Underworld: A writer’s retreat
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Writer's retreat building in Whitechapel

BA Architecture project: Writer’s retreat for Peter Ackroyd
Fourth year (part time) architecture project to design a writer’s retreat in Whitechapel for Peter Ackroyd – ‘the greatest living chronicler of London’. Ackroyd’s fascination with the underworld, the geological strata of London’s history beneath our feet, is the inspiration for a structure designed to slowly sink into the earth, to enter the underworld – to literally retreat into the past.

The writer enters at the top of the building under the words DIS MANIBUS meaning ‘to the gods of the underworld’ – a traditional Roman grave marking which recalls the site’s earliest use as a cemetery on the outskirsts of Londinium. From here one can retreat into the depths of the building, descending anti-clockwise (into the past) to work among the books and ascending clockwise (back to the here and now) at the end of the day.

The structure provides a barrier to the outside world – a quiet contemplative workspace – but the building’s relationship to the fabric of the city is powerfully expressed as the retreat literally sinks into the layers of London’s past. The building looks out towards the site of the Ald Gate – entrance to the Roman City from the former capital at Colchester. Here the viewer sees London layered architecturally – an 18th century school yard and tenements are overlooked by 60’s social housing on Commercial street, overlooked by the post-modern monolith of Bishopsgate, overlooked by Tower 42 and the Gherkin, overlooked by the concrete cores and cranes of unending construction.

Looking north along Gunthorpe Street – where Jack the Ripper struck in 1888 – the writer sees the spire of Spitalfields’ Christ Church, featured in Ackroyd’s award-winning 1985 novel ‘Hawksmoor’. The church is a talisman of Ackroyd’s achievements as a writer, and a reminder of his own personal history. Once the building has sunk into the earth it becomes a ‘lapis manalis’ – the stone that the Romans placed at the foundation of a new town – for the next project on the site, a headquarters for the Writers’ Guild.