The Mole Man’s Legacy: Rehabilitation of Mole House in London
Client: Sue Webster
Architects: Adjaye Associates
Structural engineering: Alcock Lees Partnership
Location: 121 Mortimer Road, London N1 4JY (GB)
It is an accepted fact that single-family homes express something about the people who live in them. However, only seldom are these people as excessive as William Lyttle, who became famous in London as Mole Man. For more than 40 years, this civil engineer occupied his spacious home in the Hackney district, all the while digging a ramified system of tunnels beneath it. After his death in 2010 the local building authorities had the passageways filled in with 2,000 tonnes of lightweight concrete, for over time the structural stability of the neighbouring buildings had become compromised.
Years later, artist Sue Webster’s attention was drawn to the semi-ruined house; she commissioned David Adjaye and his studio to work with her in realizing her own vision of living and working under a single roof.
From the street, the true size of the building is hard to determine: the free-standing, cubic volume is lower than the surrounding row houses as the attic was destroyed by fire during the long period that the house was unoccupied. In contrast, the division of the two upper-storey façades is as symmetrical as ever; the architects have used a modern profile system to rebuild even the bay windows so typical of London row houses. Above these, a dramatically jutting concrete ledge accentuates the horizontal. In order to repair the hole-riddled walls, Adjaye employed nearly 15,000 reclaimed bricks. Some of these bricks came from the lot itself, while others were salvaged from condemned buildings elsewhere. Inside, new concrete walls crisscross the house, which was completely gutted during the refurbishment, and hold up the ceilings, which are also new. But it is the lowest level that has undergone the greatest transformation. To the west and south, the architects have extended the structure into the garden. Exposed-concrete walls reveal which part of the structure is old and which is new.