Just a block away from the RIBA Headquarters on Portland Place in central London, right next to the Chinese Embassy and right under everybody’s nose, there lies ‘hidden’ a rare example of domestic architecture by the two Gilbert Scott brothers—Sir Giles (architect of Liverpool Anglican cathedral and Battersea power station) and Adrian (best known for his church work). Following substantial threats to its future by two successive planning applications in the course of a year—proposing a number of alterations ranging from converting one of the ground floor rear rooms to a garage to adding an extra full floor, the Society has now put this single-family house forward for listing at Grade II.
22 Weymouth Street is a building that more than fulfils expectations: this is indeed a beautifully proportioned and well-balanced composition, an elegantly executed structure, and an ingenious design solution to a very restricted site. The involvement of these architects alone would have made it a building worth considering, but the reality is that this is an example of them working at the height of their powers and with a generous budget. Moreover three quarters of a century after its completion in 1934 it survives remarkably intact.
The house is realised in brickwork of superb quality, the front façade makes an outstanding contribution to the townscape. Divided into three bays, and with its volumes and voids and the varying projection of the central bay skilfully handled, its composition reflects an imaginative management of functional requirements—such as the provision of some outdoor space on first floor level—along with elements bearing a symbolic significance—such as the main entrance. Amazingly neither the balcony nor the inset porch have been filled in.
Beyond the main façade, a series of elements gradually breaks from its strong symmetry and reveals the resourceful manner in which the restrictions of the site have been addressed. A narrow alley between the two-storey house and the Chinese Embassy is one feature that ingeniously creates opportunities for natural lighting—in this case in what would have otherwise been a deep blind corner.
In a similar way, the rear side on Devonshire Close brings to light further pleasant surprises. With its broken symmetry and two beautifully designed gutters on either end, this side of the building retains its elegance but also conveys a certain sense of intimacy and marks a clear departure from the formal austerity of the main façade. What is even more interesting, the lack of a ground level garden space is revealed here to have been substituted by the provision of some outdoor living space at the top of the house: concealed behind its pitched roof, about half of the house’s top level is a flat roof terrace. This solution also provides the opportunity for extra rooms in the attic which, however, also remain completely concealed from the front façade of the building, as all openings on this top level face the rear, leaving the front elevation of the pitched roof remarkably uninterrupted.
At such close proximity to the RIBA, why not take five minutes to have a look next time you need to pay a visit to the library? Don’t forget to look for Sir Giles’s name on the plaque on the front façade; and take a few more minutes to walk around to Devonshire Close and have a quick look at its rear side too. You could also look up the Architect & Building News article which has a series of historic photographs (available in the journals collection of the RIBA Library; vol.140, 30 November 1934). Despite its location in the very heart of Marylebone, an area of London with such high density of distinguished residential architecture, the building retains a strikingly individual character and, as all Gilbert Scott designs, is an inspiring piece of architecture and easily deserves listed status.