We asked Abbott Brown Architects about the hidden potential in projects, embedding elements of surprise in spaces and when details should be revealed.
1. When looking for the hidden potential in a project, what things are you looking for?
We try to distill the project down to one or two core ideas. These usually come from a synthesis of our discussions with the client and our sense of the existing site conditions. So, for example at the Reclaim(ed) Living House the clients were a very inspiring young couple – a food ecologist and a musician. Their lifestyle needs were very overtly architectural – a large open space for a seven-piece band to practice in, and a bright integrated kitchen.
The existing house was very small, but the clients made the great decision to renovate, not move, which we thought was in itself inspiring. So, put that together, and the design needed to be nothing more than one big room with a kitchen. The radical thing about the project is its sheer simplicity. The best projects derive from these kind of super-simple briefs.
In the end, the renovation poses and answers lots of other secondary questions: the stairs and entry are concealed, there are little moments like the telephone stand and the bright south access to the garden, and the kitchen itself, being potentially so dominant in the space, is treated in a way which feels warmer and less sterile – less kitchen-y. All these different little opportunities come from having a clear primary concept, then allowing that attitude to inhale and exhale through the full extent of the detailed spaces.
2. Describe the element of surprise that you might embed in a space?
In architecture a lot of design touches on anticipation and sometimes surprise. We tend to feel that, like any art, the most worthwhile projects push us a little bit beyond our complacent presumptions, and suggest new ways of understanding the given conditions. It’s that tension between the mundane expected circumstance and the unexpected resolution that turns the mind on and heightens the senses – opens the eyes, as the saying goes.
At the Byre House, everything about the low, elongated form is a response to the existing conditions. The addition takes on the typology of barns and outbuildings, in order to preserve the existing symmetry of the gothic revival cottage. The material choices also work specifically to contrast with and stand apart from the pre-existing elements. But they do this as a way of ultimately telling a story of an aggregated, harmonized homestead. It’s about looking for a kind of deeper honesty about the site. Even the degrees of abstraction lend an honest contemporary presence to what is after all a modern addition. We like to tweak the dials of reaction and integration, such that the overall impression is thoughtful, even insightful.
The Cross Passage House is a similar example, where the design, which was set in the Lunenburg UNESCO Heritage District, feels at once contextual and minimalist – I know people who have actually argued whether it is ancient or very modern. It’s ultimately a modernist composition, of course, but that ambiguity is itself part of its potency.
3. In your opinion, when should details be concealed and when should they be revealed?
If you ask when should details be revealed I think most architects will answer that it has to do with whether or not they serve to illuminate or to obscure the overall design idea. For instance, we like end grain, because it heightens the material impression and of wood cladding. But, for example, at the Byre House we took pains to detail the flush eaves of the metal roof, because the idea was not about a metal skin, but about a wrapper of overall form.
Also, metal edges are sensitive to corrosion. But overall, we are less scared by the raw qualities of materials.
There is also an idea of wood “boxes” – small rooms, actually – plugged in to the overall gable form. For those sorts of meta-ideas to read convincingly, there cannot be too much fiddly detail to the boxes themselves, or the eye skips down a scale, and ceases to think of the boxes as single elements.