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  • Nirali Jain

A Sunken Black Box, London, UK.

The article has been published at the Re-Thinking the Future (a digital platform). Do visit the link

The Sunken Black Box by David Adjaye: A giant Black Cube

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation”–--- Mahatma Gandhi.
Overview of the Sunken House. Photo Credits @ Ed Reeve

A 2000 square feet three-storied house built partially underground in a conservation area of De Beauvoir estate in Hackney, London, for an architectural photographer Ed Reeve, by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, completed in 2007. The photographer termed the Sunken House “Ed’s Shed” stands amidst the Victorian neighbourhood, which mainly has semi-detached villas with elegant proportions and hipped roofs.

The minimal cube structure appears simple but marks architectural punctuation by being sympathetic and unblended in the existing streetscape when seen from the street. A Victorian House (built during Queen Victoria’s reign) is recognised by its steep gabled roofs, bay windows, stained glasses, decorative woodwork, and bright colours. This bold stained timber rain-screen cladding is a language that emerges strangely familiar and still makes one rethink the notion of beauty. A strikingly dark facade is the celebrated architect's occasional signature, which is seen in his similar works as Museum of Contemporary Art, Dirty House, Pitch Blackhouse.

“The Victorian world is extremely dark and extremely bright.” –--- Harry Treadaway, a British actor.

Picture 2
Rear Deck at the lower level. Photo credits @ Ed Reeve
Lower Lvl Front Deck. Photo credits@ Ed Reeve

Being an architectural photographer by profession, lighting plays an essential role for the client. The design of the house is such that it maximises the sunlight within, and it augments a different visual story inside compared to the solid outside. The shed is at the basement level excavated like a pit by creating a sunken courtyard accessible through an 800sqft integrated dining kitchen and a bathroom adjacent to the timber cladding linear staircase seeming brazenly light with the wash of white walls and the play of light penetrating within. A secondary bedroom is below the parking porch abutting a deck and steps from entry to the courtyard. It is an urban oasis for the occupants, with different compositions of immersing light, shade and shadows throughout the day.

Immersed Light Play at the Front Deck abutting the Staircase and the Bedroom. Photo credits@Ed Reeve

Uninterrupted Window rightly placed. Photo credits@Ed Reeve

Living space at the entry-level with large windows fixed with openable shutters and small pictured windows. They are positioned to avoid overlooking and consequently ignite the visual senses by focusing the openings around the specimen trees. The bedroom situated at the upper level is with a study that can be converted into a kid’s room in future and is with an uninterrupted view towards the neighbouring gardens and still maintains privacy from the adjoining houses. The house is lit mainly through long horizontal and vertical openings on the upper floors and the courtyard opening on the lower ground.

Section of the house. Photo credits @ Archdaily
Charles Eames Chair.Photo credits@Ed Reeve

A requested visual treat skimming over the top of maple, oak and Rubina tree create a dramatic effect with light piercing through 17 feet-wide and 5 feet high window. Another window in the bedroom overlooks a neighbour’s bamboo and a church tower. Entry to the three feet by six feet balcony at the study is camouflaged with panelled deep blue cabinets and is enough for a lounge chair to fit in but is mainly used as a peep to check someone at the entry.

A Peek-a-boo at the Clock Tower.Photo credits@Ed Reeve
Rear Deck at a lower level. Photo credit@ Ed Reeve

The flat roof has openable skylights and vertical windows that seamlessly wrap over and provide a panoramic sky view. A trapdoor accessible through the living room ceiling is designed with a pull-down ladder to climb the roof. Its height matches the surrounding workshop buildings that sprung across the street during that time.

The palette compliments within and around. Photo credits@Ed Reeve

Ed’s shed is as clean and minimal inside as it looks outside, a cryptic wooden box tweeting through the traditional low brick wall garden fence. The minimalistic manageable interiors are a priority for the client, interpreted in bare walls. The use of neutral tones, pale blue, and accents of black on walls and furniture supplements the trailed pattern formed by the light through the surrounding foliage, a walnut dining table and a midnight blue Charles Eames chair, all together complement the bold exterior. Hemp insulation on walls provides thermal and acoustic insulation within.

Minimalist Interiors.Photo credits@Ed Reeve
Living area. Photo credits@Ed Reeve

The design of any project adapts according to the client’s requirements. As David Adjaye states that - “buildings are deeply dynamic structures, which form our psyche. People think they’re just things they manoeuvre through, but the nature of spaces influences the makeup of a person.” (1)

For the design ad construction of this load-bearing house, the architect worked with a London engineering and contracting company, Eurban, which specialises in high-end prefab homes. They translated the architectural drawings into fabrication drawings, further sent to a factory in Aichach, Germany, where the entire structure — floors, walls and exterior cladding with all the windows and openings cut out were manufactured off-site and installed in about a week. Not only, it keeps the construction costs in check, but also it allowed the construction to complete within a stipulated timeframe.

Dark-stained timber Big Black void Entrance.Photo credits@Ed Reeve

The cladded timber is repeated as the deck flooring, making the shed appear as one monolithic dark-stained timber house by embracing the enclosed and the open spaces. As per an article in New York Times written by Elaine Louie -- At night, the boxy structure recedes from view “like a big black void,” Mr Reeve said, and she notes that the client also mentions that after a few drinks, the house has a nasty habit of disappearing altogether. (2)

Streetview of the Sunken House. Photo credits zapadly-dum-edova-bouda

For a typical London house, this Sunken house is unconventional. However, it extends and polarises the usual pattern of each floor with a slightly different relationship to the external context: with its private courtyard below and the panoramic view above. Exterior colours go in and out of fashion or are evergreen neutral, but black has seldom been a preferred choice.

(1) For the quote visit

(2) Louie, R (2007) A Black Box Among The Gregorians. Available at







6. More pictures by Ed Reeve available at

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