A quart in a pint pot
How a new development tackled the challenge of turning the tight corner of a mews into a spacious residential development, while also bringing a much-missed pub back to life
Words: Mark Riddaway
In most places, the creation of a new building is a fundamentally straightforward exercise: you start with a plot of land, dig down to set your foundations, then continue construction in a vaguely upwards direction. But such conceptual simplicity is a luxury rarely afforded to architects working in Marylebone, a conservation area in which planning restrictions are tight and space even tighter. Here, almost every new project begins with a hefty Gordian knot, demanding to be unpicked.
This much was certainly true of The Howard de Walden Estate’s impressive new residential development on Weymouth Mews, a street which, with its confusing array of dead-ends and tangents, is itself quite knotty. One consequence of the street’s asymmetric layout is that the building adjoining 34 Weymouth Mews is (doubtless to the confusion of any stand-in postman) the rear of number 43, a pub whose entrance is found on a completely different branch of the mews. In order to create a spacious, modern, seven-apartment residential development in this tight corner, the Estate planned to demolish number 34, previously a small and fairly uninspiring house, and create a new building that would extend to the rear while also melding to the upper floors of the pub.
Even by the standards of Marylebone building projects, the Estate’s brief was a demanding one. “We were asked to insert a building into a very compact space, constrained and overlooked on all sides, which made it very difficult,” says Julian Morrow, a director of Morrow + Lorraine, the architects commissioned by the Estate to untwist this particular conceptual tangle. “We also had to connect a new building into the old pub building, and the link between the two was a complicated thing to achieve. This was a relatively small development, but also highly complex, and quite challenging from a planning point of view.”
Building upwards was never an option—the modest elevation of the mews is a large part of its charm, and one that is quite rightly protected—so the only way of enlarging the site to accommodate the apartments was to dig down. “That introduced another design issue that we had to solve: how do you get good standards of daylight down to the basement level so that it doesn’t feel like a dark basement,” says Julian. The answer could be found in the space behind number 34, between Weymouth Mews and New Cavendish Street, which had recently been acquired by the Estate from Asia House. The courtyard, previously home to an unsightly cuboid of 1960s concrete—a building used by Asia House for storage and temporary exhibitions—was sufficiently voluminous that, once this ugly extension had been demolished, it could easily accommodate a rear addition to number 34 while leaving enough open space to supply plenty of natural light to the apartments.
“The ground level in the courtyard was already about half a storey lower than it was on the mews side, so by digging down another half storey we could allow the basement flat to face out onto the courtyard, with large windows and plenty of natural light,” says Julian. “A lot of fairly complex engineering work was required to make that happen, but that excavation was central to making the whole project work.”
The rear of the new building was set up to create an intricate series of stepped terraces, each of which has been planted as a green rooftop, designed to boost biodiversity as well providing an aesthetically pleasing echo of the courtyard’s past. “This space would once have been the garden to 63 New Cavendish Street, so in a way we’re bringing some of that planting back,” says Julian. “The outlook from the back of Asia House is now much improved—much better than the big concrete box.”
A positive constraint
While the planning authorities provided the architects with considerable latitude in their approach to the courtyard, the same wasn’t true at the front of 34 Weymouth Mews, where a stipulation was made that the original 1920s facade be retained. “That was very important to Westminster and to Historic England,” says Julian. “You’ll find this all over the borough, anywhere you have a mews building. Even if it is quite a modest building like this one, if it’s of a certain age they want to preserve it.”
“We actually viewed that constraint as a really positive thing,” says Tom Powell, an associate at Morrow + Lorraine and the lead designer on the project. “If we’d been asked to design a facade, to get it through planning—which can be quite conservative in a setting like this—we would have ended up with something that felt like a pastiche; maybe a slightly modern take but still a fundamentally traditional design. We were happy to keep the original facade and make it a feature of the design.”
As a result, one of the most unusual characteristics of what is a fairly bold piece of modern architecture is that most of the bold, modern aspects are entirely hidden from view—rather than bellow at passers-by, this is a work of high-grade design that keeps itself to itself. Its corner of Weymouth Mews looks much like it always has—a little more spruce, but essentially unchanged—while inside and hidden to the rear, a whole new world opens up. “That’s one of the things that makes this such an intriguing project,” says Julian. “You can’t really see it from the street; it’s designed to be enjoyed by the people who use it and by the people in the surrounding buildings whose view we think it improves. It’s quite arresting that you walk through this traditional facade and find yourself in a strikingly modern building as soon as you cross the threshold.”
That sense of modernity presents itself in both the materials—a restrained palette of pale brick cladding, cast concrete, blackened steel and dark timber—and the fine detailing. “In the common parts, we have these big concrete sheer walls, then in between those we’ve put really beautiful walnut timber panelling,” explains Tom. “Where we have joint marks in the concrete we’ve aligned that through with the panelling—a lot of love went into getting that right.”
“The Estate wanted the common parts to feel quite luxurious, and when we explained our concept of expressing the structure and having bare-faced concrete, their concern was that it might feel a bit cold,” says Julian. “But they trusted us, and it has worked really well. The introduction of the wood, and the detailing of the stair and the carpet, means that it is anything but basic and utilitarian, and the quality of the light really makes you feel like you’re entering a luxury development.”
The lighting in the stairwells and corridors has been designed to increase the impact of the sun-drenched apartments. “In the common parts, which are essentially your journey from the entrance into your flat, the lighting is at quite a low level, so the contrast you get when you enter these flats, which are so airy and brightly lit, really hits you,” explains Tom.
The new apartments share a similar palette, although the two above the pub, which have retained much of their period detailing, have a slightly different feel—albeit still clean, light and modern. “We tried to create something quite contemporary but appropriate to the building itself,” says Tom.
Bringing life back to the pub, not just the flats upstairs, was an important part of the project. In this day and age, it is unusual—and extremely heartening—to come across a residential development that has sought to revitalise a historic pub rather than occupy it. The Dover Castle closed its doors in 2016, but thanks to the Estate’s redevelopment work this beautiful Grade II listed tavern has now reopened as The Jackalope, its striking early-19th century wood panelling still proudly intact but its facilities extended to allow for the installation of a modern commercial kitchen—currently turning out the exceptional Sichuan noodles of street food legends Liu Xiaomian. “The pub’s basement previously had quite a small floor to ceiling height, so it couldn’t really be used for much,” says Tom. “We ended up digging the basement down to increase the height so that they could have a kitchen down there—originally the pub had been using one of the bedrooms as a kitchen space.” Now, the bedrooms are bedrooms once again, and thanks to the magic of acoustic separation the pub can go about its business without disturbing the peace of the residents.
The success of this complex project was, says Julian, testament to the Estate’s approach. “They allow the designers to get on with their jobs, to find the answers they need. Obviously, they are very much involved with briefing and with ensuring that the design meets their requirements, but they never dictate to you how you should do it. That’s what you need in order to successfully design something, but it’s very much not the case with all clients.” Julian and his colleagues have now turned their attention to transforming the Estate’s historic headquarters on Queen Anne Street into a contemporary office space. Another Gordian knot awaits its skilfully unpicking.