which had to blend into its suburban surroundings. The result is a wonderfully original hybrid of these three unlikely influences, combining the feel of an airy California villa with a raw industrial unit, clad in a ghostly subverted suburban costume.

As you walk through the large, theatrically tapered entrance you come to a dramatic triple-height entrance hall: the first sign that this is no ordinary suburban nest. A concrete staircase with a wire mesh balustrade wraps around a wall, while a gigantic Velux window shines light through a corrugated iron ceiling. Exposed cinder block walls, coated with a slurry coating to soften their cruelty, lead through a lower-ceilinged hallway, down two shallow steps, to a large oak door that opens into the main living room. It’s a compelling collage of the raw and the refined, with inexpensive materials highlighted by the way they are deployed.

Extending the 12 meter width of the house, with no columns in sight, the living room has a full height panoramic window to the garden, the glazing being divided with the same oversized square grille as the window to the front of the house. It’s a motif that echoes both the area’s 1930s Crittall windows and an enlarged version of Tudor leaded faux windows, reused here on a more industrial scale.

Fertile land… the writer's shed by the same team.

Fertile land… the writer’s shed by the same team. Photography: © Wai Ming Ng

The vibe of the factory continues with metal ceilings, simply exposing the underside of the profiled steel floors above – a system more commonly used for multi-story parking lots. “We’re really in the cogs of how things go together,” Surman says. “It’s important that you can read how it’s made, and not everything is covered in drywall.” The absence of the usual finishes has also reduced costs with the total construction budget amounting to £ 600,000.

From the back garden, the house is quite another thing. It is more reminiscent of an Alpine hayloft, with a perforated brick wall crossing the upper level, again pierced by a large central cyclopean opening. The first floor juts out, providing shade for the living room in summer and creating a partially enclosed balcony for the master bedroom under the eaves. On paper, as a one-story building with a high pitched roof, the house is a bit different from the bungalow that occupied the site before, which is perhaps why planning was so easy. As a client, fashion designer Amanda Winship, jokes, “It’s a bungalow with a generous loft conversion.”

In east London, architects applied a similar spatial trick to a radically different dossier. Taking over an abandoned warden’s house in the grounds of Mandeville Elementary School in Clapton, their new Hackney School of Food is a low-key beacon towards the mission of healthy eating. In this deprived area with high levels of obesity, it’s Marcus Rashford’s school meals campaign in architectural form.

Led by a network of three local primaries and the Chefs in Schools charity, the project saw the obnoxious brick building gutted and fitted out as an educational kitchen, with height-adjustable custom cooking stations for children of different ages. ages arranged around a voluminous double space in height. As in Surbiton, the finishes were kept raw and exposed, with traces of the old gatehouse hanging from the upper walls, and the shoestring budget was spent exactly where it needed to be.

inside the Hackney School of Food.

Sober… inside the Hackney School of Food. Photography: Jim Stephenson

A large bay window has been pierced in the wall facing the street, where a playful mural by illustrator Jean Jullien announces the presence of the new community facility in the neighborhood. Outside, a raised flower bed garden is already teeming with edible plants, next to a conical brick pizza oven, recently lit for a Halloween fundraiser. Budget allows, a second phase will hopefully see beehives and an aquaponics greenhouse, as well as a landscaped amphitheater.

“It was one of the most rewarding projects we’ve worked on,” says Percy Weston. “We are very keen to do more public works, where architecture can have a real social impact.” With their rare understanding of the practical art of doing, with prudent economy of means, Surman Weston seems uniquely positioned to push tight public budgets forward.


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