Oak Tree Mews is a trio of wooden houses on a forgotten suburban backlot – a micro community centred on an ancient English Oak.
The site is a triangular backlot overlooked by a wall of 1930’s suburban London houses. Although tucked away, the Oak is the area’s only distinguished landscape feature. It is broadly centralised on the plot, and the housing design hinges in a radial arc around it, occupying acute areas beyond the root zone.
During our first visit, we met a neighbour who played in the old tree some 60 years ago – before the site became a household dumping ground. Her insights were evocative: we imagined her squeezing through a hole in the fence to run wild around the old tree; peering out the back window towards a forgotten, overgrown lot; and watching the seasons and years passing this giant oak. We instantly connected with these formative memories.
Climbing over the tree’s twisted roots and gripping its ivy-covered bark, we recalled an illustration by Hiroshige: ’Blind men examining an Elephant’.
This parable tells of a king who asks a group of blind men to examine an elephant and report to him what the creature was like. Naturally, each man describes a different thing; one feels the tail and professes the elephant to be like a rope. The next – the elephant’s side – which is like a wall. Another holds the trunk, which he describes as a snake… and so on.
Our tree felt like this elephant: its memory and meaning was something different for everyone.
Responding to this thought, the 3 new houses develop their own intimate connection with the tree, so it too is something different for each house and to each occupant.
The layout consists of a freestanding and pair of joined, 2 storey family houses. Tall windows capture the tree’s magnificent spread and a range of voids, double height and intermediate spaces draw on its verticality to bring a landscape scale and treehouse quality to the interiors.
Wooden facades assimilate with surrounding rear garden fences and outhouses. They shroud the tree – like sheaves of tall grass – to form a protective ring punctuated by views into the heart of the site. The building’s chiselled shape softens the rigid site geometry, minimising the visual profile while providing facets to scoop daylight and views towards the tree.
A communal garden surrounds the tree and is connected to a private garden for each house. Boundaries between neighbours are designed as ‘landscaped fences’ – thick acoustic and visual buffers between houses that obviate the hard lines of traditional fences and walls. This enables the various different gardens to satisfy individual privacy needs while remaining an integrated whole.
Despite 2 dismissed appeals to the Government Inspector under previous owners, Oak Tree Mews was granted planning permission contrary to policy. A Planning Committee voted to overturn their own Planning Department, responding to a neighbour’s petition and widespread community support for the design.
Undercurrent Architects : Didier Ryan, Tao Gatto, Yoko Chang
Kronen Transport Consultants