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Architects Reinterpret the Dolls’ House for a Cause

Coffey Architects developed a modular dollhouse that can be assembled into various configurations
Coffey Architects developed a modular dollhouse that can be assembled into various configurations. Courtesy of Coffey Architects

To raise funds for charity, a London property-development firm asked 20 architects for a modern interpretation of a dolls’ house.

September 24, 2013—Earlier this year, phones began ringing at 20 architecture firms with the offer of a highly unusual project: Would they be interested in designing a house with virtually no constraints? The house needed to be sufficiently robust to handle children at play. It needed to include accommodations for children with disabilities. And it had to fit on a 30 by 30 in. plinth.

The idea of having top architects create 21st-century interpretations of a dolls’ house was developed by the Cathedral Group Plc, a property-development firm headquartered in London, and its creative director, Martyn Evans. The project is part of the firm’s larger efforts to raise funds for KIDS, a London based charity formed in 1970 to ensure that disabled children and young people are provided with the opportunities to develop their full potential.

“One of our colleagues had a new baby; she was very sick when she was born,” Evans says. “This charity, KIDS, was incredibly supportive of him and his wife. When he came back to work he asked us if we might help them in return for their kindness to him.”

As Evans was considering what his personal contribution to the fund-raising efforts would be, he saw a documentary about Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, designed by influential British architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. 

A 5 ft tall, 1/2th scale of Queen Mary's Dolls' House

The project was inspired by Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a 5 ft tall,
1/12th scale triumph designed by the  influential British architect
Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens and completed in 1924. Wikimedia
Commons/Rob Sangster

The 1/12th scale masterpiece is more than 5 ft tall, and includes an impressive collection of exacting replicas of drapes, furniture, and even a tiny pack of Dunhill cigarettes. British horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll even created an elaborate garden. The house was completed in 1924 and is now on display in Windsor Castle. It took three years to build and includes a wine cellar, electricity, functioning plumbing with both hot and cold water, and working toilets.

“It’s enormous,” Evans says. “It weighs 4 tonnes. It’s a sort of minipalace. And it is full of incredible objects that were made for the architect by his friends, who were all great artists and writers and designers—1,500 craftspeople and artists contributed to making this.”

Inspired, Evans called the architect Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid with the idea. She immediately agreed. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, that was pretty easy. So I might ask a few more well-known architects,’” Evans says. “And I did.”

What began with the idea for a small auction of a few dolls’ houses in the company’s offices this fall quickly developed spectacular momentum. Architect after architect eagerly agreed to the project. And the list of participants stands now at 20. On September 18, 10 of the dolls’ houses were displayed as part of the London Design Festival.

“We had no clue,” Evans says. “We were just going to do our little charity project and raise a few thousand pounds and all of sudden we are one of the most talked-about exhibitions of the festival. These amazing architects spent a lot of time and money and effort helping us, doing really beautiful work.”

“It seems to have captured their imagination,” Evans says. “The thing about architects is that they are artists. And they are usually constrained by client briefs to a large degree. They very rarely—unless they make their own houses or design their own studios—get to do something that is just about their pure creativity. And here they can let their minds go crazy.”

The architects have developed wildly creative interpretations for the project. Several of the houses are made of components that can be endlessly reconfigured and explored. The London based Make Architects began with simple, stackable houses.

Architects started with the traditional shape of a house - a square box with a pitched roof

Make Architects started with the traditional shape of a house—a
square box with a pitched roof—and asked more than 20
architects in the practice to interpret that. Courtesy of Make

“Ken Shuttleworth at Make gave his team each a small form in the traditional shape of a house—a square box with a pitched roof—and asked each of the architects in the practice office to interpret that,” Evans says. The resulting forms slot together to make one larger house. “So it is properly interactive and playful. It’s Bauhaus, but it’s also made up of many components and parts. It’s endlessly changeable.”

John Prevc, a partner at Make, noted in written comments to Civil Engineering online that the firm was delighted to be asked to participate in the project to benefit such a worthy charity. “We are an employee-owned business, and we thought that it would be great to involve as many of our architects as we could in the design of the dolls’ house,” said Prevc. “The concept was therefore that of a jigsaw.

“The idea of a simple form which culturally represented a house was thought to make sense,” he explained. “We designed a shell with a pitched roof which acted as a key onto which other pieces would fit. The interlocking modules formed the three-dimensional jigsaw. The repetition and componentization also became an illustration of the 21st-century building industry, but with the potential for individuality and uniqueness,” Prevc said.

More than 20 people at the firm designed units from laminated timber. The goal was to engage the children through their senses.

“Each of the houses has either tactility [or] audibility, all have visual delight, and the herb garden has smell,” Prevc said. “The only thing we didn’t attempt was taste, although I suppose you could taste the herbs. We have designed a set of statements about disability rather than a standard house with accessible rooms and spaces.”

Duggan Morris Architects, of London, developed its adaptable dolls’ house from consultations with the mother of a five-year-old boy with autism, according to a blog posting on the company’s website. From those conversations, they learned that the boy gravitates to rigid, repetitive play.

“Typically, a conventional dolls’ house would present an entire cross section of populated rooms, which for those on the autistic spectrum is visual noise, hence hindering learning through role play. The key principle behind our proposal is to create a structure that can be disassembled to construct a particular focused exercise without the confusion of others in close proximity,” the blog post notes.

Studio Egret West developed a dolls' house that functions as a puzzle

Studio Egret West developed a dolls’ house that functions as a
puzzle, opening up into a modern, three-story structure. Courtesy
of Studio Egret West

The rooms of the house can be removed and played with separately. This enables children with autism to experience isolation and freedom from distraction. The team included human figures clearly showing a single emotion, such as happiness or sadness, to assist the children in expressing their feelings.  

Studio Egret West, headquartered in London, developed a brightly colored dolls’ house that functions as a puzzle, opening up into a modern, three-story structure.

“A number of them took the idea that it was a child’s toy and physically interpreted the house as a series of building components that kids could play with to reconfigure, and I suppose learn about building from,” Evans says.

Evans says it has been exciting to see the project flourish and to see the creative projects the architects have developed. He recalls a portion of the documentary that inspired the project. There is a tape of Edwin Lutyens discussing the Queen Mary project in 1924 to a radio news reporter. “He said, in his posh, English way, that at a time of great economic strife and postwar difficulty, he wanted to do something to cheer up the nation,” Evans recalls with a laugh. “I liked that idea. I liked that sort of ambition to make a dolls’ house and cheer up the nation. And I thought, in our similar time of economic strife, we ought to cheer up the nation again. So that’s my ambition: to cheer up the nation.”

On November 11, the houses will be auctioned by Bonhams in London, the proceeds going to KIDS. Photos or illustrations of most of the designs are available at the project’s website. The auction also has an online bidding component.



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