Architecture review: 'Contemporary Hackney and revolutionary Russia?'

 Ivy Street, Hoxton, south facing façade, designed by Sam Jacobs Studio

Ivy Street, Hoxton, south facing façade, designed by Sam Jacobs Studio - Credit: Gordon Shrigley

The art of building has existing for over 40,000 years. The oldest human dwellings were made from Mammoth hides, held up by twigs and branches. The more sophisticated Yurt and Teepee date from around 450 BC and were designed to be lightweight, easy to transport and assemble.

Eventually some of us decided to live in one place and so built walls from a mixture of mud and animal dung, which began the tradition of brick and eventually stone buildings, a version of which we still have today.

There are many ways to construct a dwelling and so each tribe, village or culture gradually developed distinct building traditions with unique styles of decoration.

When choosing to design a building an architect will inevitably be drawn to "reference", "echo" or "quote" in some manner, an aspect of this long and rich tradition.

Each "quotation" will be either intended or unintended. As some architects choose to quote the past in an overt manner, whilst others prefer to work within the tradition that they have come to know, either through education or experience, and so on the whole refer to the past unconsciously.

The art of the "quotation" and how the history of building culture is "echoed" by each architect, has a rich and sometimes controversial history. As which building or motif the architect chooses to reference, may indicate to the viewer the values the architect holds true.

A good example of the art of quotation is the recently completed mixed-use building at 54 Ivy Street, Hoxton by Sam Jacobs Studio, that provides a community space on the ground and basement floors with a living space on the three floors above.

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In a press release about the building, Sam Jacobs stated: “The design language is simple and raw, yet also rich and subtle. It absorbs local references (the ad hoc backs of terraces and buildings as freestanding objects, such as the nearby Victorian school and 1950s housing blocks) as well as resonating with other references, from Joseph Gandy to Konstantin Melnikov.”

Jacobs description rightly recognises that all buildings are designed and made with reference to a complex and sometimes contradictory series of historical and contemporary precedents, that effectively frame the building for the architect and the viewer.

One of the principle ways 54 Ivy Street refers to architectural history, is by incorporating a series of distinctively shaped windows within the buildings curved façade. This part of the project "quotes" the world-famous house designed by the constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov, built in Moscow in 1929, that incorporated a similar curved façade punctured with small vertically elongated hexagonal windows.

Within the history of twentieth century architecture Melnikov’s hexagonal window pattern has become an iconic visual motif, regularly used to signify the artistic and social invention associated with the early days of the 1917 Russian revolution.

What are we to understand by this unambiguous quote?

Is 54 Ivy Street suggesting a connection between contemporary Hackney and early twentieth century revolutionary Russia? Or is the heavily laden window motif a form of architectural confetti, a sign that appears to communicate, but says nothing other than its own inherent decorative value? Or thirdly, is this really a very clever re-coding of a well-known motif to radically change its meaning?

As with all "quotations" however, it’s very difficult to tell on the whole what is actually intended.

I prefer to read Ivy Street’s association with revolutionary Russia then, as pointing to the unique social and cultural utopia we have created in Hackney, rather than an architectural folly, seemingly content in its own sentimentality.

Gordon Shrigley is a Hackney-based architect and writer. Visit gordon-shrigley-architecture.co.uk