For most of its history architecture has been a referential art, its protagonists sampling elements from existing buildings and synthesising them into new combinations. At some point in the 20th century this approach was deemed unacceptable by the architectural establishment. The modern masters kept their historical samples quiet and the next generation was too focused on the future to use the past. As a result many contemporary architects lack the historical knowledge, techniques or language to continue architecture’s tradition of formal evolution. To draw a musical analogy, they are like songwriters trying to produce brand new sounds with a few Now! compilations and a computer.
Our practice has consistently been drawn to the work of architects that seem to continue the tradition of sampling and synthesising; Soane, Lutyens, Venturi, Stirling. We have attempted to learn from their approach and begun to develop our own techniques for designing in this way. More recently we have looked to other disciplines to find a contemporary conversation regarding the what, the how and the why of sampling and synthesising as a productive method.
Daft Punk, the duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, have consistently produced electronic music that is intense, appropriate, witty and synthesised. In an interview in Mixmag, published 1st October 2001, they clearly articulated their approach and technique. What follows is a brief attempt to sample their words to post-rationalise our realised designs for the Hearth House (2008), specifically its staircase.
“A mix between the past and the future, maybe the present.” The Hearth House is a redeveloped Edwardian semi-detached house in North London that provides a new home for a family of five. Faced with an interior that lacked anything the owners felt attached to we attempted to design a new home that would feel instantly familiar, loaded with past stories, expectant of new. Combining the qualities of the 18th-century country house, the 1960s communal loft and the 21st-century media hub, the home created a set of spaces for a mother, her partner and three teenagers to share, together and apart.
WHAT TO SAMPLE
At the centre of the house a new top-lit, triple height space is created containing the main stair. This uses an assortment of architectural styles, sampled and synthesised as appropriate to meet functional needs and symbolic associations; a Mock Georgian balustrade provides a grand ascent to a landing that divides in two; a laser-cut Pop Ply negative provides a more enclosed escape to the bedrooms; and a Classic Modern open-tread steel stair to the attic maximises the daylight from above and enhances the feeling of lightness.
“Sometimes we use an instrument in a way that it was never created for. Some people might say, ‘You’re doing something wrong using this effect like that,’ but by experimenting with some crazy ideas, you find some crazy sounds.” For the Mock Georgian balustrade we chose five softwood spindles from the many standards available – Barley Twist, Colonial, Provincial, Tulip and Victorian. These were selected to mimic the character of a traditional moulded timber stair and maximise the diversity of forms.
“To get homogeneity, we put a sample on a sample, or we play guitar and keyboard parts and try to sample and resample to get a homogenic sound. It’s really easy to sample something but really hard to find a good sample.” The first floor balustrade provided a negative of the ground floor balustrade, created by laser-cutting a sheet of plywood. This sample-of-a-sample was similar and yet entirely different to its original.
Its flatness felt more modern, its solidity more substantial, its thinness more fragile. Lamp cut outs were sampled from the original stair (‘a nod to the arts and crafts’ suggested the contractor), with integrated light fittings increasing the usefulness of the stair and reinforcing the homogeneity of the ply balustrade.
HOW TO SYTHESISE
“We don’t use too much of the original sound of the instruments; it’s really more about how we put effects on it after that.” The new stair and the existing building were painted with a universal coat of Dulux Jasmine White. This warm, creamy application synthesised everything together, smoothing the joints between ready-mades and laser-cuts, timbers and metals, then and now. After a series of experiments a traditional range of finishes were used; emulsion on the walls, eggshell on the wood, gloss on the steel.
“On ‘Digital Love,’ you get this Supertramp vibe on the bridge. We didn’t sample Supertramp, but we had the original Wurlitzer piano they used, so we thought it would be more fun to have the original instrument and mess around with it.” As a foil to the smoothness of the paint a number of reclaimed timber elements were used throughout the house. The jarrah planks of a demolished hospital became a chevron parquet floor. Their pattern was repeated in the shuttering for the concrete hearth, encouraging domestic and historical associations for an unfamiliar material and object. A french-polished, iroko handrail provides a continuous hand- hold along the length of the stair, joining spindle to ply to plaster to steel. Found iroko school desks were reused, halved to create stair treads and jointed to create an office desk.
WHY SAMPLING AND SYNTHESISING
“When you use a sampler, nobody plays on it, so the problem of the ego of the musician is not really there.” A triple-height stair in a domestic setting is a dominant element. If this were to feel like the invention of one designer it could be too claustrophobic, suffocating the potential for the family to create their own associations and narratives for the space. By sampling existing elements the hand of the architects (and there were a few) is able to recede, ensuring a more generous and multivalent environment.
“The compressor we used the most is one of the cheapest ones on the market. It’s really funny; it’s the bricolage thing. Sometimes you don’t have to have the most expensive equipment to make good music.” The off-the-shelf timber spindles were £3.50 each. We’d explored designing our own or buying antiques but in the end the most appropriate item was the cheapest. Sampling and synthesising actively encourages an architectural language in which effect is valued over expense.
“For everything that we do, no matter how you get to the results, the important thing is the result.”
All quotes from ‘Daft Punk’, Bryan Reesman, Mixmag, 1st October 2001