The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

American-Living in 1970s Cambridge : Two Houses by Stephen Yakeley

Changes are proposed for Stephen Yakeley’s house in Linton that the architect built for his own family in 1971.

Burdened by a restricted site and a tight budget, Yakeley used his talent not merely to overcome these constraints but to be inspired by them and generate a truly excellent living environment.

The neighbours to the north had sold Yakeley the plot with the restrictive covenant that their land not be overlooked by the new development. It was long and narrow and the architect had a budget of £10,000. Yet thirty years later his enthusiasm for that piece of land is still there. Yakeley, describing to me the design of the house, writes: “The building plot was idyllic… My solution was to design a long house with the north side hard on the boundary so all windows faced south.”

This house falls into the category of ‘linear’ houses that Yakeley built in the early 1970s. It is arranged along a bisecting corridor that runs the length of the house starting as an extension to the garden path and running from the front to the back door. This is where two differently sized monopitched forms come together, leaving space at the junction for clerestory lighting to the internal spaces arranged on the taller northern side. Yakeley refers to this division as northern and southern “zones”. In plan this is expressed by two rectangles: one longer and thinner for the taller volume and one shorter and wider for the squatter volume. The shorter rectangle is pushed back to permit the façade that runs alongside the path to the entrance door to be completely glazed. An exception is the chimney that rises from here to above the roof and sets a vertical accent.

The hierarchy of the internal spaces can be read from the outside. The front part of the taller side of the house is for public reception, a large double-height living and dining room with a stair ascending to a balcony study. The kitchen is adjacent, but in the lower side. These rooms take up about half of the building’s footprint. Behind, the private spaces are arranged: three smaller-sized bedrooms to the south of the corridor and to the north WC, bathroom and laundry, with low ceilings and the study above, and then the double-height master bedroom.

We approached Yakeley for details to help with our research on this building as we are putting it forward for listing. The architect seemed somewhat surprised and said: “But do you know the Smith House?” Like the Yakeley House it is built using traditional building forms and materials and is made of brick, timber and tiles.

We can observe a similar hierarchical division at the Smith House in Stapleford, albeit on a much grander scale. Built two years later, this house is also arranged along a dividing spine, with sloping roofs over each half. Yakeley categorizes this building within those with ‘radial’ or quadrant plans. The plan is also butterfly-shaped insofar that the “infrastructure” of the building, the entrance hall and stairs form an axis down the diagonal of the footprint’s square. A long skylight extends the length of the stairs as emphasis of the building’s subdivision. The corners of the square have been cut out for a sheltered approach down the perfectly straight garden path leading along the axis to the front door. On the other side the cut-out forms a sheltered terrace from the living room and the dressing room of the master bedroom.

To the left of this axis is the large double-height living, dining, kitchen space overlooked by the study from an open balcony above the living room seating and fireplace area. Tucked into this envelope is a garage with quick access to the kitchen. To the right are the private quarters. Here again we can see a strict hierarchy of spatial sequence and grandeur. The first bedroom is the guest room. It is accessed from the entrance hall. Next to it: the guest toilet. Then comes a door to a corridor that leads to the family bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry. Cleverly thought out access routes give the children a bathroom that can be reached from the bedrooms with a sprint across the hall from the one side or from the garden through the terrace door and via the laundry. Their bedrooms have built-in cupboards and shelving. The last and most private space is the master bedroom. The parents have their own bathroom, a dressing room and a high sloping ceiling. It is truly a master bedroom. They also have a back door to the laundry.

Above the bathrooms, laundry and dressing room on the first floor is a playroom for the children. Built-in storage is located under the sloping roof. While at first glance there may be an air of exuberance and over-generosity about the open double-height living space, this house upon closer analysis is very economical in its use of space. Nothing is wasted.

Yakeley’s Cambridge buildings feature alongside those by David Owers, Trevor Dannatt, Colin St John Wilson and Patrick Hodgkinson in RIBA’s 1982 publication of modern architecture in its “Architectural Guide to Cambridge and East Anglia ” by Charles McKean. Both houses were mentioned in numerous articles both in the national and international press. The Architectural Review of 1976 descibes the Smith House as a “newcomer to a great tradition” of newly built and modern designed private houses in Cambridge .

(Re-)discovering Stephen Yakeley’s houses can be partly attributed to our close collaboration with Cambridge City Council’s conservation officer, who drew our attention to plans to change the Yakeley House. We rarely come across buildings of this quality that haven’t even been mentioned in Pevsner.

But who is Stephen Yakeley? By birth an American and by choice in England , he speaks with a surprisingly authentic English accent. (It then mellowed somewhat after talking to me with my corrupting American). He had just settled down in Cambridge with his English wife when he designed the Yakeley House and his early private houses in Cambridge had not yet lost their American roots. They still speak clearly the same language as do contemporary architect-designed houses I have come across in the prestigious university town of Chapel Hill in North Carolina : the generous and light double-height living areas reaching into the roof-space, balanced by the brick fireplace, and in the case of the Smith House the integrated garage behind the kitchen.

Perhaps the most striking American feature is the separation of the public from the private. The segregation of the messiness of life, its bedrooms, bathrooms and dirty laundry, from the spotless representation of public entertainment. In the Smith House the children even have their own play area: no need to go into the bedrooms. The guest does not have to venture down the family’s “private” corridor in the night, the “public” loo is just to the right. And if the visitor really must take a bath while staying, then the children’s bathroom is the closest door on the corridor. We can see some clearly Puritan ideas making perfect sense in the well-planned and un-wasteful living environment.

Stephen Yakeley thinks, yes, I may have a point about the houses being very American. And why shouldn’t they be? Indeed, he had worked under Charles Moore in 1968, who after all was the Dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University.

We are proposing both buildings for listing at Grade II to show our commitment to this architect’s early work.

Eva Branscome