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FT In Search of Quietude

An article in the Financial Times Weekend House & Home 28/29 October 2023 following publication of Quiet Spaces.

In Search of Quietude

“To be quiet is not to be silent,” writes William Smalley in his new book. “Quiet spaces are not empty. Emptiness can be oppressive.”

The architect describes the living room in his London flat: there’s a Georgian table that belonged to his grandfather, a piano that’s a year older than he is, an oarlock of a Venetian gondola. The room itself is a mix, built in the 18th century, refronted in the 19th century, with panelling that he stripped and painted white a decade ago.

“It could be an incoherent mess,” he writes. “But the light is the same light that has been falling through the windows since it was built . . . there is, to me, peace. I am able to think. It is quiet.”

Smalley established his studio in London in 2010 and has residential work spanning the UK, Europe and the US. In his first book, released this month in the UK, he examines a number of buildings of his own and those that have inspired him, which contain that most elusive and personal of qualities: quietude.

It is not something that can be prescribed, Smalley tells me. “You can’t just say: make it square and paint the walls white; it’s the result of a lot of thought and consideration coming together.”

One example Smalley includes in the book is Luis Barragán’s house and studio in Mexico City, a sprawling, unconventional house that the architect started building in 1947 and refined and altered over the next 40 years. The FT’s architecture critic, Edwin Heathcote, has described the house as a paradox: “simultaneously warm and cool, minimalist but filled with life”.

“Barragán’s house is a huge, extravagant house for one,” says Smalley, who first visited it nine years ago. “It’s very personal. It’s quite awkward in plan . . . the living room takes up half the house,” he says, but the house and the stables are “among the most — if not the most — aesthetically refined places I’ve ever been.”

Smalley also chooses Villa Saraceno, a grand house in northern Italy designed by Andrea Palladio in 1550. He first stayed there after leaving university, renting it with some friends in the last cheap week before the price doubled for Easter. “It happened to be muck-spreading week,” he says, “so it stank.”

But the perfection of the proportions stuck with him. “It has this wonderful thing where . . . you can look straight through the house and out the back, if the front and the back doors are open,” he says. “It’s big and, by any standards, generous but, at the same time, there’s a sense that it’s almost not there.”

Another example is a contemporary, hilltop house built in Devon in 2018. It was designed by Peter Zumthor for Living Architecture, a property rental company set up by the writer Alain de Botton that offers people the chance to stay in a house designed by a famous architect.

The house is 375 sq m of glass and concrete, and took 10 years to build. “But to be in it, it has this incredible quality: you kind of float around it; and your view out on to the landscape . . . it’s like you’re on a viewing pavilion and the landscape is laid out in front of you.” But it does something else, too, he says. “When you’re there it demands you to be convivial, and your conversation seems elevated somehow.”

The book includes some of his own designs, too, which capture that sense of peace. One was for an attic space he designed for a 17th-century château in the Haute-Savoie in the French Alps.

The original attic was a huge, voluminous space, with windows on three levels. But many of the timbers had rotted, so the decision was made to lop off the whole attic, keep the chimneys and rebuild it in simplified manner.

“The project was all about keeping the sense of awe that you felt when you went up the staircase into the former attic,” Smalley says, so he kept the space as open as possible. Wooden slatted stacks hide the utilities — storage and a kitchenette — and lighting runs around the perimeter, meaning there are no dark corners. The attic has been used for musical performances and large dinners — so not exactly quiet. “It performs any number of functions, but the space is at peace, it has come to rest,” Smalley says.

“With all the spaces — and I probably wasn’t conscious of this until I brought them all together — there is that same feeling that ties them together,” he says. “There’s a rightness to them.”

text: Nathan Brooker   photography: Harry Crowder