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Helm Architecture

8th Mar 2016

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Helm Architecture, a central London based practice, was established by Dr Nicholas Helm in 1991. Since then, they have amassed a large portfolio of collaborative work in an impressive range of fields, such as theatre, performance, archaeology, education and museum design. Adding to this refreshingly diverse body of work, the practice is currently working on The Rose Revealed Visitor Centre, Shakespeare North, the Octagon Bolton and the Hoghton Tower Visitor Centre.

The practice is now also making a name for itself in the residential division; its latest achievement, a boldly abstract roof terrace at Vernon Yard currently for sale through Domus Nova. In an exclusive interview with Dr Nicholas Helm, we gain an in-depth understanding of his practice, and the design process behind the roof terrace. 

Who is Helm Architecture?
Helm Architecture is a small creative architectural team in Central London. We have a special interest in performance-space architecture and its relationship to forms of drama. We also have a lot of experience with ‘the private house’, yet we still consider this to be the most complex building of all.

How do you get inspired?
The concept for a project in context (the context is centred on the client of course) is always the starting point. The abstract idea follows and the real excitement develops as this takes form. The detailed elaboration extends the inspiration as the idea is distilled and becomes crystallised.

What does a successful project look like to you?
A happy client.

Is there one singular factor that you always try to incorporate into your projects? Or a signature perhaps?
Not really evidently so; but as complexity is ironed out, or at least as contradictions are constrained and ordered, there is usually a twist in the design, a ‘turning-moment’.

You have developed several projects around the country, as well as London. Do you feel your work has helped give a cultural voice to cities and towns that might otherwise be overshadowed by London’s prolific reputation?
In the North in particular - other people’s ideas and briefs for cultural projects have been given shape by our designs, the two most captivating being the Shakespeare North project in Prescot near Liverpool and the re-design of the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. These exciting projects will hopefully highlight places other than London in the national and international cultural arena, especially this year, which marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

The terrace at Vernon Yard is intriguing. What was the starting point for its design?
My wife, Estelle, led the design of the roof terrace at Vernon Yard. We were offered a small cubic 'open' space with nothing but the sky above, and instantly saw the potential there. It was a wonderful blank canvas to be handed, and the clients, who are collectors of fascinating artworks, both inspired us and gave us a free hand.

Certain surreal elements of the terrace remind us of German expressionist film sets of the 20s. Have you ever consciously taken inspiration from iconic set design?
We really thought of an abstract landscape in white - with a single central small tree - as well as other specks of planted colour, and abstract but related furniture pieces. Think flotsam and jetsam, ships carcasses, the beach. It's what we could think of as ‘coordinated debris’. But there is a geometric faceted quality which may subconsciously have originated from those sort of Art Deco abstracts of 1920s cinema. 

Tell us how the space came together…
The space came together as two physical models: one about the perimeter walls as a landscape, the other about the objects in it (the tree and the furniture). These were then combined in a third model which became our final scheme.

What is your favourite element of this project? Are there any features here that we might see in your own home?
I wouldn’t say ‘element’ so much as ‘characteristic’: I like how the light reflectivity makes you feel like you’re on holiday, and I love the acoustic. The small space then seems so big, and the sky and clouds an integral part of it.

At our home which we are currently refashioning nearby, there are certainly similar characteristics; particularly the emphasis placed on the sky. In this case the emphasis is extended further into the penthouse living space either side of a terrace, achieved by ‘splits’ in the roof. To see and be constantly aware of the changing sky, day and night as the seasons rotate, and to experience the mobile ‘art’ - a diorama - of fragmented geometric patterns projected on the walls and floors, adds another dimension to urban living, giving access to an unspoilt landscape in the city where other landscapes are lost. In this project, we are integrating the outdoor 'room' as living space in a Miesian sense. 

What do you see happening in architecture and design at the moment?
Since Frank Gehry’s Bilbao, a split: a fantastic acceleration of complex form being built, of course facilitated by digital methodologies, creating extraordinary ‘nets’ as building envelopes. And on the other hand, perhaps a disappointment that much of this still does not surpass the formal intrigue of Gehry’s fragmented designs.

What movement or trend is surprising you the most?
I have noticed that architecture is becoming very visibly 'polite'.

What should we keep our eye on?
3D printing and its implications for construction, fabrication and a new mass-producible architecture, which is quickly affording us a rather different aesthetic vocabulary.

What’s your favourite spot in London and why?
Somewhere in the middle of Foster’s Millennium Bridge. I’m often there walking from St Pauls to the Rose Theatre archaeological site (another of our most important and absorbing projects).

The spine-like bridge, marking a big moment in time, links the genius of Wren to that of Shakespeare and Marlowe. You can see the great power of the commercial towers of the city, now Piano’s Shard too (there seems to always be a new one rising). You can really sense the presence of Hertzog and De Meuron’s brilliant work on the Tate Modern, as well as the ever-changing art it houses. You can see The Globe as it may have been, think of the Festival Hall, National Theatre, Hayward. Exciting architecture everywhere.

You can think of the river that has been there all along which surges underneath as a powerful and timeless moving landscape in the city; one that was once, for the plays of The Rose and The Globe, a thriving scene of ferries and boats.

In this spot, on this crossing, landscape and city are one. It is as though no time is really prioritised. The power of the river beneath is echoed in the sky above; it is a point of suspension - 'transtemporal suspension' it might be said - from which to think about architecture and art; playmaking and playwriting.

If you hadn’t been an architect, where do you suppose life would have taken you?

I nearly trained as a medical doctor, but I would like to think a sculptor.

Helm Architecture;

See more of Vernon Yard currently for sale through Domus Nova.

Photography © Hélène Binet