‘There was a great deal of magnolia paint’: An Irish architect breathes new life into a classic London home

“Good bones, but lacks personality”. It sounds more like a postdate character assassination than a house description, but that’s what Irish architect, Mark Smyth of Studio Bua, was faced with when called upon to turn a Georgian mews house in London into an envy-inspiring lavish gaff.

“There was a great deal of magnolia paint,” he recalls. There were also three bedrooms and a living arrangement that had a bedroom and bathroom at ground floor, living and kitchen areas in the middle, two bedrooms up top, and no private outside space.

Mews houses can be many things: storage sheds, granny flats, artisan studios, bijou city pads, or demolished to make way for something more modern. Once upon a time, they were simply for stabling and space for coaches, rather like a glorified garage. Today, they are, as estate agents might like to say, dripping with potential, although they are less valued in Ireland than they might be.

Londoners, on the other hand, have learned to love their mews houses. They were made famous by the likes of Francis Bacon, whose Reese Mews Studio, now painstakingly recreated in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, was both the site of extraordinary artistic creation and some epic parties. They were also given a suave twist by The Avengers.

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Predating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Patrick Macnee was the one of the original Avengers, whose character, secret agent John Steed, took to the small screens in 1961. There, he weekly fought off spies with the likes of Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman and, later, Joanna Lumley.

When not tackling criminals bent on world domination with his umbrella, Steed would retire to his mews flat (so famous, it has its own fan site) for cocktails or, sometimes, cups of tea. Despite looking somewhat dated to today’s eyes, Steed’s flat was era-defining.

London’s mews houses are now almost over-gentrified but, as this Belgravia renovation shows, you can pack an awful lot of luxurious living into a tight space, and there is a great deal to learn from Smyth’s project, which was done in collaboration with Eliská Design.

Smyth runs his London-based architectural practice with partner, Sigrún Sumarliðadóttir. Currently known for sleek urban conversions, and projects making the most of the landscape in Sumarliðadóttir’s native Iceland, the pair are also presently fulfilling one of Smyth’s fondest ambitions by scoping out some projects in Ireland.

Located in a conservation area, the longest part of the Belgravia process was planning, and the City of Westminster’s planning process is as quixotic, if not more so than most. For added complexity, the house is also leased, as is whole chunks of London, from the Grosvenor Estate, which has a list of approved colours for the links of doors and windows. You’re not going to get away with a hot pink portal in these parts, so here the team went for a blue reminiscent of Doctor Who’s Tardis.

Despite being overlooked by taller neighbours, roof gardens are frowned upon as, the logic goes, they limit other people’s privacy. The garage area at street level also can’t be used for living accommodation, as it must be kept, in a nod both to the original purpose of the building, and a vain belief that someday these multimillion pound houses might once more house artists. They might, but only if they are scions of the exceptionally wealthy.

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Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Smyth was able to make the case for a roof terrace, accessed by a windowed hatch that opens at the touch of a button, and which would undoubtedly have made John Steed enormously excited. The garage is billed as a palates studio and covered entertaining area, but who is to really judge what you get up to behind closed doors?

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Smyth’s best advice for those planning projects in tightly knit neighbourhoods is to speak to the immediate neighbours in advance, and go through a pre-planning process, to get feedback from the planners ahead of submitting final designs.

In this house, the vibe is clearly one of getting up to fun across its 147sq m. The ground floor has been opened up to accommodate a dining area and a neat kitchen, where you could cook, or at least open salad bags, and there is ample bespoke blue storage so you’re not troubled by the uncomfortable sight of anything as prosaic as a kettle or toaster on the Lemurian blue granite (quarried in Madagascar, no less) counter tops. Light oak parquet runs throughout, and Smyth notes that this kind of continuity can make a tight site feel more spacious.

The first floor now features a large living and entertaining area, a separate custom built cocktail bar, and a separate study, in case all that entertaining needs a little counterbalance. Tucked away behind the bar is a small loo, decorated, in wild abundance with Extinct Animal wallpaper by Moooi, the Dutch experts in exotic design.

Adding drama in the smallest rooms can lift an overall design while keeping your principal rooms light and airy. The top floor houses two double bedrooms, both en suite.

“The ground floor had been gutted in the ‘70s or ‘80s,” Smyth says. “It didn’t feel very homely, so we researched proportions, and tried to integrate things such as the client’s own artworks, and antique pieces such as 1940s wall lights sourced from Guinevere Antiques, originally from the Colisée de Roubaix in Paris.”

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According to Smyth, the owner, who was downsizing, appointed them as architects before she bought the house, so they were involved in the process from the very beginning. The decision to shave a bedroom off is one that might daunt many, but, Smyth says, while “there is often a fear that you’re going to devalue a house if you make it work for yourself; in that area, it doesn’t really affect value, because people are looking for something a bit different.”

While you may not be in the market, or pocket for an ultra-luxe city entertaining pad, there are still things here to inspire. Look closely, and see that the main streets of Ireland’s county towns abound with archways leading to intriguing back spaces, many with coach houses intact, if somewhat dilapidated. And while Dublin doesn’t have London’s range of preserved mews buildings, we do still have the Dublin Artisan Dwelling cottages, built at the turn of the last century, albeit to a smaller scale and for a different purpose.

These streets of urban cottages would be highly prized in any other world capital. Flexible thinking, and architectural and design ingenuity can reshape, and repurpose an abundance of spaces without resorting to demolition and rebuild.

Repurposing is also a great deal more environmentally friendly in terms of embodied carbon. Maybe it’s time for some new avengers?

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