Welsh School of Architecture

Research Projects

Four Houses in Notting Hill

Peter Salter

The following article was published by Building Design on 31 March 2006 on Peter Salter's project for four houses, written by Ellis Woodman:

The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare
by Ellis Woodman

'Peter Salter had all but retired from practice in the nineties, devoting his time to teaching until former student Crispin Kelly, now in the fast-paced world of developing, sought him out to create four bespoke houses in Notting Hill. His unusual plans have not disappointed.

'The Architectural Association has always attracted students from a wide range of fantastical backgrounds but even by its standards Crispin Kelly must rank as one of its more singular alumni. When he took up a place there in 1986 he had already completed a degree in history and had five years experience in property development behind him. During his diploma years, his attentions must have been somewhat divided. Alongside the student work, he was developing a 12,000sq m project on Sloane Avenue, designed by Stanton Williams.

'His tutor at the time was a no less remarkable individual. Peter Salter was perhaps the most influential player in British architectural education during the 1980s. A one-time employee of the Smithsons, his teaching built directly on their legacy - reawakening a generation of students to the poetic capacity of building construction. Younger architects such as Caruso St John and Sauerbruch Hutton - whose designs bear little formal resemblance to Salter's own - have spoken of his formative influence on their way of working. Kelly soon discovered that Salter operated at a rather more measured pace than he was used to. "Peter was forever restraining decisions because they weren't sufficiently considered," he recalls. "Whereas for me the process of decision making already seemed far too slow. I got to Easter in my final year having not yet agreed a site with him. At that point I began to suspect that there might be a plot to keep me there for another year but we did make it in the end."

'Since graduating, Kelly has returned to the world of development, realising projects with Lifschutz Davidson, Sergison Bates and Pierre d'Avoine through his company Baylight Properties. Now 15 years after he left the AA he has set about adding his one-time tutor to that list.

'In the eighties, Salter was working in collaboration with Chris Macdonald. Together they had established an international following on the back of a series of competition entries represented by some of the most meticulous architectural drawings ever committed to paper. However, as the years passed the practice's development began to feel overshadowed by a mounting irony. While the work was distinguished by a frankly fetishistic interest in the means of its construction, the partnership had yet to put its name to any realised buildings.

'Towards the end of the decade that at last began to change. On the recommendation of Alvin Boyarsky', then AA chairman, they were asked to design a folly for the 1989/90 Osaka Garden & Greenery Exposition. On its completion the partnership split but Salter secured commissions for two further buildings in Japan - a woodcarving museum and a pavilion in the northern Japanese Alps. It was a time when AA contemporaries such as Zaha Hadid and Peter Wilson were also getting significant breaks from adventurous Japanese clients. But while they built up major practices on the back of those early opportunities, Salter - whether as a consequence of circumstance or inclination - did not. Following the completion of the Kamiichi Mountain Pavilion in 1995, he all but retired from practice, devoting much of the past decade to teaching.

'Kelly has harboured ambitions to see his ex-tutor realise a project for Baylight for some time. However he knew better than most the level of commitment that such an undertaking would demand. "Peter is an immensely talented guy who has not had any work in this country, and that seems to me to be wrong," he says. "It is also true that he is very difficult to work with. Peter, I am sure, would be willing to say as much. If he isn't, I would suggest he is in need of some serious self-examination."

'Finally, a year and a half ago, Kelly took the plunge. He had found a plot on the western edge of London's well-heeled Notting Hill occupied by two-storey industrial units. He asked Salter to design four high-end houses for the site.

"I thought this project was potentially a good one for Peter," Kelly explains, "because it was obviously going to be expensive to build anything that he designed. Therefore if we were going to do something with him it had to be done in an area that provided good resale value. Here, we should be able to make 600-700 per square foot. In Brixton we are building some housing with Tony Fretton for 130-140 per square foot but it would be hopeless to embark on a project with Peter on that basis."

'The site was extremely tight. With adjacent properties hemming it in on three sides, the introduction of adequate daylighting represented a major challenge. This could only really be answered by the introduction of a central courtyard to which the four dwellings could be oriented. Even with this arrangement, each dwelling would occupy a relatively modest footprint and overlooking distances would have to be pitched on the very limits of acceptability. Salter has evidently viewed these conditions less as constraints but rather as spurs for an extraordinary outpouring of formal invention. What he has imagined is an environment that stands as an exotic world unto itself where conventional notions of domesticity find little purchase. As his client says: "We are asking people to live in a piece of poetry."

