When last has there been such a lovely, dumpy, cuddly little thing built? Not just in Ireland, but in the whole wide world? That’s what the jury at the World Architecture Festival must surely have asked itself (disclosure: I was a judge in another category, for best villa) before awarding David Leech Architects the winner of the best house in the world category at WAF Amsterdam before Christmas 2018 for its very first building.
First projects are often freighted, overloaded with everything that has to be let go of. But there is something, almost – what is it? – slightly short-changed? – about this baby in Clontarf that just wants you to cuddle it. Depending on your perspective, it may look at first like it’s missing a limb, but it’s actually an architectural ballerina, possessed of the most exquisite grace.
To me, it speaks of old dreams that go back to the foundations of what might have been an alternative history of modernism. Skyhooks and Raumplan. That’s one really weird Soviet-Mitteleuropa mashup visited upon us here, in miniature, a century later in suburban northside Dublin. Yet nor is the structural solution unconnected to one of the houses built at Sea Ranch in northern California in the 1960s – a recent, post-design, discovery by Leech that he shared with brio when we met at his east London studio.
The Clontarf house won planning permission in 2007, but was knocked back by the recession, when Leech left for London. When he came to doing it again, and set up his practice over there in 2016 for this purpose, “It was like tackling a refurbishment of an unbuilt project,” he says. Permission had only been granted because of his genius rethinking of planning rules governing private open space for suburban houses. “Several earlier applications had all attempted to transplant the estate houses directly onto the site without any adjustment or acknowledgment of the more unusual site location and shape. After inspecting the failed applications, we realised that the major obstacle to obtaining permission was private outdoor amenity space, which is calculated at a square meterage per bed space, hence the council decision to grant permission previously for only a one-bed bungalow. The key was in thinking of the house and garden together, not as separate entities, but as one.
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