“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” — Mahatma Gandhi
A 2000 square feet three-storied house built partially underground in a conservation area of De Beauvoir estate in Hackney, London, for an architectural photographer Ed Reeve, by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, completed in 2007. The Sunken House or termed by the photographer as “Ed’s Shed”, stands amidst the Victorian neighbourhood, which mainly has semi-detached villas having elegant proportions with hipped roofs.
When seen from the street, the minimal cube structure appears simple but marks architectural punctuation by being sympathetic and unblended in the existing streetscape. Victorian Houses (houses built during Queen Victoria’s reign) were defined by their steep gabled roofs, bay windows, stained glass, decorative woodwork, and bright colours. Whereas this bold stained timber rain-screen cladding is a language that emerges strangely familiar and still makes one rethink the notion of beauty. A strikingly dark facade is an occasional signature of the celebrated architect, which can be seen in his similar works as Museum of Contemporary Art, Dirty House, Pitch Blackhouse.
“The Victorian world is extremely dark and extremely bright.” — Harry Treadaway, a British actor
Being an architectural photographer by profession, lighting plays an important role for the client. The design of the house is such that it maximises the sunlight within, and it augments a different visual story inside compared to the solid outside. The shed is at the basement level excavated like a pit by creating a sunken courtyard accessible through an 800 sqft integrated dining kitchen and a bathroom adjacent to the timber cladding linear staircase seeming brazenly light with the wash of white walls and the play of light penetrating within.
A secondary bedroom is below the parking porch abutting a deck and steps that descend from entry-level to the courtyard. It is an urban oasis for the occupants, with different compositions of immersing light, shade and shadows throughout the day.
Living space at the entry-level is with large windows fixed with openable shutters and small pictured windows positioned to avoid overlooking and consequently igniting the visual senses by focusing the openings towards the specimen trees around. The bedroom situated at the upper level is with a study that can be converted into a kid’s room in the future and is with an uninterrupted view towards the neighbouring gardens and still maintains privacy from the adjoining houses. The house is lit mainly through long horizontal and vertical openings on the upper floors and the courtyard opening on the lower ground.
A requested visual treat skimming over the top of maple, oak and rubina tree creates a dramatic effect with light piercing through a 17 feet wide and 5 feet high window. Another window in the bedroom overlooks a neighbour’s bamboo and a church tower. Entry to the three feet by six feet balcony at the study is camouflaged with panelled deep blue cabinets and is enough for a lounge chair to fit in, but is mainly used as a peep to check someone at the entry.
The flat roof is with open-able skylights, vertical windows that seamlessly wraps over and provides a panoramic view of the sky. A trapdoor accessible through the living room ceiling is designed with a pull-down ladder to climb up to the roof. Its height matches with the surrounding workshop buildings that sprung across the street during that time.
Ed’s shed is as clean and minimal inside as it looks from the outside, a cryptic wooden box tweeting through the traditional low brick wall garden fence. The minimalist manageable interiors being a priority for the client, interprets in the bare kept walls. The use of neutral tones, pale blue, accents of black on walls and furniture supplements the trailed pattern formed by the light through the surrounding foliage, a walnut dining table and midnight blue Charles Eames chair, all together complements the bold exterior. Hemp insulation on walls provides thermal and acoustic insulation within.
The design of any project adapts according to the client’s requirements. As David Adjaye states: “buildings are deeply emotive structures, which form our psyche. People think they’re just things they manoeuvre through, but the makeup of a person is influenced by the nature of spaces.”
For the design and construction of this load-bearing house, the architect worked with a London engineering and contracting company, Eurban, which specialises in high-end prefab homes. They translated the architectural drawings into fabrication drawings, which were further sent to a factory in Aichach, Germany, where the entire structure — floors, walls and exterior cladding with all the windows and openings cut out were manufactured off-site and installed in about a week. Not only, it kept the construction costs in check, but also it allowed the construction to complete within a stipulated time frame.
The cladded timber is repeated as the deck flooring, making the shed appear as one monolithic dark stained timber house by embracing the enclosed and the open spaces. As per an article in New York Times written by Elaine Louie—At night, the boxy structure recedes from view “like a big black void,” Mr. Reeve said, and the client also mentions that after a few drinks, the house has a nasty habit of disappearing altogether. (Louie, R, 2007)
For a typical London house, this Sunken house is unconventional. However, it extends and polarises the usual pattern of each floor with a slightly different relationship to the external context: with its private courtyard below and the panoramic view above. Exterior colours go in and out of fashion or are evergreen neutral, but uninterrupted black has seldom been a preferred choice.
Louie, E. (2007). A Black Box Among the Georgians (Published 2007). The New York Times. [online] 29 Nov. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/29/garden/29adjaye.html.
Adjaye Associates. (n.d.). Sunken House. [online] Available at: https://www.adjaye.com/work/sunken-house/.
ArchDaily. (2012). Sunken House / Adjaye Associates. [online] Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/213736/sunken-house-adjaye-assocates.
homify.co.uk. (n.d.). The Sunken House, N1 | homify. [online] Available at: https://www.homify.co.uk/ideabooks/24566/the-sunken-house-n1 [Accessed 26 Aug. 2021].
www.archiweb.cz. (n.d.). Archiweb – Sunken House. [online] Available at: https://www.archiweb.cz/en/b/zapadly-dum-edova-bouda.
Aamodt / Plumb. (2017). Sunken House by David Adjaye. [online] Available at: https://aamodtplumb.com/sunken-house-david-adjaye [Accessed 26 Aug. 2021].