Behind the façade: A conversation with architect Gregory Phillips
As an admirer of architectural homes of any era and a longtime advocate for historic preservation, I’m always interested in what makes a home livable and enjoyable across time. Good design is always a factor and I find that architects are always willing and able to put the built environment into perspective. One question that always comes up is how to adapt a luxury property to its new owner? And of course, when considering a property—anything that’s “vintage” or does not exactly meet a buyer’s taste and preferences—what can be realistically altered without impacting the home’s architectural or historical integrity?
I spoke with my good friend architect Gregory Phillips of Gregory Phillips Architect, whose award winning, London architectural design practice is now established in Los Angeles. From period conversions to contemporary new builds and additions, his firm is known for open, light-filled spaces, precise detailing and a strong connection between inside and outside living. He explains the difference between working in a city known for its strict codes regarding historic properties and Los Angeles, where it often appears anything goes.
How does the United Kingdom approach the modification of older buildings?
All construction in the United Kingdom is regulated by planning control policies. Many of the most desirable areas of London have additional planning restrictions on alterations to the exterior appearance. These “conservation areas” are intended to maintain the quality of those areas. They do allow properties to be modified internally without any consents being required. However, in addition to planning conditions and conservation area restrictions, many buildings are ‘listed’ this affords protection to the building fabric internally and externally. [London’s criteria for “listing” and therefore preserving a historic structure came in response to damage caused by German bombing during World War II.]
Listed buildings can be modified and extended, however the range of solutions will be limited depending on the quality of the building and its historical significance both in the detail and its specific history.
What is the purpose behind these planning policies in your opinion?
Planning conditions are generally about ensuring land is appropriately used according to agreed criteria, which are reviewed by the public bodies. These laws protect both the environment and the rights/well-being of neighbors and the public.
Conservation area rules and regulations are designed to protect the aesthetic qualities of a specific area. Listed building rules and regulations are based on the premise of protecting the heritage for the nation. The owner and occupier at any given time is a custodian of the building’s historic significance.
How do you approach design modifications when working with historic homes?
My response will always be a specific solution to a particular building. The historic analysis of a building might show that it is only important because of a single façade or it might be a building full of detail. The historic significance could be the original building which might, for example, date to the 17th century or it might be equally about later modifications that occurred in say the 18th or 19th century. Sometimes the significance is the occupier who was a notable historic figure.
The 21st century solution might be to design an addition that is both subservient to the existing and also very contemporary, thus highlighting the different solutions carried out in different centuries or it might be sympathetic and a historic reconstruction. My preference is to celebrate the historic and the contemporary with a unique solution. What is possible and appropriate does need to be reviewed in each situation.
In Los Angeles, most owners prefer new work to look as if it was done when the home was built. Do you ever have clients in the UK that want to push the rules to make the new look seamless with the old? Or is the desire to be distinctive accepted in London?
My preference is to use the best of today’s technology and make buildings suitable for the lifestyle of the owners in the 21st century. I appreciate quality from any time period. However, celebrating new design that works with the historic produces fantastic solutions. I find the pastiche solutions that don’t use historic details and construction methods accurately, the most problematic.
Have you found any difference between Los Angeles and London homeowners when it comes to the design process?
In London clients are happy for the front exterior to remain historic and to look like every other house in the street. The unique design occurs internally and often with a striking external addition; basement excavations are often used to maximize floor area. In the English countryside, we design many new houses where clients want a totally new house designed in a contemporary style.
Now, Los Angeles is a collection of ‘cities’ although not of the density of central London. The context is very different. The heritage, the typology and types of occupants may be quiet different giving different solutions.
However, the economics are also different. The comparatively low land prices in Los Angeles are a huge advantage to both developers and owner-occupiers. If I design an uber-luxury house in Los Angeles, built with amazing finishes and unique architecture, the owner will love living in the house and will be most likely be able to see a profit if they want to sell. It is both a lifestyle decision, an amazing act of creation for the client, an opportunity to have a house specific to their requirements and a financially sound investment. These houses offer a chance for the owners/developers to create a legacy, a piece of history that will outlive them.