Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

The creative leader discusses his latest projects in the UK and US, including a recently completed artist's studio and home in North London

Sunday 27 February 2022 By Ollie Horne Portraits by Lydia Wilks

Along a quiet mews in Stoke Newington, north London, abutting the forested Abney Park Cemetery, an unassuming gateway opens to a tranquil courtyard, lit with low strip lighting along the edges. A vivid tree fern contrasts with a bright red front door at the far end. Peter Culley, the founder of the London and US-based practice, Spatial Affairs Bureau, and the architect of this space – Bouverie Mews – swings the door open, revealing the workshop and home of minimalist abstract artist, Rana Begum.

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House
Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House
Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

The artist’s workshop occupies the ground and basement floors, where assistants in overalls polish ceramic works. A set of concrete stairs leads up to Begum’s living area, where an entire wall of glazing frames the trees of Abney Park Cemetery. A band of morning sunlight cuts along the floor, illuminating a group of sculptures made by Begum for a show at Tate St Ives. The floor is slightly cantilevered over the cemetery’s outer brick wall, producing the immersive feeling of floating directly in the trees. One could stand there gazing at the view for hours, watching the leaves blow from the trees, the branches wobble, pigeons flapping from their perches, and the occasional jogger passing between the trunks. It feels like anywhere other than London. 

‘I think it’s interesting to think of buildings as an instrument,’ says Culley, peering thoughtfully from behind tinted lenses. ‘Imagine if you made a small box, cut holes in it at various places, and placed it in the sun. When you looked inside it, you would think of that as some kind of device for observing, capturing, and manipulating light. If you scale that up, you have a building. For instance, there is a narrow return here where the floor-to-ceiling window extends around to the adjoining wall. If you didn’t have that cut in the instrument, you wouldn’t get this band of light coming across the floor. These apertures ensure the space is continually alive.’

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

Round Hill Pavilions in Orange, Virginia. Credit: Spatial Affairs Bureau

Culley founded Spatial Affairs Bureau in 2010, and has worked mostly across Virginia, LA, Memphis, New York and the UK in that time, living in the US for 10 years before returning to London in 2019. Bouverie Mews completed last year. Its interiors are remarkably calm and spacious, especially given the completely landlocked nature of the site: 12 party wall agreements were made with seven different buildings surrounding the site before construction could proceed. The shared walls had to be carefully negotiated while the single-storey former workshop that occupied the site was demolished, with special attention given to the vulnerable Grade II-listed Victorian wall of the cemetery. 

Cully’s projects vary hugely in scope and use, from small flats and townhouses to enormous art centres and public parks. In 2019, he completed Crosstown Arts in Memphis, an art centre within the Crosstown Concourse – a massive warehouse redesigned to house performance spaces, a school, offices, shops, restaurants, and 250 residences. ‘I do like working on public projects that are on a certain scale,’ says Culley. ‘I think there’s something intriguing about an audience – it’s a way of judging the architecture’s performance through a much broader visitorship. When they’re large enough, sometimes it feels as if a space has broken the typical definition of an interior. I start to think of them as interior landscapes. In the Memphis art centre, there are lots of columns, but at that scale, the vertical interruption begins to feel like a forest.’

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House
Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

'When they’re large enough, sometimes it feels as if a space has broken the typical definition of an interior. I start to think of them as interior landscapes.’

‘I like complex projects that have lots of different uses, too,’ he continues. ‘Museums might have a restaurant, a library, a shop, a conservation department, a theatre, a ticket office, huge amounts of sophisticated storage, and that’s before you even get to the galleries. That’s why I like Bouverie Mews – it has that complexity, but on a much smaller scale: there’s the workshop on the ground floor and basement, and Rana’s home above it, where a corridor bridges over the courtyard to distinguish the more public part of the home – the lounge and kitchen – from the more private end, where the bedrooms are. And on the very top is a separate guest house with its own roof terrace. I quite like these stages of privacy. It’s like when you watch an animal move through different spaces: they’ll migrate to some, and then sense some cues that prompt them to go no further. Humans also respond to these cues. It’s interesting to set something up as private, but allow access up to certain levels. I think people quite like to be allowed to go into those otherwise off-limit areas. It feels special.’

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

Crosstown Arts at Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tennessee. Credit: Houston Cofield

These stages of privacy extend to the rooftops, where a wood-panelled terrace opens to the treetops. From the stair tower, a secret door in the wall reveals another entirely hidden rooftop garden, replete with a small solar farm. None of the walls or surfaces on the terraces are straight; they sweep at different angles, carrying one’s gaze from one corner to the next, producing a lively and calm atmosphere all at once. ‘People often talk about the flexibility of a space, but I quite like achieving flexibility in a fixed condition,’ says Culley. ‘Rather than having a space where every partition wall can slide back and disappear, I prefer minor adjustments, like taking a full height door that opens and closes – that can have a major effect.’

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

Above image, an interior from a home designed by Culley in Breeze Avenue in Venice Beach, California. Credit: Benny Chan


The architect’s next project in the UK is a personal one: a Georgian country home in the far north of Scotland, with views of the North Sea. ‘I’m intrigued with how you deal with historic properties, especially thermally,’ he says. ‘It’s kind of a research project of mine. I’d like to explore ethical tourism there; I like the idea of having somewhere you live some of the time, and other times it’s opened up to others. It’s really nice to have homes that others can feel comfortable in. People don’t seem to have the opportunity to be in each other’s domestic lives as much anymore. Maybe it’s due to lack of time, or because of COVID-19, but I don’t feel quite so aware of people lounging about in each other’s homes as much as they once did. I think it’s a nice way to socialise. I like it when people stay over, because then you have the second day, which is a different sort of relationship.’

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

TBWA/Chiat/Day Advertising Agency in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Jasper Sanidad

What the pandemic has certainly changed in terms of people and their homes is to remind them of the importance of a well-designed space: the architecture, the decoration, the light, and the effects these have on their mood – the realisation was inescapable when people couldn’t leave their houses for months on end. So, next time, get Peter Culley to design you a home first – and make sure your friends come and hang out in it until then.

Get to Know: Peter Culley, architect and founder of Spatial Affairs Bureau | Soho House

The exterior of a home designed by Culley on Breeze Avenue in Venice Beach, California. Credit: Benny Chan

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