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A LIFE LESS ORDINARY

Alfred Munkenbeck - Munkenbeck+Partners Architects

18th Jan 2016

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From the restoration of brutalist architecture to the transformation of period buildings and the creation of exciting contemporary new work, we meet the extraordinary architect that is Alfred Munkenbeck ...

American architect Alfred Munkenbeck came to the UK 40 years ago from Harvard Graduate School of Design. In the late-1970s he began his UK career with James Stirling, before working towards a practice of his own. Fast forward four decades and Munkenbeck is still at the helm of the company that bears his own name. Begun in the mid-1980s, at a time when excess was the name of the game, Munkenbeck began to make his mark in a quiet and considered fashion, elevating contemporary architecture from the realms of mere functionality, adding excitement and interest to every project his company was involved in.

A whole host of accolades has been collected along the way, including six RIBA awards and consistent recognition from CABE and the Civic Trust. Munkenbeck has a body of work and awards that any architect should be proud of, and one that should endear both he and the practice to the powers that be in the communities where they work. But that’s not necessarily the case, and one of the practice’s recent private residential projects, a terrace of three houses in Notting Hill, was subject to two years of planning scepticism. It’s indeed ironic that the same council that had opposed the project later endorsed it with their 2015 ‘Environmental Main Award’. One of the houses that form the terrace is currently for sale.

Tell us about the houses at Waldo Road.
It sounds like their creation was very much in the face of adversity. Sadly this was the case, although the outcome is delightful. The site forms the end of a street of terraced houses and someone in the planning committee insisted on Victorian pastiche rather than anything different. We argued that this was inappropriate as our design formed a natural existing end to a terrace facing an industrial view. Our contemporary interpretation of the terraced house has a very small environmental footprint as it utilises heat sourced from 400 foot deep chalk boreholes and ventilation through a ducting system that effectively cleans, cools and warms the air without the need for traditional heating systems. The houses also have an alternative division of space, with more modest bedrooms and loft living space that you could argue is far more suited to 21st-century lifestyles. I have a family and for me the most exciting spaces are the basements. They are large enough for table tennis tournaments, football games, swimming pool – all the things that you might normally have to do outside, you can do in this indoor garden. 

Recreational facilities feature heavily in your residential homes. Is this element driven by the client or do you have a personal mission to see us all in better shape?
We lead busy lives, so for many people working out at home is more of a necessity than a luxury. Secretly we would all like a little bit of the Soho House magic at home and, executed properly, it is possible to create wonderful spaces almost anywhere, that serve as relaxation areas too. Something simple such as the steam showers in the Waldo Road properties add a discreet element of luxury, while a pool with a rising floor, such as the one we created for a private castle in Ireland, makes a great dual use of available space, turning into a terrace when not in use. On a grander scale though, the new hotel we are designing at Noss Marina will have the ultimate in rooftop swimming with far reaching views over the River Dart Estuary. 

Noss Marina is a huge project. How did the concept for this special part of the coastline develop?
Noss Marina is an interesting project. The existing boatyard has been there for over 150 years and the harbour is much loved and much used – a little too much in fact as demand for moorings is so incredibly high. The redevelopment will increase the amount of berths available to 300 boats and introduce 150 new homes at the edge of the water. We have set all of the properties in the scheme on stilts to compensate for high tides and made provision for homeowners to sail into and out of their own private pontoons. There is also a hotel with facilities to support the very family friendly residential community and independent visitors. I grew up on the water in Connecticut and sail regularly on The Solent, so this particular scheme has more than a professional interest for me.

You’re currently developing residential homes in St Lucia and West London. How does the parallel management of these projects differ?
The house in Notting Hill is a beautiful testament to period architecture, situated on one of the most desirable streets, adjacent to an important garden square. Here we have created a complete open living area on the lower ground floor, which has helped us to redefine the space. This is a complex and difficult project to execute but we have been able to apply futuristic structural techniques and draw upon some of the best available engineers and materials. This has enabled us to create a space that, combined with the upper floors, will give the owners a very marketable home when their children flee the nest in a few years. This whole process has taken a four plus year development period and we were their third architects on the project. 

