Smerin Architects follows Piers Smerin's 13 years as founder of Eldridge Smerin designing cutting-edge contemporary houses in the UK and abroad. Smerin has won awards from the RIBA and the Civic Trust among others, including being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize for The Lawns in 2000 and receiving the One-Off Housing award at the 2009 Architect of the Year Awards. This is complemented by his earlier experience in the offices of Simon Conder, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and John McAslan. Recent projects include a new-build family house in southern England, another contemporary new-build in London’s Holland Park and finally Palus-Trio, a new house designed for a site on New York's Long Island which seeks to infuse the discreet elegance of the best mid-century modern houses with a dash of contemporary brio. Smerin's particular skill is his ability to fuse bold ideas with attention to the smallest detail, creating houses that while an obvious product of their time also express the spirit of their site and the personality of their owners.
When we caught up with Piers to find out more about one of their most significant works and how they're influenced by the world we live in, he is more than happy to talk about Red Bridge House and Number Ninety. We took the opportunity to slightly grill Piers too. Enjoy...
“I have been long inspired by attitudes to housebuilding in North America. From the relaxed informality of the Case Study houses built in California in the late 1940s and 50s, with their flowing open-plan interiors and desire to embrace the outdoors, to the more formal and self-consciously architectural houses built in the 1960s and 70s in upstate New York and the north-eastern seaboard, the finest houses in North America always seem to be bold, optimistic and adventurous and devoid of the concerns about outward appearance that too often results in the kind of unadventurous housing that peppers the UK.
RED BRIDGE HOUSE
One of our recent projects, Red Bridge House on the border of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, is intended to have a similar degree of confidence and honesty. Although located in an area of ancient woodland deep in protected countryside, the five-bedroom family house is set on the edge of a hillside overlooking a stream and the farmland beyond. Arranged over three floors, the middle level, where you enter the house via a weathered Corten-steel bridge, contains an array of largely open-plan living spaces linked by a generous covered terrace that wraps around two sides with the bedrooms and bathrooms located on the floor above.
The two upper floors are in turn suspended above a swimming pool enclosed by glazed sliding doors that allow it to be an indoor or outdoor pool depending on the weather. The bold rectilinear form of the house is clad in a mix of timber and weathered steel panels that frame the large areas of flush glazing that provide views to the landscape beyond and ensure that the house relates well to its woodland site. Internally a mix of fair-faced concrete walls, polished concrete floors and elements of exposed steelwork structure allow the construction of the house to be understood, keep maintenance to a minimum and contrast with the oak veneered joinery. As well as being a distinctive addition to the rural landscape, the house also includes an array of energy-saving systems, ensuring it has the sustainability credentials that so much post-war housing lacks.
Set among the period villas and terraces that surround London's Holland Park, Number Ninety is a new-build family house also by Smerin Architects with a similarly strongly contemporary appearance. Here, inspiration comes from attitudes to housing in the densely packed cities of the Far East, particularly Japan, where space is at a premium and used to maximum effect. Although organised like a classic London townhouse with two floors of living space below three floors of bedrooms, the accommodation is slotted together with the efficiency and spatial dexterity of the best houses in Japan that make use of tiny scraps of space in inner city areas with incredible skill.
The lower two levels are linked with glass floors and lit by roof lights, projecting frameless glass bays with sets of full-width folding glazed doors to the rear to enable the living spaces to be opened up to the courtyard garden beyond on both levels. The floors above make the most of the space available and its end of terrace location creates a mix of five bedrooms, bathrooms, a dressing room, laundry, storage spaces and a balcony that while limited in floor area feels spatially generous through full-height glazing and careful views out to the city around.”
PIERS SMERIN, SMERIN ARCHITECTS
Piers, what inspired you to work as an architect?
I always wanted to design things and so started out studying landscape architecture. Time and time again, I kept putting buildings into my designs and so realised I had better do architecture instead given it covers the entire spectrum.
Where did you learn your skills?
I studied in London at what is now University of Westminster followed by the Royal College of Art.
You have won numerous awards from RIBA and the Civic Trust, how important do you deem awards within architecture?
It is obviously nice to win something but more importantly awards are a great chance to show the public the range of innovative thinking that is around and hopefully inspire people to commission something out of the ordinary themselves.
Which architect influenced you to start such a career?
When I was a student I think it fair to say that architecture was at a low ebb in the UK with few interesting modern buildings being built and the public seeming to prefer the past rather than the future. I tended to be influenced by the great Modernist architects like Mies van der Rohe and Arne Jacobsen, who were probably a bit out of fashion at the time, as well as what was going on in places like Japan and Brazil where faith in the future still reigned.
Who makes up your team at Smerin Architects?
We offer a very bespoke service so I oversee all design work personally but have a few trusted assistants to help get the work done.
What has been your biggest career challenge?
Persuading potential clients that good design takes time and does cost a bit more! The good ones accept it and reap the benefits.
What was it like working for some of the UK’s architectural heavyweights? Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Simon Conder…At the time it was fun while exhausting. In retrospect even though their work was very different, they were all fanatical about getting it right which was a great source of inspiration.
In turn, what has been your biggest career highlight?
I generally don't overly dwell on the past and hope the best is yet to come but I guess having designed a few houses that have been cited as changing people's perceptions of contemporary living in this country has been rewarding.
What architectural trends can you foresee?
People always want projects to move quickly so are attracted to products and systems that are both well designed and readily available. To address this we have developed a glazed extension system called Vitrendo that enables householders to order a state-of-the-art glazed structure tailor made for their property without needing to commission a bespoke piece of design, so saving time and money without sacrificing quality.
Where are you based?
Clapham, Vauxhall, Nine Elms or Stockwell, depending on which of my children you ask. We can't seem to agree.
What other city / place could you live in in terms of inspiring architecture?
There are lots of places I could imagine being: Amsterdam, Berlin, Melbourne to name a few but London does have a compelling mix of people and possibilities at the moment that makes it difficult to walk away from. As a Londoner born and bred I also like doing things in places I knew as a child.
What building or structure do you wish you had designed?
The Shukhov Tower in Moscow. An extraordinarily delicate hyperbolic structure built in the 1920s that was dubbed the Eiffel Tower of the East and that I assumed had long ago been demolished but suddenly saw from the window of a taxi a few years ago as we sped past. I still don't quite know how it stands up.
Do you enjoy working on more city-based projects or in the country?
I like both and the contrasts between the two.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an architect?
I guess I'd be a landscape architect who kept trying to design buildings.
What inspires you daily?
How do you switch off?
Cycling, the gym or gardening.
What are you currently working on?
Some new-house projects and an entirely glazed gallery building in Oxfordshire to house a collection of historic British motorcars - a 'temple' to British engineering.
How did you spend your summer?
Cycling in southern France.
What is Piers Smerin’s USP?
Fusing bold ideas with attention to the smallest detail.
What does the future have in store for Smerin Architects?
No idea, which is how I like it!
Discover more about Smerin Architects on the Domus Nova Architect Guide
Smerin Architects, The Studio, 28 Killyon Road, London SW8; smerin.co.uk