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How the architects behind The Howard de Walden Estate’s latest residential development found inspiration in a grand Edwardian mansion block 

Words: Mark Riddaway
Images: The Capital Group

Given its location behind the grand modernist monolith of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) headquarters, there is at least something appropriate about the rather motley appearance of Bridford Mews. It’s almost as though someone at RIBA had decided to gather up all the architectural styles of the 20th century and beyond, then pile them up out the back, by the garages. Like any Marylebone mews, this one has an appealing sense of cloistered seclusion about it, but unlike most it doesn’t feel part of a particular period of history.

“This mews is unusual because nothing in here is especially old, but neither is it consistent,” explains Tom Croft, director of Thomas Croft Architects. “It covers just about every era of modern architecture—there’s a building from the twenties, there’s a new building by Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects, there’s one that looks like it was done in the fifties, one in the sixties. It simply doesn’t have a style.”

This kind of stylistic soup is hardly unusual in an ever-changing city like London, but when Tom and his team were employed by The Howard de Walden Estate to come up with a scheme to replace five garages in Bridford Mews with a row of three new houses, it did present a particular challenge. When Westminster City Council’s planners consider new applications, what’s being proposed is their primary concern, but why it’s being proposed matters too. Often, the architects will be required to present a ‘design narrative’, which links the building into the broader context of its surroundings and provides a clear justification for the suggested look and feel. In a street that already has a clear sense of identity, coming up with that all-important story can be a straightforward task—but in a mews that displays all the narrative coherence of a Latin American telenovela, it required a significant leap of imagination.

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Distinctive and self-assured
So, rather than looking to the hotchpotch of neighbouring mews buildings for inspiration, Tom and his team instead found their story on the famous street immediately to the west—Portland Place. There, its rear aspect looming over the Estate’s five garages, was 70-74 Portland Place, a grand seven-storey residential block built in 1913 and designed by Frank T Verity, one of the most distinctive and self-assured architects of early 20th century London. What if, asked Tom, Verity had extended his apartment block out to the rear? The Estate’s new row of houses could be that imagined extension. “The idea is that this is the fictional back of the building,” says Tim. “It would have been the garages from which grand Edwardian gentlemen drove their Rolls-Royces. That’s a pretty strong design narrative. Westminster agreed.”

For their design, Tom and his team copied the distinctive elevation at the front of 70-74 Portland Place, but only the first two storeys. “We call it a ‘rusticated base’—rustication being the horizontal lines.” Verity had swum against the tide of Edwardian architectural trends by transplanting to London the French Neo-Grec style, which defined the 19th century reconstruction of Paris. His father, Thomas Verity, was himself a Francophile architect, best known for designing the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly, and Frank had trained in Paris in the 1850s. The younger Verity, who also built several London theatres and redesigned the interiors of Buckingham Palace, was a colourful character. “He was known as ‘Champs-Élysées’ Frank,” says Tom. “Apparently, he used to affect a French air and wear a beret all the time.”

Verity was more influential than his relative obscurity today would suggest, and echoes of his Neo-Grec mansion blocks, including 70-74 Portland Place, can be seen in many of The Howard de Walden Estate’s pre-1930 residential developments. It would be a leap to call the new 18-20 Bridford Mews design Neo-Grec—Tom and his team have riffed on Verity’s style rather than pastiching it—but the result is a building that feels very much at home in Marylebone.

Practical limitations
While the close proximity of Verity’s building provided inspiration for the design, it also created some practical limitations. “This is actually the third scheme we designed,” says Tom. “The first two were deemed too big—one of the constraints is that the flats behind are very close to the back of our building, so there was a lot of discussion about how much we could build without taking their light away.” Part of the solution was to create a pitched roof, which slopes away at quite a steep angle—this means that the façade of the houses is suitably grand, while plenty of light still gets to the apartments behind. The other was to seek depth rather than height: unable to create scale by building upwards, the team instead excavated beneath the site, creating a basement level.

To allay RIBA’s concerns about the impact of noise on its library and seminar spaces, the excavation work had to be carried out as quietly as possible. “A lot of it was done by hand, or using very small power tools; you use piles that are screwed into the ground rather than being hit—all those things make a big difference,” says Tom. “We had some particularly skilful excavation people called Abbey Pynford, who work on Crossrail and things like that. These days, the regulations are so well put together that things don’t go wrong. You’ll always find things in the wrong place—utilities that aren’t where you’re expecting—but we’re used to that. Really the only challenge is doing it quietly.”

The completed houses, which are being sold by Savills, may not tower upwards but thanks to those grand Verity-inspired stylings, they certainly don’t lack for impact. “Every building here is fighting for attention,” says Tom. He points up at Ken Shuttleworth’s showy modern apar tment block, which stretches up above the opposite side of the mews. “Ken is desperate for attention, isn’t he? He’s really going for it. Our aim was to own the look of the mews, and I think we’ve done that.”

Thomas Croft Architects