In northern China and Korea there is a raised earth platform inside the house called a k’ang. Heated by flues of the kitchen stove buried beneath it, it provides a warm surface to sit. It is on the k’ang that the family sit to eat meals, do household tasks and spend time together. Historically, even beds were placed on brick mantels above the k’ang so the clay of the brick could absorb the heat of the stove and release it slowly over the night. The principle of thermal comfort has long since been taken for granted now that homes are built to a standard of insulation and air tightness where the flick of a finger on a device can change the temperature. But unlike the k’ang, we do not place value in these devices hidden from view that provide us with warmth or air conditioning.
When was the last time a family clustered around a radiator? The k’ang points to the additional social value that is created when we focus our attention and affection towards an object that provides us with direct thermal comfort.
The social space that attaches itself to rituals of staying cool or sharing warmth can be culturally ingrained as we discovered trying to reconcile the needs of a couple moving from California to a townhouse in Hackney. She was American; He was Danish. How do we balance the need for well lit, open space with the hidden cosy corners of a Scandinavian dwelling, here, in soggy marshy London?
Both aspirations have their roots in the gathering spaces created by the climates of two very different cultures. In Los Angeles, a typical house plan might direct all views out onto an outdoor space or a swimming pool - the family’s pride. This is a space devoted to summer barbeques, parties and sharing big Californian skies. Inside, the expansion is manifest in sliding glass doors allowing the space to breathe and feel at once outdoors and intimately associated with the glittering water. For the Danes, the cult of Hygge is all too familiar to us these days, as the word has been appropriated to encumber an aesthetic code for how a cosy interior should look but need only be reserved for that flavour of friendship and firesides as winters are endured in the comfort of an often wood-lined room.
How can these worlds and different practices of family life come together in Hackney, a place not famed for its glittering pool side summers or winters so foul as to justify fireside hibernation?
It is too easy to say that technology has spread our activities away from each other and distanced the social life of the family through its ability to keep a whole house at a universally comfortable temperature. In truth, the story of Groombridge Road is that through the well-tempered environment, the delight of the Danish cosy corner can be shared by the joy of an expansive landscape of open plan living.
Our Hackney home is first characterised by the simple need to have wheelchair access comfortably throughout the ground floor. This resulted in a cascade of levels flowing from the front door, through a living space into a rear extension before spilling out into the garden. We noticed that this sequence of levels could allow for an unbroken view from the front of the house to the garden beyond. A London house would not share the cooling benefit of an LA style pool at the end of a view to long for, yet the presence of a towering plane tree just behind the garden wall bring the luxury of greenery into the kitchen. The movement created by the wind through the tree canopy might intimately associate that air to the watcher. As the kitchen extension faces north we could punch large rooflight to glimpse more of that canopy while large Douglas Fir beams diffuse the daylight over pale lime washed walls atop glossy pink panelling – this is still Hackney you know. A Californian promenade can be softened by English light where a beckoning tree over the wall framed by crittal windows brings fresh air to a well lit room.
While using Douglas Fir might suggest a Danish warmth there is no alternative to the direct experience of a thermal process via conduction, for the sense of touch has an immediacy and undeniable reality to it. Open plans spaces too, are notoriously cold. Open plans push life to the edges – to access plug sockets, to cluster furniture around a screen. Open plan needs an anchor to work, something for life to gravitate towards or organise around. The principle of the k’ang brought family life around the centre of the home through a warmed mound of earth. We hope to revive that principle in the form of a three-sided fireplace constructed from white brick cantilevered towards broad steps and braced against the ramp. The fireplace is the centre of the home, lying at floor level of the living space, as a contemporary take on the k’ang, and at seat height from the kitchen, where a family member might sit and talk to whoever is busy with or entertaining in the kitchen while feeling the warmth of the flame heated bricks trickle through their back, all while catching in the corner of the eye a flicker of the tree canopy above.