I have recently returned from St Lucia where we have completed a nine-bedroom villa with four swimming pools surrounded by hummingbirds in bougainvillea. It is easier to build whatever you want in a location like this than it is the UK but the availability of materials and access to skilled labour is challenging. We used concrete and lots of greenheart timber from Guyana and sustainable teak from colonial plantations in Trinidad, which was shaped into louvered shutters, external panelling and furnishing. The build programme includes the creation of a 33ft bridge that spans the void from the front door to the entry point to the site, and a huge cantilever section that relies on slender crisscross timbers. The local planners and builders said that it couldn’t be done so we created a step by step ‘how to manual’ to ensure that the construction was executed exactly as it needed to be. And it does all stand up! You can see the outcome at villacoulibri.com

Your particular style of architecture has been described as ‘modernity without austerity’. Which project do you feel best illustrates this statement?
I like to think that we challenge the perception of modernity by purposely making our buildings feel welcoming. The houses we have built at Waldo Road were designed to provide a relatively minimalist living environment through the use of classic industrial rather than domestic construction materials. Raw concrete walls and ceilings with heavy timber floors — a bit like ‘50’s brutalism — are on show. By creating spaces that need little enhancement from decorative possessions, it is possible to inhabit the spaces in a more purposeful way. On a larger scale we recently completed a refurbishment of the Jerwood Space, a public community space and rehearsal facility that is used by many West End theatre companies. The design is functional and simple and its modernity has refreshed the existing architecture of the building. 

What are the greatest challenges facing architects today?
Since the Paris Agreement, we have all been trying to adopt a more energy efficient approach. As a practice, for some time now we have been creating buildings that have a more effective influence on their environment. We are always looking for new ways to improve in all kinds of spaces.

We are currently working on an office building in Clerkenwell where we have turned the brick stock around to expose the porous elements as part of the façade, which gives an inkling to the way that the interior has been approached. Modern office environments do not need heating, as sufficient heat is generated from the computer equipment and people that inhabit the space. It is cooling that is needed. Our scheme has created a natural ventilation system that relies on huge roof vents which open at night to cool the concrete fabric, which then stays cool during the day. We have applied a similar system to the houses on Waldo Road, which also use heat and cooling from the ground and passive solar. At Noss Marina we have pitched the buildings on stilts to compensate for the high tides in the area. None of it is revolutionary, just a more considered approach. 

Where in the capital are you based and why?
We were in Shoreditch for many years but in the end we moved our practice west. We are situated at the junction between Old Oak Common and Scrubs Lane. This is about to become the biggest building site in London, making way for Cross Rail and HS2 and the Mayor of London’s plans for a new Docklands type Development in the west. It’s an incredibly interesting and exciting time to be in this part of London and fantastic for incoming investment.

How does an American in London spend time when he’s not working?
I have spent more of my life in the UK than I have in the USA and I continue to love the international communities that exist here and the cosmopolitan atmosphere that prevails in cities like London. There really is nowhere like it. We have access to world class cultural facilities on our doorstep from the Royal Ballet to the West End theatres, independent cinemas and restaurants and some of the greatest museums in the world. I can spend endless hours at the Tate Modern. Most weekends I escape to Hampshire for a bit of quiet sea or nature. 

Design obviously occupies a large part of your mind but what else is allowed to take up space?
Food! I love Greek food and I daren’t tell you where my favourite restaurant is, as I don’t want it to become too popular. 

When your time is up, how would you like to be remembered?
It was a great privilege to work with the architect Denys Lasdun on the refurbishment of Keeling House in Bethnal Green, shortly before he died. The buildings had been designed in the 1960s and had been earmarked for demolition before we secured their future through restoration and private sale. I would like to think that the practice is remembered for the role it played in this.

Personally my greatest inspiration is the architect Louis Kahn who rose from academia to become the most important American architect of our time. He is a great man to look up to and I would hope that some of my projects have excited and inspired others in the same way that Lou Kahn’s work has for me.

Munkenbeck+Partners Architects; mandp.uk.com