Packing homages, tributes and inspirations into a home for himself in Edinburgh, Richard Murphy has designed a lavishing home of extraordinary nature with a rather small footprint.
Sleight of hand. Box of tricks. Rubik’s Cube. Jigsaw puzzle. Variously referred to thus, the home of Richard Murphy in Edinburgh is certainly like no other – garnering the RIBA award, amongst a handful of others. Murphy readily conceded that it could possibly be ‘over-designed.’ “A lot of the complexity comes from the project’s long gestation: it won planning permission in 2007, but the recession put the brakes on, happily allowing four years of ‘fiddling about’ with the design,” he said.
A careful contextual response to adjacent existing buildings, this structure sits well within the established landscape and urban patterns of Edinburgh’s New Town. It responds to the surrounding Georgian architecture and is meant to finish and bookend the adjacent tenement’s gable. Tightly designed, it features a series of unexpected spaces, secret compartments and moving walls to mention a few.
Carlo Scarpa, the renowned Venetian architect is credited with being the inspiration for much of the detailing in the house. How so? Murphy is an acknowledged authority on the work of the Italian designer and has even authored three books on his hero. Scarpa’s appreciation of craft led him to revel in the smallest of details, almost unmatched among modern architects. Dedicated to the craft of building, his work was fastidious, immaculate, and notably scrupulous about the finish, setting it apart from others of his generation. Murphy’s house reflects this influence in no small measure, down to the walls in ‘stucco lucido’ or coloured Venetian plasterwork. The roof terrace is homage to the garden of Scarpa’s Querini Stampalia house-museum in Venice, using the same exposed aggregate walls and sourcing tiles from the architect’s original manufacturer in Venice.
Other influences, such as those of the Sir John Soane Museum and the Maison de Verre, can be seen in the use of illusion and moving elements. Rietveld’s Schroder house makes an appearance in a ‘disappearing corner’ stone panel opening, designed to be the same proportions as his famous window.
Murphy is clearly partial to the idea of a house that transforms itself from day to night, or from one season to another. “In Edinburgh, we can have twenty hours of daylight a day or six. The house needs to close down as much as open up.”
The house is designed to adapt with the seasons to open up in summer and close down and cocoon in winter. A 45-degree mono-pitch roof fitted with photo-voltaic cells holds considerably sized glazing. Below this, two large insulated shutters can either swing closed to shut out sunlight or open and flood the interior with light. When closed, they completely transform the high volume of the living room into a more intimate ambience.
The litany of environmentally sensitive strokes is a long one. The glazing generates heat for the house during the day, while the insulated panels prevent warmth from escaping at night and in winter. All the major windows to the house have insulated shutters which slide or pivot, including pulley-operated clerestory shutters. “Other energy innovations are a computerised internal air circulation system which takes warm air from the top of the house to the basement to counteract the stack effect and expels it via a gravel rock store to produce a delayed heat source for evening use. The main heating source for the house is a 150m deep ground source borehole connecting to a heat exchanger which feeds under-floor heating. Rainwater which follows a course of pools and waterfalls on the roof terrace finds its way to grey-water storage tanks in the basement and is then used to flush toilets and supply a sprinkler system,” said Murphy.
Everything is built in and premeditated, squeezing mileage out of each square inch of the 11m x 6m footprint. Four stories and nine levels contain three bedrooms, three shower rooms, a living/dining/kitchen area at varying levels, study, reception hall, basement plant and storage, garage, utility room and roof terrace. Murphy considers everything to be convenient and accessible, recalling the design of caravans, ships or other restricted spaces. “The kitchen is logically designed; its storage has everything in the right place and its raised level keeps the paraphernalia of cooking out of sight of the living space. This is an efficient design,” he says. Additionally, Murphy’s work here offers unexpected glimpses between the multiple levels through peepholes, windows or hatches that slide open through mechanics, contributing to its playful character blended with outstanding craftsmanship. A simple open plan has been tossed aside in favour of a complex series of sections with the agenda of extending spaces and creating spatial illusions. “There is an unpredictable and non-repetitive vertical circulation route through the house. At the design stage, a chance visit to the Muller House in Prague by Adolf Loos confirmed this strategy in my mind,” said Murphy. A red bookcase wraps around the staircase, with a ladder that slides on a track.
Unexpectedly, for the small footprint, the walls are like fortresses – up to two feet thick – but they are layered so as to make the rooms feel larger rather than more cramped, housing staircases and storage, emulating the architecture of Medieval Scotland. “There isn’t any empirical evidence to support this, but I feel complex spaces tend to look larger than very simple ones. If I had used thin walls, I don’t think the spaces would have felt as big,” explained Murphy. “I try to wring every maximum possible opportunity for architecture out of a site. The danger is that one tries to get every idea one has seen or had into one small project. It (this house) certainly is not intended to be an exemplar and definitely not a prototype. It has been an enjoyable vehicle to develop a lifetime’s themes and now it gives me great pleasure to both live there and to hear the remarks of the many visitors it has hosted over the last year or so.”. Would Murphy have designed this home differently if it was meant for a client? “It may have been a little less adventurous…I would not experiment so much or take risks for a client. The electrical shutters under the roof may not have been used….” he said. Is it possible for the details to be replicated for other homes? “They can be modified,” he added.
In this fascinating, complex home full of clever details and surprises, significant amounts of accommodation have been squeezed out of a very restricted site, while increasing the feeling of space through the use of complex sections and occasional tricks with mirrors. To copy-paste this design or even part of it elsewhere would not only require immense skill but also perhaps great thought as to how those components could offer an experience similar to what one faces here. Having lived there for years, Murphy has never felt the house to be ‘too small’ or ‘too cramped’ or ‘too cluttered’. Not only does he live in comfort, but contrary to what might be perceived, uses each of his designed elements regularly; a clear testament that the architecture here is far from gimmickry, and the innovation of the architectural design determinedly overpowers its mechanics.
Project DetailsName of the project: Murphy House
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Architect: Richard Murphy Architects
Design team: Richard Murphy, Gareth Jones, James Falconer, Tersius Maass
(This article was first published in Issue#20 of mondo*arc india journal - an initiative by STIR.)