15 Clerkenwell Close

Today Clerkenwell Close is mostly made up of mid to late C20th half brick stretcher bond pseudo pastiche facades unable to quite tell to which period or architectural language they represent.

15 Clerkenwell Close replaces one of these and aims in some way to better connect and represent the past with a broader contextual understanding than skin deep imitation, at first contemporary but reminding us of the all but vanished C11th limestone Norman abbey. Founded by Baron Jordan Briset for Augustinian nuns following the conquest. It was expanded and remodelled until the C16th protestant revolution brought about its dissolution. Precipitating a gradual erosion of the enclave which was at first appropriated as a single palace for the Duke of Newcastle then subdivided into grand houses for the newly protestant barons following the duke’s son’s beheading then cleared again by a republican revolution to make way for Oliver Cromwell’s London house. Following Cromwell’s death the restoration of the monarchy saw his house replaced with further subdivision into smaller rented properties which by London’s C19th expansion and mass immigration briefly housed Marx and a visiting Lenin. The last area of the abbey, its dining halls ignominiously used as a furniture show room before a fire and the 1970’s left only a few stones and the road layout as a memory. Whether Norman invasion, the killing of Wat Tyler and his Peasants’ Revolt, Protestantism, Republicanism, printing presses that fuelled these and grew from leafleting into book and newspaper trades later attracting Marx, Engels and Lenin to write for and use William Morris’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ (now the Marx Library); Clerkenwell has had a history of radicalism outside the city gates changing the times and physically changing with them.

Building anew within this context has to raise more questions than how to “fit-in” with the 1970’s and 80’s façade pastiches. Half brick thick stretcher bonds and poor solid to void proportions already betray a lack of understanding of period proportions and details. That they hide poorly lit deep plan office floor plates and cellular flats alike only adds to disingenuous claim of respecting context and fitting-in. Shouldn’t we question whether architecture in the form of façade composition for such purposes is to be the future of our architectural heritage and in turn our broader cultural development? We’d be somewhat perplexed if music, the visual arts or indeed the sciences limited their outlook and innovations to a criterion of fitting-in. Perhaps then this is more a question of whether architects following several generations of mastering two dimensional façade play have lost their literacy of the materials that at first defined those compositions? The innate structural and textural properties, the poetic possibilities of their architectonic and symbolic composition? The Normans brought with them the use of limestone fresh from the quarry as it remained soft enough to carve and key together before calcifying to make stronger fortifications. Solid brick walls became prevalent domestic and standard construction until the early C20th. The coming of steel and concrete frames and arguably for better weathering, fire and structural integrity allowed ‘façade’ and ‘structure’ to became ideas that could and would remain separate. Potentially leaving generations of architects without the knowledge, skills and in turn poetic possibilities of unifying both. Whether timber, stone, metal, glass, plastics or graphene these have intrinsic structural, textural/tactile properties and in the case of clip-on pseudo brick though perhaps initially misjudged have potential for wit and humour as well as expediency.  Understanding their nature allows us to use them literally or subvert and play with them for symbolic meaning and wit.

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At Clerkenwell self-finished materials such as stone and brass, carved and fallen columns, revealed cloisters, pebble mosaic floors, and scallop shell handles at first express a reuse of load bearing technologies to define architecture and allude to a local social/historical archaeology. With street level and tactile elements including door scallop shell handles and ionic capitals perhaps cryptically reminding us that the adjacent St.James like its Spanish Santiagio de Compestela and all of us has its footings in a predecessor. At Clerkenwell, the chapel to  St.Mary’s within the vanished abbey, in Spain in the Roman temple to Venus at which the pagan pilgrims would leave scallop shells to symbolise her birth.

The building accommodates 8 apartments and two floors of open plan and double height office space sit within ‘loose-fit’ column free floor plates that allow future change of use and layouts by removing the internal oak utility furniture that define their adjacent spaces. Previously unkempt land to the south has been landscaped to serve occupants and neighbours and incorporated into the narrative of abbey remains with new pebble mosaics and further part-carved medieval stonework. A biodiverse roof provides two beehives, bird nests and habitat for invertebrates. Four mature trees are used to soak up 90% of the average annual rainfall and therefore avoid rainwater attenuation tanks and further basement excavation. A glazed solar chimney is placed on top of the stair and lift core with a rain proof open glazed overhang to allow natural smoke ventilation and therefore avoid mechanical equipment, an increased carbon footprint and running/maintenance costs. The use of stone as superstructure reduces the embodied carbon of the overall superstructure by 90% compared to steel or concrete frames. Reason enough to promote the reuse of stone for such purposes, though its dressing in this instance is quarry found fossilized coral and ammonite shells can give way to any taste on other designs. Thermal bridging is overcome by disengaging structure from thermal envelope and using a 40mm solid nylon bar. This also aids better waterproofing by allowing a continuous curtain wall to run internally without attempting to waterproof all window opening within the stone structure. No stainless steel tensioning rods or sub-structure is used, only grout and gravity. Progressive collapse issues are overcome by increasing the reinforcement at the edge of the slab. As the building is less than 21m tall only one hour structural integrity is needed which in the case of stone actually relates to its ability to deal with the thermal shock of having cold water sprayed across it by firemen when having already been exposed to flames for an hour. Over 21m lava stone can be used to achieve 2 hours structural integrity. Overall construction cost can be lowered by around 25% as materials, trades and time otherwise used to water, fireproof and clad frames are removed while the superstructure cost in stone is 25% of that in steel or concrete. A greener, off-site prefabricated assembly system bolted together through an engineer’s and architect’s kit layout than past ambitions. In addition to its aesthetic all good reasons to use stone where possible.

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