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Best Green Houses:

The Giving Trees

Tonkin Liu
London

In a wealthy quarter of London, decorative panels are a converted attic's beauty and brains.

By David Sokol
December 2011
Photo © Sue Barr

The affluent neighborhood of Marylebone would seem the last place to find empty, neglected space in London. Yet a former servants quarters, the attic of a Grade II apartment building, was vacated in the 1950s and never repopulated. As many as 40 maids occupied this 2,850-square-foot interior, which forms an L shape to wrap around a 147-foot-long terrace.

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Now, Tonkin Liu has reinvented the apartment to house both work and relaxation. Inspired by the planning of the building’s Beaux Arts foyer, the London-based architecture studio conceived the wings as thematic, and designated a signature room around which secondary rooms constellate. Gray linoleum flooring and bleached oak-veneer panels line the interior uniformly. Both light-colored elements amplify the sense of spaciousness—the panels also hide the many angled planes of the mansard roof—and reflect daylight.

In the wing known as the refectory, the main room is an eat-in kitchen with adjoining study whose island, dining table, and octagonal desk are all fabricated from white acrylic-substrate material. Each of these landmarks is paired with a skylight in the same size and shape. In the so-called salon wing, the signature is a fireplace located at the entrance of the master bedroom visible from both bed and bath. For another focus of attention, the salon’s automated sliding panels can be summoned for watching a projection or plasma screen.

In this apartment, movable surfaces embody Tonkin Liu’s clever contribution. Revisiting the oak-veneer panels, for example, they move aside to reveal storage, climate and lighting controls, a boiler, and, in the salon, even a guest bed. The wood grain also intimates usage. In the refectory, the panels feature a vertical oak grain, marking it as a standing space; oak grain in the salon wing runs horizontally.

The alcoves feature more smart surfaces. Doors on offset hinges can fold against the mansard roofline to provide uninterrupted views. Also consider the alcoves’ 3-millimeter-thick, white powder-coated aluminum panels featuring laser-cut perforations resembling a forest. Removing the panels from their magnetic mountings reveals a computer system that controls tiny apertures cut into the attic’s door and dormer windows and into the refectory’s three skylights. The computer opens and closes the flaps to orchestrate natural ventilation with the windy rooftop microclimate, adjusting interior temperature by stack effect.

In winter, the flaps work in concert with the flat radiators also concealed by the perforated panels: If a cold breeze passes through the largest perforations at the base of the aluminum panels, then that air is heated by the radiator and rises through the uppermost holes. Fire and life safety, exhaust ventilation, and speakers are all hidden there, too. So are strips of LEDs, which project color-changing lights through the panels at night.

For Grade II buildings, both interior and exterior changes require permission from English Heritage. Yet the organization did not think the attic of this 1928 apartment house contained anything worth keeping. Tonkin Liu rendered a remarkable transformation as a result, but by focusing on plan and the many screens that define it, this project could be dismantled relatively easily and patched into the condition in which servants had left it so many decades ago.

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