Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The Spitalfields house that architect Chris Dyson designed for himself and his family is an intriguing, intricate blend of old and new. Looking at the way it nestles into its part of East London, the yellow bricked terrace house looks like an 18th century original, blending in neatly with the rhythm and feel of its neighbours. Yet Number 11 involved a dramatic restoration that saw much of the building, including the façade, rebuilt around a panelled staircase from the 1720s – the only element of the original house left intact. Using the staircase as a backbone and point of inspiration, Dyson reinvented the building mixing 18th century style and contemporary ideas.

'We took a fresh take on the house,' says Dyson, who has worked on around twenty buildings in Spitalfields in recent years. 'With the spaces that we felt we really had to restore, like the sitting room, we wanted to make them look and feel original. So we built the timber panelling in the sitting room, for instance, in very much the way that it would have looked in the 18th century. But then when it came to completely new spaces, like the kitchen, we designed that as a very contemporary room so there's no apology for that.'

The result is a fusion, with the beauty of the four storey house lying in the way that the period inspired elements and contemporary touches sit so well together. That's helped by a palette of warm, natural materials and calming colours that tie the house together, while technology and modern services – as well as plenty of storage – are hidden away behind the timber panels and tucked into the secret structure of this characterful home.

Dyson and his wife Sarah, a teacher of modern languages, first spotted the building fifteen years ago [1995], not long after first moving into Spitalfields. The house was home to a clergyman in the early 18th century but had been much altered and adapted over the centuries and had last been used as a Bengali cooking school that was forced to close down, leaving the building empty. The Dysons wrote a letter asking if there might be an opportunity to buy the house, but heard nothing. Friendly squatters took up residence at Number 11 and ten years went by. But then five years ago [2005], the Dysons finally received a reply to their letter with news that the house was at last being sold and inviting sealed bids. The Dysons' bid came out on top and the building was theirs.

'It was actually a pretty ugly building when we bought it,' says Dyson. 'The original windows to the front had gone and there were horizontal slot windows on the first and second floors. It looked as though the façade needed mending and the house was like a broken tooth in the street. So we took the façade down and rebuilt the elevation and took it back to how it would have looked in the 18th century.'

Inside, there was also a huge amount of work to be done to reorder the interiors. The ground floor space opening to the street was designed as an inter-connected gallery and meeting room, serving the offices of Dyson's architectural practice, located in a generous and freshly restored 1850s former workshop sitting behind the main house. The ground floor is a highly flexible zone, also used for dinner parties and entertaining, while Chris's architecture books are neatly tucked away within bookcases hidden behind the panelled walls that are also used for displaying art.

'We also have shutters that we can put over the gallery shop window to make the ground floor feel more private,' Dyson says, ' so that you end up with just one window in the middle. That allows us to use the space for family high days and holidays but also have gallery showings, where we might have 200 people at an opening.'

In the entrance hall – which serves house, gallery and the studio to the rear – discreet glass panelled doors can be used to separate off the stairs leading up to the three floors of the Dysons' private space above, shared with their 19 year-old son, Oliver, who is studying architecture, and 17 year-old daughter Bella. Sitting room and master bedroom sit side by side on the first floor of the house, both lined with wood panels, while the timber floors are in pine cut from reclaimed beams. The panels hide storage and more bookcases, as well as a dumb waiter that connects all the floors of the house, including the ground floor gallery.

With Oliver and Bella's rooms on the floor above, a completely new kitchen and dining room was added right at the top of the building, within an additional floor partly inspired by the idea of the period weaver's lofts that were common to the East End. 'It gives us a private family space where we can come together in rather unconventional but comfortable fashion,' says Dyson. 'We also have a roof terrace and we get wonderful views and plenty of light up here. As a family we do spend a lot of time in the kitchen and ours is a real contrast to kitchens in many other houses in Spitalfields that are down in the basement. You suddenly have one of the best spaces in the house being used most of the time.'

Surprisingly, given the dramatic amount of work that needed to be done, much of the house was finished in just twelve months, with as many as eight carpenters at work at the same time to move things along. Now serving as a home, architect's studio and gallery – with the basement rented out as an ironmonger's workshop – Number 11 has a busy new life. It has become part of the resurgence and renaissance of Spitalfields itself, as the area becomes increasingly fashionable and desirable, as well as serving as a hub for architects, designers and artists.

'The character of Spitalfields is certainly shifting,' says Dyson. 'A lot of small live-work home businesses like ours have been set up here, which has brought back some of the original vibrancy of the neighbourhood. Spitalfields has changed for the good in many ways.'

Chris Dyson Architects – - + 44 (0) 20 7247 1816

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