'Two of Salter's houses front the street, presenting elevations of board-marked concrete at low level with highly polished Marmorino plaster above. Their distinctive modelling seeks to negotiate the change in scale between the two-storey cottages to one side and the three-storey 1980s residential development to the other.

'Passing through the bronze gates that close the gap between, one discovers a vehicular ramp leading down to an underground car park and a pedestrian ramp rising towards the courtyard at the scheme's heart.

'Salter's wildly romantic drawings - replete with gambolling nudists - invest this space with a near erotic charge. Only 5.5m wide at its narrowest point, the interior life of the houses will always be near at hand. Issues of privacy are negotiated by bespoke iroko louvres in front of all areas of glazing. Residents can manually swivel these open and shut, three at a time. The floor of the courtyard is also in iroko, giving the space a soft acoustic and something of the character of an outside room.

'A significant reference has been the timber-lined interior of Venice's Scuola di San Rocco. Salter identifies the use of floor-mounted lighting and perimeter benches in this high space as a particular inspiration. He recognises that the character of the space represents a shift from the qualities of his earlier projects. "The way [Chris] Macdonald and I originally worked was very much to do with the precise layering of materials," says Salter. "When I went to Japan, the work became less precise, less fraught, perhaps - in some people's eyes - cruder. But they had a material power that I hadn't thought was possible before. That's something I've learnt from. I think people respond to strong, materially bound spaces. This project wants to be materially overt in that way."

'The houses themselves are dizzyingly bespoke affairs, each inventively responding to the demands of its immediate context. House 4 is the most introverted, being lit exclusively by rooflights and by way of a private yard set within one corner of its territory. This strategy answers planning constraints that demand it should rise to no more than a storey above ground level and can present no windows to the neighbouring property's garden. The others are three storeys, with reception areas on the ground floor, bedrooms on the first and living space on top. All are united by a common constructional syntax, devised to offer the interiors an intimate, furniture-like scale. The principal internal walls of the bedroom and reception floors are in concrete, held shy of the floor slabs by areas of glazing in order to offer a sense of expansiveness to what are relatively small spaces. The bathrooms, however, are conceived as pods, faced in metal and with a swinging shutter as the only gesture towards privacy.

'On the top floors of the three- storey houses, the construction comes closer to boat building technology. Here, the living spaces are accommodated in yurt-like cold moulded timber shells. Currently, the plan is that they will be faced internally in preformed-glass-reinforced gypsum. However, Salter is also investigating the possibility of leaving some areas of wool insulation visible.

'Although the project manifestly represents a courageous act of patronage, Kelly is adamant that it has to stack up as a financial proposition. The idea that Baylight might end up dividing its workload between commercial projects to pay the bills and boutique schemes to satisfy his artistic interests appals him. "Exemplar projects are hopeless because they don't go anywhere," he says. "This isn't an AA project. It isn't an exhibition. We both feel we want to audit it in terms of the spaces that it offers. It has to be a useful addition to the city. "I'm very committed to doing it but I don't want to start detail drawings until we are comfortable that we've really got something workable. It's still very open but we're not going to straighten out all the curves to make it cheaper. The market in the area isn't like that. Commercially, you're actually better off having the curves."

'For his own part, Salter seems remarkably at ease with this process. "We've been tuning the scheme and I think it has got much better as a consequence," he says. "We're now asking things like whether it's reasonable that a family all use a bathroom in a pod in the bedroom or whether there should also be a proper family bathroom as well." In fact Kelly notes that of all the architects he has employed Salter has struck him as among the most responsive to the suggestions of others. It is a trait, Salter explains, which was instilled in him by the Smithsons. I suggest that the high tolerance for improvisation that his language affords must make such an inclusive approach easier to sustain than it would be for many other architects. "That's true," he says. "Mies probably wasn't the most flexible guy to work with."

'Next week, the scheme will be considered at planning committee and, if all goes well, Kelly should soon be in a position to appoint a young practice to work with Salter on its detailed resolution. Eighteen months into the process, he clearly hasn't lost any enthusiasm for the endeavour. "Most developers would give you six weeks to put in a planning application, so I have really been very patient," he explains. "I am not suggesting that this is a virtue. It is a necessity in dealing with Peter but if you are hoping to do something interesting, sometimes you have to make that kind of investment. As a student I always felt that he was a grumpy, interesting, poetic presence and that it would serve him right if he had to do a project with me one day".'