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Architect David Adjaye’s Collaboration with Artist Sue Webster: The Formidable Mole House in London

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Architect David Adjaye’s Collaboration with Artist Sue Webster: The Formidable Mole House in London

Ed Reeve March 29, 2021

Mole House is a detached, double-fronted Victorian villa with a slightly unnerving appearance. It is positioned on a sharp corner between two roads in De Beauvoir Town in north London. At street level, two bay windows—built from steel and cast concrete—look out toward the traffic-choked lanes of Dalston Junction. The glass in these windows has been covered in mirrored vinyl so the owner can look out unnoticed.

Photography by Ed Reeve.

&#8\2\20;i really didn’t feel the need to unify it and paint it white,&am 9
Above: “I really didn’t feel the need to unify it and paint it white,” Sue Webster says.

The mirrored vinyl is not the only distinguishing feature. In fact, the neighbors have complained that it still “looks like a bombed-out bunker from Basra” despite five years of extensive renovation work. They are no doubt referring to the cracked and wrinkled facade, which has been wrapped in a supportive concrete band and topped with a crisp line of brickwork and steel. “I really didn’t feel the need to unify it and paint it white,” explains the owner, Sue Webster, when I visited the property pre-pandemic. “This is the history of this building: why deny it? Why cover it all up? I may as well demolish the building.”

the slightly polarized view from the mirrored bay window. displayed on the whit 10
Above: The slightly polarized view from the mirrored bay window. Displayed on the white plinth is “Double Negative” (2010), a painted bronze sculpture by Noble and Webster.

Webster—an internationally acclaimed artist and one half of the collaborative duo Noble and Webster—bought the (vacant, decrepit) house at auction in 2012. The previous owner—known locally as the Mole Man—had lived at the property for over four decades. During that time, he started to dig through the foundations of the building, creating a series of underground tunnels and caverns. The Mole Man was evicted in 2006 and the property declared unsafe. The council removed more than 30 tons of waste from the grounds of the house, including three cars and a boat, before filling the tunnels with 2,000 tons of aerated concrete and erecting a corrugated iron fence around the site.

the front elevation and sunken garden where there are three visible types of co 11
Above: The front elevation and sunken garden where there are three visible types of concrete: Mole Man’s handmade batch, which is full of pipes, rubble, and waste; Hackney Council’s aerated addition and Adjaye’s deliberate sharp edges.

Cycling through the neighborhood one evening, Webster peered through the fencing, which was plastered in “DANGER: KEEP OUT” stickers. “I rang Hackney Council immediately,” she recalls. “When I found out about the Mole Man, the lid just came off. I thought: ‘Wow: there’s a project.’”

Webster’s previous house and studio was designed by the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye. Known as the Dirty House, it became a breakthrough project for Adjaye, so naturally, Webster sought his advice on her latest project. When Adjaye saw the building “he just had this massive grin on his face,” says Webster. “I knew he could take on the enormity of what was ahead of us.”

the generous entrance is lined in richly grained douglas fir and leads to webst 12
Above: The generous entrance is lined in richly grained Douglas Fir and leads to Webster’s open-plan living area.

While the house has been carefully restored on the outside, inside it has been rebuilt entirely around a cast concrete cross. Concrete ceilings and engineered pine floors all hang from this central supporting device.

the dining area. &#8\2\20;this is my painting zone,&#8\2\2\1; says webs 13
Above: The dining area. “This is my painting zone,” says Webster. “I don’t eat at the dining table anymore, I just paint here because the light is so good and it’s quiet. I can put music on. It’s so comforting.”

There are three mirrored bays in the living area. In the middle of the space is a lumpen Max Lamb coffee table (“It’s got that Fred Flintstone thing to it”) and 20 meters (65 feet) of custom-made shelving. A simple kitchen is built into the end wall beyond the sofa.

aside from the sofa, soft furnishings are non existent. 14
Above: Aside from the sofa, soft furnishings are non-existent.
the custom made kitchen. “they wanted to give me cupboards, but i said just g 15
Above: The custom-made kitchen. “They wanted to give me cupboards, but I said just give me a shelf for artwork.”

Upstairs, there is a master bedroom and a guest bedroom furnished with a sofa and a leather punching bag (Webster kick boxes). The monochrome main bathroom has been tiled in a disorientating, monochrome zig-zag pattern.

a custom made desk on the top floor, which is flooded with natural light. phase 16
Above: A custom-made desk on the top floor, which is flooded with natural light. Phase two of the build includes a pyramid roof.

Webster’s studio is accessed via a separate side door. The threshold is a doormat-sized cast concrete slab with the words “Fucking Beautiful” dragged through it, a nod to Noble and Webster’s 2017 neon work of the same title.

the double height studio space has been dug out from the foundations of the bui 17
Above: The double-height studio space has been dug out from the foundations of the building.
in the main space, a white wall reaches nearly five meters (\16 feet) to the ce 18
Above: In the main space, a white wall reaches nearly five meters (16 feet) to the ceiling, which is lit by a zigzag of fluorescent strip lights. Noble and Webster’s bronze sculpture, “Bad Little Christmas Tree” (2009), is visible on the left.

Webster likens the grueling design process to her own work. “That’s probably why it took so long,” she reflects. “Every single design possibility was explored, and that’s how I work. You have an idea and you push it left, right, forward, upside-down until you’ve tested every single possibility of that one thought.”

For more eccentric British interiors, see:

A Visit with Marianna Kennedy, London’s Sorceress of Color

Live Like a Londoner: Town House in Spitalfields

True Colors: Historical Paint Expert Pedro da Costa Felgueiras’ Beautifully Idiosyncratic London Home

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