54 Ivy Street by Sam Jacob: child’s play and anything but | Architecture


Jhe Ivy Street Family Center is a small charity in Hoxton, east London, which offers a nursery school – an “oasis of warmth and fun”, the website says – for local under-fives. Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) was a radical architect in early revolutionary Russia who built himself an amazing house in Moscow. The two would not have much in common if they had not been brought together in a striking, romantic, multifaceted, mixed building, which contains more ideas than others 50 times larger.

This is 54 Ivy Street, by architect Sam Jacob. It is both a house, originally intended for Jacob’s personal use, and expanded and improved premises for the playgroup. It’s a new building, a rounded brick structure, and an old one, retaining a fragment of an old pub where the charity started in 1981. The building’s appeal is direct – childlike, you might say – a castle, a ship, a thing you can climb on, with geometric openings through which a giant toddler could push assorted shapes. It is also erudite, full of architectural allusions.

Its decoration is made of fragments and accidents. What would once have been tight brick streets of a type familiar to British towns, interrupted by the more spacious and lofty proportions of a nearby Victorian schoolhouse, have been further interrupted by wartime bombing and post-war planning. -war, leaving inexplicable gaps and discrepancies. There are rears of houses, overcrowded parking and an eight-storey slab of social apartments, ridged with concrete balconies – part of the Shakespeare-themed Arden Estate – happily called Macbeth House.

The “double-height living room in the diamond-perforated curve” of the house. Photography: Johan Dehlin

Over time, much of the old Ivy Street has disappeared, leaving a fragment of terrace with the pub at its end. An unknown official then drew a curved line on a map, indicating the boundary of an empty site nearby. This oddity caught the attention of Jacob, who saw an opportunity to build himself a house, while improving the playgroup facilities. He was once part of the triumvirate that ran the iconoclastic practice FAT, writers from the BBC studios at Roath Lock in Cardiff and (with Grayson Perry) A House for Essex until 2014, and wanted to show what he could do in his own name. So he started negotiating a deal with the family center.

Seven years later, this relationship being quite difficult to bring to fruition, the project is complete. The nursery school occupies the ground floor and the basement, the house the upper floors. The lower part of the structure fills in the curve of the site, adding a large wall in the shape of a bull to the old terrace fragment, a shape that repeats on the upper levels to enclose the main part of the house, then repeats again to make a small pavilion on the roof. The design sets up a chorus of U-shapes, joined by O’s – circular openings and a cylinder on the roof – and punctuated by an exotic pattern of diamond and triangle shaped windows.

Inside the house there is an array of contrasting volumes – a double-height living room in the diamond curve; a high work platform accessible by a ladder; an introspective wood-lined workspace; possibly a roof terrace to view the noisy London skyline – all orchestrated around a sequence of stairs that start outside, wrap around the curve and continue inside. It feels like you have several buildings in one, put together, to use a fancy art-historical term, in a architectural walk.

54 Ivy St.
“Its appeal is childish – a castle, a boat, something you can climb on”: 54 Ivy Street. Photography: Johan Dehlin

The reference to Melnikov, whose house also features diamond cylinders and windows, is (for connoisseurs) clear. There are more, less striking borrowings: from the 19th century visionary Joseph Gandy, who painted stacked compositions of different architectural styles, and from the sophisticated three-dimensional arrangements of the early 20th century Viennese maestro Adolf Loos. There are excerpts from the 1980s projects of John Hejduk and Toyo Ito, respectively American and Japanese.

The house number, written boldly on the metal above the front door, echoes the graphics of New York club Studio 54. The structures on the roof take inspiration from the water tanks above apartment buildings in this city. It is, in other words, an idiosyncratic encyclopedia of the history of architecture, to which local elements are added: Jacob’s design picks up on a high brick wall that encloses the courtyard of school recreation, on the ad hoc accretion behind the terraced houses, on the steps and terraces of social housing. To the already multifaceted neighborhood, it adds its own layers, but brings them all together in one satisfying object, bound together by the understated London brick of which it is mostly made.

The ironwork above the front door echoes the graphics of Studio 54, next to the old pub facade.
The ironwork above the front door echoes the graphics of Studio 54, next to the old pub facade. Photography: Johan Dehlin

It is conceivable that the references to Hejduk and Gandy would not be immediately understood by young users of the playgroup, or even by the average adult passerby. At the same time, we can note that the architectural pleasure is mainly granted to the residence, the nursery school being equipped with more ordinary spaces in the lower levels, even if the general manager of the family center declared herself “delighted” with this “wonderful facility for the community”. ”.

But the obscure nature of the sources matters little; the future inhabitants of the house (Jacob has chosen not to live there for the moment) will not be the only beneficiaries of his imagination either. The architecture gives fairly simple pleasures to the vast majority who don’t know these stories, while also offering evidence of a creative brain at work, which at the very least might spark some curiosity.

Melnikov suffered a career-ending denunciation when his style fell out of favor under Stalin. It would be an overstatement to say that FAT has been through something like this (and Jacob, for example, was paid employed on recently completed improvements to the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum), but it’s still the case that traditional construction in Britain found them too exotic to reward them much through skyscrapers and large museum buildings. Evidence from Ivy Street is that the FAT legacy still has much to offer the built fabric of the nation.

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