Ahm House, UK, by Jørn Ut­zon, re­fur­bished by Cop­pin Dock­ray


Dan­ish struc­tural en­gi­neer Povl Ahm worked on some ex­tra­or­di­nary pro­jects in his life­time. Af­ter join­ing the Lon­don of­fice of Ove Arup & Part­ners in 1952, he col­lab­o­rated on Coven­try Cathe­dral with Basil Spence and St Cather­ine’s Col­lege in Ox­ford with his coun­try­man Arne Ja­cob­sen; later the pair worked to­gether again on the Dan­ish Em­bassy in Lon­don. One of Ahm’s great­est, though lesser known, achieve­ments is his own house in Harpen­den, Hert­ford­shire, which has just been given a fresh lease of life.

Ahm built an ex­cep­tional home de­signed by Dan­ish ar­chi­tect Jørn Ut­zon, whom he got to know dur­ing the early de­sign stages of Ut­zon’s Syd­ney Opera House, which also in­volved Ove Arup & Part­ners. Ahm asked Ut­zon to de­sign a house in Eng­land and the ar­chi­tect obliged, send­ing his plans over in the early 1960s for his friend to work with.

The orig­i­nal Ahm House – Ut­zon’s only com­pleted pro­ject in the UK – was gen­tly pushed width­ways into the mod­estly slop­ing sub­ur­ban site. From the street, the house is enig­matic, with the garage and en­trance form­ing a buf­fer be­tween the pub­lic and pri­vate realm. But as you step in­side the en­trance hall and as­cend a se­ries of steps, Ahm’s pav­il­ion dra­mat­i­cally un­folds.

This lin­ear lodge of brick, con­crete and glass turns its back upon the neigh­bours to one side but opens it­self dra­mat­i­cally to the rear gar­dens. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the liv­ing spa­ces and ad­join­ing ter­races is rem­i­nis­cent, along with the ma­te­ri­als, of Ut­zon’s own fam­ily house near Hels­ingør in Den­mark, which the ar­chi­tect com­pleted in two phases dur­ing the 1950s. The high­light of the Ahm House – which re­veals it­self as you step around the cen­tral brick hearth and chim­ney breast – is the gen­er­ous sit­ting room. Here, floor-to-ceil­ing banks of glass con­nect with the gar­dens and throw nat­u­ral light on the brick­work, the tiled floors and the cof­fered ceil­ing, which com­bines con­crete beams with strips of pine.

‘We loved the char­ac­ter of the ma­te­ri­als as soon as we saw the house,’ says its new owner, who shares it with her hus­band and their young child. ‘For us it was also about the con­nec­tions to the green­ery and the trees. It does feel like a se­cret gar­den.’

Hav­ing ac­quired the house and im­mersed them­selves in Ut­zon’s his­tory, the own­ers ap­proached ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign stu­dio Cop­pin Dock­ray to work on the in­te­ri­ors and a su­per-sen­si­tive restora­tion. Founders San­dra Cop­pin and Bev Dock­ray have ex­pe­ri­ence of her­itage com­mis­sions such

1938» as apart­ments in Berthold Lu­betkin’s

High­point build­ings in Lon­don, and a 1960s house in Wilt­shire, de­signed by ar­chi­tect David Le­vitt for an­other Arup part­ner.

‘Any­one who comes into this house re­sponds to it in a very in­tu­itive and emo­tional way,’ says Cop­pin of the Ahm House. ‘You don’t need to know the back story to re­alise that it is spe­cial. The build­ing was in good con­di­tion, so for us it was more about the in­te­ri­ors. The main chal­lenge was re­spond­ing to the liv­ing room as a space, and fur­nish­ing it in a way that gives you that all-im­por­tant pri­mary read­ing of the house.’

Cop­pin Dock­ray saw the room as a com­bi­na­tion of ‘a ma­jor and a mi­nor space’. The ma­jor area is around the fire­place, where they cre­ated a snug seat­ing zone around the hearth. The mi­nor is at the op­po­site end, two steps up, where they cre­ated a se­condary seat­ing area look­ing into the gar­den, partly de­fined by a be­spoke cir­cu­lar rug by Michael Boyd and a se­lec­tion of Dan­ish pieces, in­clud­ing twin ‘Egg’ chairs by Ja­cob­sen. ‘Be­cause the house is or­thog­o­nal and lin­ear we wanted to in­tro­duce curved el­e­ments that read within the grid,’ says Dock­ray, ‘curves that the eye can glide around.’

The Dan­ish theme con­tin­ues into the din­ing area and kitchen, where the ta­ble and chairs are by Hans Weg­ner. The kitchen it­self is largely orig­i­nal, with Cop­pin Dock­ray hav­ing taken the gen­tlest of touches to light­ing up­dates and oc­ca­sional restora­tion. The same is true of the spa­ces be­yond, in­clud­ing the se­quence of four orig­i­nal bed­rooms, where any miss­ing join­ery was care­fully re­in­stated.

Cop­pin Dock­ray also worked, in a sim­i­lar vein, on the wing that Ahm added in the 1970s to a sym­pa­thetic de­sign by Ul­rik Plesner. Cre­at­ing an L-shaped for­ma­tion, ori­en­tated to­wards the gar­den, Ahm built this part of the house for his two teenage sons. It now houses the master bed­room and bath­room, com­plete with a sauna, and a dress­ing room. An un­der­ground link be­tween the two por­tions of the house, added by the pre­vi­ous own­ers (the house was sold by Ahm’s widow a few years af­ter his death in 2005), has been re­designed as a play­room and a li­brary.

Warm and wel­com­ing, the Ahm House now serves as a fam­ily home once again, a place where ar­chi­tec­ture and na­ture co­in­cide, as they do in the best of Ut­zon’s work.∂ cop­pin­dock­

‘Any­one who comes into this house re­sponds to it in a very in­tu­itive and emo­tional way’

Cop­pin Dock­ray made care­ful re­pairs to the listed 1961 house, re­in­stat­ing orig­i­nal join­ery, and fur­nished it with sen­si­tiv­ity to its Dan­ish de­sign roots. Here, Arne Ja­cob­sen ‘Egg’ chairs and Poul Cadovius’ ‘Royal Sys­tem’ shelv­ing are seen in the liv­ing area

Left, the main seat­ing area, with Hans Weg­ner ‘Plank’ chairs and an ‘Out­line’ sofa by An­der­ssen & Voll Below, the master bed­room, with an orig­i­nal dress­ing ta­ble and a head­board by Cop­pin Dock­ray, with Louis Poulsen wall lights

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