‘Come and see this white wall,’ she says with excitement, ‘there, there it changes colour, can you see it?’
I am standing in a bedroom, looking at a white wall with Fenella Collingridge. In other rooms (and in the garage), talks and tours are taking place as part of ‘Assemblage: the Lesser Senses’. We are in Walmer Yard, four interlocking private houses designed by Peter Salter and Fenella Collingridge, in W11, now home to the Baylight Foundation. Going in and out of the rooms of the houses, I can’t shake off the feeling of intrusion, almost as if I’m witnessing something I shouldn’t, as if I should be taking my shoes off at the hallway. This feeling of ‘intrusion’ is played off cleverly in the ‘Pillow Talks’ that take place in, well, the bed.
The sense of privacy, unsurprisingly, is one of the many details thought through by the creators of the houses. Every private space is entered through a wooden mat and is slightly elevated above the other spaces, with a lower ceiling height, to inform the entrant that they are about to enter a space of intimacy. “We have never thought that so many eyes would study all these little details, secrets of the house”, says Fenella, sitting in bed, tucked in one of the bedspreads with hidden pockets and silk lining she designed for the bedrooms, talking to a group of us. The particular bedspread she is under, she tells us, was designed for one of the other rooms, and it is as if the magic of the bedspread is lost without its intended context. She talks in a dreamy voice and takes us to a different world, perhaps helped by the bizarre choice of setting for the talk.
Fenella Collingridge has studied both architecture and painting, and she has carried out experiments and research to find the right colour and texture for each and every wall of these four unique houses. But unlike the often repeated colour theories related with psychology, she talks of colour in a different light. “All the colours chosen here are colours within grey”, she says and points out to the grey concrete ceiling, then to the orange and blue walls. “And there, if you turn off the lights of the red capsule bathroom, that’s where the light disappears, so we added these capsules to the dark spots of the house.” The light washes the rough concrete surface, like still waves in sunrise, before it disappears in the corner she is pointing at.
We move onto another room, the famous blue one in the smallest house with the great big roof light. I expect her to talk about the big deep blue ceiling that is absorbing us all, but instead she points out to the stained concrete wall outside with striated texture and says, “That is my favourite wall.” There is a very small gap between the window and the concrete wall outside, and most of the spaces in this small house are lit from above or through reflected light.
In fact, the light coming through in the scheme is almost always reflected off coloured surfaces, blue or orange walls, strips of copper, almost warming and softening the light before it is allowed into the privacy of the interior spaces. Most of these decisions were taken based on the direction of the light and the use of the rooms but some, to the horror of the logic-seeking architect, is done because it just felt right. Fenella explains how the pigments and the mixtures were tested over and over until they felt right and you can see this in the pigmented deep navy colour clay finish of the yurts, reminding one of a starry night with the small globes in the ceiling, looking not unlike orange juicers, that lets light in.
It is hard not to share the excitement Fenella has over each and every wall of this project, and perhaps there is a bit of melancholy in knowing that no one will memorise these walls as well as she has, knowing all the colours the light disperses into before reaching darkness in the ground floor bedroom of house number two. But once you enter the world of colours with Fenella, it is as if you are looking onto a white shirt painted by Cezanne for the first time in detail, and realise that at that moment and from then on, white ceases to be just white. The same way concrete ceases to be grey rough and cold in Walmer Yard and takes all forms and shapes, bending, absorbing, and bouncing light.
“You don’t need to know it all,” Fenella says. And that’s rather pleasant. She doesn’t want to reveal too much of the magic, and in a way, perhaps it doesn’t matter why and how they have taken some of the decisions that make this secluded pocket an ode to the senses. At the end of the day, you just need to feel it.