Exuberant Restraint

A young firm builds an adventurous rooftop addition that remains invisible from the street.

Atmos Studio



London likes to maintain a stately facade, figuratively and architecturally. But behind the scenes, it’s often a case of “anything goes as long as no one can see it.” Take, for instance, the latest project by Atmos Studio: a radical little origami box of a rooftop apartment concealed behind a staid 18th-century building in shabby-chic Stoke Newington.

The project is the unlikely result of a charity fund-raiser. The clients—a musician and his partner—made a donation in exchange for a one-hour architecture consultation. Until then, they had just about given up on converting their cramped top-floor apartment; stringent building restrictions in the historic neighborhood meant that any addition would have to remain invisible from the street. A real increase in space seemed impossible.

Atmos’s Alex Haw, the architect whose consultation the couple won, saw otherwise. He convinced them with a plan that generated an additional 215 square feet via an extra story with a faceted roof, carved like a gemstone by sight-line restrictions and split in two by a butterflylike skylight. Beneath the skylight, the new interior revolves around an extraordinary open staircase. Its wooden newel resembles the trunk of a tree, although Haw sees it more as “a bunched series of informational strands,” which wind like tendrils around the house.

In keeping with the musical occupants, everything moves to a rhythm. The reverse sides of the open stairs become shelves and seats in the downstairs living room. Upstairs, the tendrils become a virtually continuous line of woodwork, forming bookshelves, a desk, a bed, and even a bench on the triangular roof terrace. Hand-built but computer-visualized, the apartment is an intricate exercise in spatial efficiency, with every little pocket of the 700 square feet accounted for.

“What I love about domestic design is that it’s an opportunity to really examine the human condition,” says Haw, who studied at Princeton and worked for Diller Scofidio + Renfro before founding Atmos in 2007. “There’s almost a psychotherapy element to it, hopefully leading to the inhabitants’ union. You’re dealing with everything. You’re thinking about the ritual of how you move through spaces and what you do in them—even the bath becomes an experience.”

The bath actually is an experience. Shielded behind the facade, you can gaze at the sky through a wall of glass, unobserved from the street below. (You could even sunbathe naked on the terrace, the architect notes.) As for the psychotherapy aspect, it might have worked too well. The couple now have a young son, born shortly after the work was completed, and they’re talking about moving into a bigger home. You can’t plan for everything.

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