Ship shape: nautical modernism takes to the trees in a Highgate house
In the conservation area of north London’s leafy Highgate, a glass egg can be seen high up in the canopy. The egg is an indoor conservatory that perches upon a vessel, which is balanced on a brick base. This layered architectural structure is 6 Wood Lane, the eccentric location for Wallpaper’s October fashion shoot (W*223), where a platter of denim – with pieces by Tommy Jeans, G-Star Raw, Levi’s and Diesel Black Gold – was served up among the transparent room’s hanging succulents, and photographed by Ivan Ruberto.
Completed in 2012, 6 Wood Lane was designed as a home for Mike Russum, who was both client and – with the Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects practice, of which he is a director – the project’s architect. Russum describes the upper volume as a ‘vessel’ because of its aerodynamic and nautical references.
Russum initially wanted to build the conservatory out of aluminium, but it turned out to be more efficient to use boat-building technology. Thus, the vessel was made of bent plywood ribs with a rendered exterior. Russum describes the base of the structure as a ‘sardine tin, cut down the middle’, which forms a platform onto which the walls – like ‘giant hockey sticks that join at the roof’ – were secured. Pre-fabricated in giant panels off-site in Lincolnshire, it was crane-lifted into place, onto an in-filled concrete brick base cut into the hillside. You can imagine how surreal the house looks on a quiet Highgate lane.
Our October 2017 denim shoot was shot on location at 6 Wood Lane. Photography: Ivan Ruberto. Fashion: Jason Hughes
The architects inverted the floorplan of the narrow, four-storey house to maximise on sunlight and space for the open-plan kitchen, dining and living area, which sits in the upper floor of the ovular vessel. The impressive double-height space sees light flooding in from roof windows, balcony doors at the bow and of course the crystalline egg, which sits above a floating mezzanine level. The lower floors contain the more conventionally shaped bedrooms – where the master room opens up to the verdant garden. Russum sees the house as a journey, leading guests from the aluminium entrance ramp into a curved galley corridor and wooden stairway, that gradually winds up into the conservatory helm of the ship.
He describes how the house brings multiple architectural influences together: ‘It’s about the entrance promenade, an overhang [and] column-free space – which are some of the core principles of the modern movement.’ He also credits the practice of architect James Stirling, who worked with geometric and mechanistic forms, as an influence. And while he admits to enjoying an ‘exuberent’ architecture, he is also resolute on the method and theory behind the work. ‘Our work isn’t a stage set,’ he says. ‘It's about having a stage that is three-dimensional and how things interact with each other – everything is wrought and worked.’
The interiors, also designed by Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects, are ship-shape and hard-working – durable resin rolled floors conceal under-floor heating, while neat in-built storage hides wine racks and shelves for books, keeping the deck clear for relaxing and entertaining. The furniture is all bespoke and the smooth, tough material Richlite is ubiquitous across the house, from the kitchen surfaces to the curved breakfast bench. Sourced in Canada, the material was chosen for its strength and seamless joins.
The entrance way, with in-built seating and storage
Above the breakfast bench, two slanted windows hint at the complex architectural structure beneath. ‘They lean, they aren’t vertical,’ Russum says of the windows, ‘but that’s because of all the pointed ribs – it’s a gorgeous implication of the strategy.’
At the top of the house, in the floating conservatory with yellow and blue surfaces and leafy shrubs climbing out of planters, Russum’s interior designer partner crafts her carved wooden sculptures and the architect sits with a drink at the end of the day, to soak up the warmth of the sun.
‘I always liked the idea of it being an elevated conservatory, partly inspired by James Stirling, who had this fantastic house in Belsize Park with a conservatory – the Victorians did it too,’ says Russum. ‘A lot of the time the glass almost melts away. When you have the planting in front and planting beyond, you do feel like you’re in the plant canopy.’