The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Set piece: A finely refurbished and ingenious house is at risk

We are used to seeing C20 buildings used as film locations, but one of our current cases involves a house in Kensington that’s not just the setting for Joanna Hogg’s movie Exhibition – it’s integral to the plot. Hogg has described it as the third character in her film, giving the house a physical role. It was designed for his family by her friend James Melvin of the GMW Partnership, and the architecture inspired the film: ‘the house struck me as an almost perfect cube… a wonderful container for my ideas.’

60 Hornton Street in Kensington was brought to our attention when it was threatened with demolition. Ingeniously designed to fit maximum space on a small site, it was served by a lift and spiral staircase to all floors. It had an unusual plan form, as Melvin wanted to incorporate a lift, swimming pool and carport. These were located on the ground floor, so that the main open-plan living space could take advantage of views to the south. The first floor had a combined dining/living room and library, with a separate kitchen. Bedrooms were on the second floor.

In 1971 the Architectural Review praised the house for its ‘fixed section and spatial attitude’ that seemed to ‘hark back to early Corbusian days of the Modern Movement…what has been done has been carried out superbly well… it has happily more kinship with its Victorian neighbours than with the immediately post-war infill houses adjoining it… This affinity is due in some measure to the giant scale of its external elements giving their three-storey context welcome definition and solidity to this street corner… [it] looks out in some elegance over the lower roofs of the houses further down the hill.’ The AR also praised the fluidity of its internal spaces: ‘the interior can… be made to respond to changes in fashion in a way that would be impossible if it had been made of natural materials.’

In 1994 the house was refurbished sensitively and to a high standard by the highly-regarded Anglo-German practice Sauerbruch Hutton. Bright volumes of colour were added in key locations, and a fireplace was added, but without altering the unusual internal layout. Louisa Hutton told us she was surprised by the psychological mood of Hogg’s film: ‘it made me much more aware of film technique than I usually am. It’s a very static film with few pans, and little sense of views through the house, making it seem rather claustrophobic, which it definitely is not.’ Whatever the film’s merits, we consider this house to be of national significance, so as well as objecting to the application to demolish, we have put it forward for national listing.

• Clare Price