In London, a house built into a railway arch
Wandering through the streets of the Elephant and Castle area in south London, the adult explorer might happen upon one of the many railway viaducts that cross the city with their slim lines and regular rhythm. Faced with what is perhaps the most engrossing example of urban regeneration, they might even see the fantastical image of an elephant swallowed by a boa-constrictor – instead of a uniform brown hat.
This is exactly how Didier Ryan, an architect who seems to have borrowed the perspective of The Little Prince, shaped his house with its rusty skin and soft contours. It stretches up in height and is cut by slits, rising to the challenge of an inhospitable site. “Initially I was looking for something inexpensive for my family,” says Ryan. “London is pricey, but luckily there were still places that people considered uninhabitable, meaning they were being sold at lower prices. The railway arch where I built our house was one of them.” Before designing Archway Studios, as the project was subsequently named, Ryan recalls how his architecture office Undercurrent Architects was engaged in designing buildings that did not present any particular difficulty pertaining to the surroundings.
“This time it was different, because our aim was to use design to make the most of an industrial site with huge, objective limits such as noise, vibrations, darkness, damp and scant ventilation. What is more, it was about doing something new, suggesting an original use for abandoned railway arches.” He decided to purchase it, even though at first sight it was nothing but an old garage with a past of illicit cockfights and rave weekends. In his mind, it combined all kinds of references: Charles Dickens, the Victorian era, counter-culture, steel sheet, and of course the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. To his photographer and stylist wife Candice Lake, the encounter with this cave-like place was something of a shock. “She certainly couldn’t imagine the transformation that it would undergo, but she had faith,” Ryan smiles.
The light penetrating the cuts that he sliced into the outer shell of the structure is intense and vibrant “even in winter when the sky is grey and the days don’t look promising.” This is thanks to the height, which expands the space and offers the acoustic comfort of a giant shell. The envelope has an influence on the interior, which features a combination of continuity and discontinuity. “Everything responds to the same need for light, from the architecture to the furniture,” says Ryan. The perfect white of the long, ecclesiastical space of the atrium continues in the cavernous space of the arch, only interrupted by the bright colours of the furniture. “The credit for the furniture goes to my wife Candice,” he says proudly. “She and Pia Bayot Corlette of MonteVera Design worked in close contact to create a gallery of contemporary and classic pieces of Italian and international design.
It’s a hypnotic mix of geometric prints and pop colours.” From the living room to the kitchen, we find armchairs and tables by Moroso and &Tradition, and lamps by Michael Anastassiades, Lee Broom and Ettore Sottsass. They alternate with graphic patterns by India Mahdavi, Jonathan Saunders and Diane von Furstenberg. All shows Lake’s maximalist taste, and the pleasure she takes in juxtaposing sophisticated references. At the same time, the diverse settings that come into view one after the other and form an immense play area for the couple’s two children show how the experience of the house can be unexpected. “From the outside, it looks tall and narrow, but from the inside it is spacious and voluminous.” Crossing the threshold through the small side door and entering the narrow corridor is like entering a magic world. “Do you know the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Well, it’s just like that,” says Ryan.
Article published on the April/May issue of ICON DESIGN.