Home exterior colours go in and out of fashion, but uninterrupted black has seldom been a popular choice. That doesn’t bother Ed Reeve, whose inky new house lurks among the 1830s’ brick Georgians in De Beauvoir Town in London like a stealth bomber in a field of biplanes.
He loves the colour, even if it’s a little too stealthy at times. At night, the boxy structure recedes from view “like a big black void,” Reeve said. And after he’s had a few drinks, it has a nasty habit of disappearing altogether. “One night I came home a bit drunk,” he said. “There’s no ironmongery, like a door handle or key box or escutcheon, there’s just a hole in the wood in which to fit your key. I couldn’t find it.”
A strikingly dark facade is an occasional signature of David Adjaye, the celebrated architect who designed the house. He made a similar choice in his new building for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which opened in October with a glass exterior “so unassuming that many people driving past it on 15th Street are likely to pay little if any attention,” according to an article in The Denver Post. But much of the interior of Reeve’s house, like that of the museum, is a radiant study in illumination from a variety of sources: strategically placed windows, skylights and concealed incandescent tubes.
“It’s all about light in this space, and how it travels around the building,” said Reeve, who moved into the house in January with his companion, Michela Meazza, a dancer with the Matthew Bourne troupe.
Owner’s pride: Reeve and Meazza.
High-impact, scene-capturing lighting was important to Reeve, who often photographs fashion retail interiors for clients such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Gucci. He was photographing Adjaye 10 years ago for an exhibition in the windows of Selfridges department store in London when the two struck up a friendship.
Over the years, the photographer and architect talked about collaborating on a house. They frequently went to land auctions—a common means of selling land in London—to find the perfect plot, only to be outbid by developers time and again.
In 2003, a friend of Reeve’s told him about an undeveloped, 1,600 sq. ft lot being sold in De Beauvoir Town, a quiet tree-lined enclave in the East End populated by middle-class families and professional couples. Reeve was immediately interested.
Though Reeve, who is now 35, does not have children of his own, he has a niece and nephew, 12 and 10, with whom he spends a lot of time, and he wanted a house with room to grow. “I lived a mile down the road in Shoreditch, which was an up-and-coming area when I moved there, and it’s now a Soho of the East End,” he said, adding. “I wanted something quieter, more of a family neighbourhood.”
He visited the spot on a cold, bright day in September, when the sun was just beginning to set. “I saw this overgrown jungle,” he said. “But there was an oak, there was a birch, there was a maple, and the sun was pouring through the trees, and I fell in love with it.” He bought it for around $300,000 (approx. Rs1.18 crore at current rates).
For the design and construction of the house, Adjaye worked with a London engineering and contracting company, Eurban, that specializes in high-end prefab homes. Eurban translated his architectural drawings into fabrication drawings and sent them to a factory in Aichach, Germany, where the entire structure—floors, walls and exterior cladding with all the windows and openings cut out—was assembled, then delivered in panels to the site.
The basic 2,000 sq. ft house was constructed in two days, though it took 10 months to finish everything.
For the walls and floors, Adjaye chose spruce from sustainable timber forests in Germany. The cladding is the thin-ribbed underside of pine decking, stained black with linseed oil. Building costs wound up at around $1 million, Reeve said—twice what he had planned, because he splurged on a white poured-resin floor on the third floor, for maximum brightness, and a pine wall and gate in front.
The 800 sq. ft first floor contains the dining room and a kitchen that opens on to a black-stained pine deck with a fence. This level is above ground but below the street, which is why Adjaye dubbed the project “Sunken House”. “It looks like it’s sunken within its own materials,” he said.
The 600 sq. ft second floor has a master bedroom, a bathroom and a study that could become a child’s bedroom. The top floor, which is also 600 sq. ft, is both a photo studio and living room. A window, more than 17ft wide and 5ft high, skims the top of maple, oak and rubina trees that Reeve lighted for dramatic effect. That view was one of the “visual treats” Reeve had requested; another is a window in the bedroom overlooking a neighbour’s bamboo and a church tower.
“It’s not about punctuating the facade with a lot of windows,” Adjaye said. “It’s where you put them.” Only one of the windows—in the office-study—opens, so Adjaye devised a ventilation system with a series of doors, barely visible when closed, that can be opened to let in fresh air.
Similarly camouflaged is a balcony on the third floor that takes insider knowledge to find. Adjaye hid the entrance on a wall of deep blue cabinets where Reeve stores his photography books and paper rolls.
The balcony, 3x6ft, is big enough for a lounge chair but is mainly used as a lookout to see who’s at the door—and a spot for Reeve's niece and nephew to play.
©2007/The New York Times
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