Online | Architecture

Centre Stage

London, UK

Lipton Plant Architects reimagines a parkside apartment as a theatrical experience – one that is beautifully crafted, whether you're front or back of house

An apartment in a John Nash-designed terrace overlooking Regent’s Park sounds like an unmissable commission for any architect – but first impressions can be deceptive. This building’s perfectly proportioned classical facade shows its handsome stuccoed face to the park, but behind it, the rear elevation was entirely rebuilt after the second world war.

Lipton Plant Architects has used this concept of a property of two halves as the driving narrative behind this apartment’s refurbishment, while also finding ways to reinstate some grand proportions, improve on the layout and open up views to the park. “The main building has a concrete frame, which gave us quite a unique brief – normally with a Grade-I listed building you’d barely touch it, but here you can do a lot to it, because there is no historic fabric,” says Lipton Plant’s managing director Jonathan Plant.

The property hadn’t been refurbished for several decades, and looked “a bit like an old James Bond set” according to Plant, with lacquered doors and painted panelled cladding used on the run of pillars that line up next to the Regency windows on the park side. “The way it had been divided up was most odd: it was quite subdivided, and there were a lot of strange angles and walls,” he continues.

The drawing room that runs the length of the apartment has now been opened up to create a single magnificent space, while the cladding has been removed from the columns to reveal the naked shuttered concrete: not the sort of ‘original feature’ you’d expect in a Regency-proportioned drawing room, but it adds a brutalist edginess that feels right for the wider interiors, which house the homeowner’s collection of contemporary art and sculpture.

“We actually added two columns, because it felt odd without them,” says Plant, so the contractors had to exactly match the shuttering and aggregate of the originals, pouring them on site. Plant commends them for a fantastic job – so good, in fact, that he can’t remember which ones are new and which are old.

We wanted to play with this idea of a performance space, overlooking the park

New shutters have been made to match the period windows, and new plaster cornicing runs around the room, which was painstakingly painted so that the white relief stands out from its coloured background. The wide-plank Dinesen Douglas fir flooring brings an elegant simplicity: the planks run the full length of the room, and delivering them through the window was one of the project’s notable challenges. Piercing blue linen wraps the walls. “It is really beautiful,” says Plant. “Whenever we use fabric on walls, I always love it; it’s so good for the acoustics.”

The wider story behind the design, one that embraces the apartment’s split personality, has a theatrical analogy. If the imposing drawing room is front of house, then the two other half-levels, above and below it, can be considered backstage. “We wanted to play with this idea of a performance space, overlooking the park,” says Plant, who points out that the entire terrace is a backdrop of sorts: a building to elevate the park, rather than the other way around.

They may be metaphorically ‘backstage’ but these areas are beautifully detailed in their design and materials. A gaboon timber panelled wall on the ground floor conceals a shower room, cloakroom and, as it nears the entrance to the kitchen, a larder and wine store: the style of panelling is a nod to how the rear side of scenery might look, unseen by the paying audience. The walls are a mutedly lustrous polished plaster, with stone staircases and floors and a tactile bronze hand-rail cast in the shape of a stem of bamboo.

This ground floor also contains the entrance hall, kitchen, dining space and a guest bedroom, while the half-storey above it features a study, master bedroom, dressing room and master bathroom. Sited at the rear of the building, both these floors suffered from a lack of ceiling height, an issue that the architects have tackled by streamlining as much as possible. “We had to get as much height out of everything as we could, by using incredibly thin ceiling construction and removing any bulkheads, bits of column and other projections,” says Plant.

By fully opening up one end of the drawing room to the study above and the kitchen below, views to the park are now possible from these rear rooms too. Plant took his cues from basement projects the practice had worked on, where lower ceilings become less noticeable when there are sightlines out to a view, and when the more confined spaces are both visually and physically connected to much larger ones. “Your eyes are drawn away from the lower space,” he says. “You don’t feel that heavy ceiling; you feel that view, and that light.”

Lipton Plant Architects has fully capitalised on the relative freedom from stringent rules that might govern the refurbishment of a fully in-tact period building, while also turning any unfavourable spaces into rooms that are not simply radically modernised and more habitable, but beautifully crafted and detailed. To continue the theatrical analogy: for that, they can take a bow.