Not knowing any architects, they scoured the neighbourhoods of Belfast looking for contemporary houses they liked, hoping in this way to find a compatible architect. One Saturday, they found the house they were looking for and knocked on the door. The owners, two prominent architects – Billy and Jane Hanna, of Kennedy Fitzgerald and BDP, respectively – invited them in and listened carefully to what they had to say before recommending a newly established local practice of great promise, Hackett+Hall. (The practice went on to became Hackett Hall McKnight in 2008, when Ian McKnight joined, winning the UK Young Architect of the Year Award that year, and has traded as Hall McKnight since Hackett retired in 2010 to lead the Forum for Alternative Belfast). It was a perfect match – an “inclusive and stimulating relationship,” says Peter, which gave rise to “an enjoyable journey”.
Peter and Sandra already knew they wanted a first-floor living room when we met,” says Hackett. “By treating the living room as an inhabited wall, one side of the room would face into a 20m-deep stand of deciduous trees, while the other would have a long view to Belfast Lough. And here, in this Victorian suburb we wanted to make a house for them that would have all the dignity of a villa but built on a budget of £80-85 per square foot.”
Hackett+Hall drew inspiration from Gunnar Asplund’s Villa Snellman – incidentally, Asplund’s first work of significance – built in the Stockholm suburb of Djursholm in 1918, Le Corbusier’s Villa at Carthage in Tunisia of 1928 and Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller in Prague of 1930. From Asplund came the idea of a shallow house, one-and-a-half rooms deep, major and minor staircases and the visual play between an elegantly austere house-front and a jaunty, tented sunroom tacked on to one side, while Le Corbusier and Loos provided the magician’s trick of mystery, surprise and a spatially rich interior of interlocking volumes.
The Dowling house embodies many of the traditional qualities of the best urban and rural houses – the former in its compact modesty, the latter in its rich internal circulation patterns and delight in its surroundings. It is transformative of its suburban location, fronting on to a private laneway. By not retreating behind the boundary at the edge of the site but instead creating an ambiguous threshold, it is evocative of a mews lane.