Refurbishment building study (AJ 12/09/1996) Style in suburbia with the comforts of home
Renovation gives Valentine Harding’s Six Pillars a vivid Corbusian presence in a world of Victorian villas by Andrew Mead
Six Pillars in Sydenham Hill, South London, was one of two houses designed by Tecton partner Val Harding before his early death in 1940 (the other being his own family home at Burnhani Beeches, Bucks). Completed in 1935 for the Rev Leakey, headmaster of nearby Dulwich College Preparatory School, it is conscientiously Corbusian in appearance, with pilotis and strip windows on the street front, and an ensemble of terraces at the rear.
The house was never neglected entirely, but nor was it cherished over the years. When it came on to the market in the late 1980s, many months passed before a buyer emerged. Its new occupants, however, were determined that Six Pillars (listed Grade II*) should be brought back to life, and this summer John Winter and Associates has completed a renovation of the property to that end.
The main part of the house is of rendered, reinforced concrete while the canted, single-storey service wing is of yellow stock brick (partly rendered some time ago). The concrete had cracked and spalled in places, and there were around 50 patches where corroded reinforcement was visible ( especially on the upper storeys). The original steel windows had been replaced by timber ones during the 1950s, which had subsequently rotted and were impossible to open. In wet weather there were leaks (though not too serious). Redecoration inside and out was a priority.
There have been financial constraints on the renovation, so it has not been comprehensive; much has been accomplished nevertheless. The exposed reinforcement was not so rusted that it had to be replaced; it was cleaned and wire-brushed, and then the damaged concrete was patched with an epoxy mortar to resist future carbonation (funds did not stretch to an anti-carbonation coat on top but this is not necessary at present). As in other early Modern houses (for instance, Amyas Connell’s The White House, AJ 16.2.94), the concrete was not finished with particular finesse, so it can accommodate piecemeal repairs unobtrusively.
Asphalt on the terraces was renewed in places, and all the terrace/roof areas coated in solar-reflective paint. The rotting timber windows were removed and metal replacements installed to the original fenestration pattern. Winter specified aluminium for the sliding sections at the rear of the house, on the basis that sliding steel sections (whose coating is progressively eroded as they move to and fro) are prone to stick and jam. In the interests of consistency (and economy) the new first-floor windows on the front are also aluminium.
The combination of colours in the redecoration is very effective: the eponymous pillars are a brilliant yellow, the main body of the building white, with a subdued terracotta for the curved wall that inflects the entrance, the second-storey study which surmounts the house, and the curved volumes within (including the sculptural staircase that spirals up the double-height hall). The aluminium window frames are light brown. A final element in the palette is the emphatic green of the lush, tree-fringed garden.
Six Pillars is not entirely resolved as a design – the canted wing, supposedly determined by constraints of the site (though none are now evident) creates an awkwardly shaped kitchen. This service wing, with bedrooms for two maids, and windows set too high for the garden to be overlooked, also suggests that Harding and his client embraced the aesthetic programme of Modernism more readily than its social one. Yet the house remains notable for its period. Now more comfortable for its owners, and with a much rejuvenated exterior, Six Pillars again appears a stylish intruder amid the Victorian villas of Sydenham Hill.