A matryoshka is more commonly known as a Russian doll: hollow and split in two halves, with each layer containing a smaller figure. Earlier this year, local architecture studio Shift fixed up a run-down townhouse to into two high-end apartments, stripping the shell down to its bare bones before suspending smaller elements into the tall voids to create a matryoshka effect. The two residences are conceived as inversions of one another: the lower residence features double-height spaces at the front and rear façade – the bedrooms and bathroom floating in the centre – whereas the upper apartment pushes the private rooms to the edges and lights the 14-m-high centre space with a large skylight. Shift partner Thijs van Bijsterveldt offers his thoughts about the composition of a house within a house.

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Where did the idea of the matryoshka come from?

In our early projects, we were already fascinated by the relationship between different areas within a house. For the Matryoshka House, we were also looking for a new hierarchy between the different living spaces. The client only gave us one directive for the design: the apartments should be as light and spacious as possible. We stretched the building by moving the back façade in line with the balconies of the buildings next door and compressing the private rooms (bathroom and bedrooms) to create smaller volumes that are suspended in the main space. On the one hand, this allowed us to create double-height ceilings and, additionally, it creates an interesting layered condition where the private rooms, the living room and the outdoor space have a visual relationship with each other. We created a ‘house within a house’.

Was this idea conceived from the start?
The ‘box within a box’ idea was there from the beginning. The configuration of the boxes went through many adaptations, though. During the preliminary phase, we created as many as 16 variants to discuss with the client and, eventually, we all agreed that the current configuration brought the most quality for both apartments. The position of the voids is used to maximise the amount of daylight in the apartments.

How did the concept take shape?
The house is a typical example of a long, narrow, 19th-century Dutch townhouse, with the first floor at souterrain level. The central position of the bedrooms in the lower apartment creates double height spaces along the front and back elevations, maximising the amount of daylight into the living space. In the upper apartment, the original ceiling height of the living room already allowed for enough daylight, so the central void – with its roof light – amplifies the amount of light even further.

What can you tell us about the decisions in materiality?
We were interested in contrast: old versus new; contemporary versus traditional; polished versus rough; and finished versus unfinished. We wanted to keep as many details of the original house as possible, reusing the stained-glass windows and wall panels but also keeping the original brick walls and roof structure exposed so the history of the house was still readable. The additional elements – our intervention – are materialised in a more unconventional and contemporary fashion, creating a contrast that emphasises the qualities of the original house. The steel cladding for the interior volumes came up early in the project because we were interested in using a reflective material in order to add more spatial quality to the apartments and further fulfil the client’s wish to maximise the amount of light.

Plans – Apartment 1 (Level 1 / Level 2) / Apartment 2 (Level 1 / Level 2)

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