The architects behind Britain’s most exciting modern homes
TPhilosopher Alain de Botton wrote that there was a time when Britain built hundreds of thousands of near-identical homes that were elegant, practical, sophisticated, and, most importantly, affordable. Unfortunately, the last time this happened was during the great era of home building in Georgia, from the year of George I’s accession in 1714 to about 1830, when George IV died.
Certainly in the modern era we seem to struggle to produce the kind of homes that most people would want to live in. “In the UK, it is as difficult to find a pleasant home today as it was to find a well-appointed bathroom in the 12th century,” de Botton continues.
While that may be an exaggeration, it is right This is important: Our dwellings determine how we feel, our degrees of hope and contentment, and whether we can be fully ourselves. In the acres of Identikit Barratt boxes on the edges of our cities, and in the rectangular apartment buildings dotting our city centers, we have lost something important: beauty, certainly, but also ambition. Maybe even a degree of happiness. In many areas, local construction is so poor, as Barbara Weiss of the Skyline Campaign recently told me: “I feel like I have to have blinders on when I go out.” Yet, ironically, home and home remain a national obsession.
With all this in mind, you might think it’s reasonable to conclude that British architects have given up on building beautiful housing. However, a new book by Dominic Bradbury has been released, The famous British housefor which de Botton wrote the introduction, makes clear that the charge could not be further from the truth.
Astley Castle in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, by Weatherford Watson Mann (2012)
It’s both historical and controversial, as it begins with the Arts and Crafts movement that emerged from the Great Exhibition of 1851 – with Goddard’s in Surrey, built by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1900 – before Art Deco appeared in the form of the subtly modern Hill House in Helensburgh, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1903). It’s a nice, non-controversial start. But what will soon become apparent is how experimental British architecture has become. First, immigrants from Europe, such as Berthold Lubetkin and Marcel Breuer, left their icons of radical modernism in places as diverse as Whipsnead and Angmering-on-Sea. Then we had Peter and Alison Smithson, whose work inspired the term “brutalism,” and Peter Foggo, whose design in Wimbledon Village was one of the best examples of mid-century modernism in existence. Then came the high-tech movement, embodied in the Wimbledon house that Richard Rogers designed for his parents in 1967. Then came postmodernism, seen in Sir Terry Farrell’s Cosmic House in Holland Park, west London, which was built for the critic Charles Jencks in 1967. 1983.
The book actually comes after 1994, a period covering half of the fifty entries. When visitors think of grand houses in the UK, they often imagine stately residences that wouldn’t look out of place Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle, Waddesdon Palace, Blenheim Palace. However, there are unique country houses in every corner of our green and pleasant land, from the Origami House in Ballymena, Co Antrim, by Jane Burnside (2008), which resembles a traditional cluster of farm cottages, to the buried Future Systems houses (except for the oval glass front Protruding from the hillside) Malator in Pembrokeshire (1998), which could be considered a Bond villain’s lair.
These may be extremes in camouflage and concealment, but subtlety abounds, too, in Middlesex’s deliberately low-key retro-modernist wing, Skywood House by Graham Phillips (1999) – inspired by Mies van der Rohe and Lili Reich’s iconic 1929 Barcelona pavilion – and in Cotswolds house designed by Richard Found in 2012, where expanses of warm local stone form a streamlined extension of the 18th-century Grade II listed gamekeeper’s house. All are designed to minimize their visual impact on areas of outstanding natural beauty but feature very contemporary interiors and modern cons. There’s room for the fun and the weird, like Grayson Perry’s extroverted House for Essex, and de Beauvoir’s Mole House by David Adjaye, who took the building’s shell and the hand-dug underground tunnels left behind by William Little, known as the Mole Man of Hackney, and turned it into a home for the artist Sue Webster (probably after a lot of body work).
Crescent House on Marlborough Downs, Wiltshire, by Ken Shuttleworth (1997)
“The argument that runs through the book is that there is an evolving British style based on attention to context, terrain, materials and vernacular,” says Bradbury. “All the projects are framed and respond to the landscape in particular – the relationship between architecture and landscape feels particularly British and is really interesting.”
This is evident in projects such as Hannington Farm in Northamptonshire by James Gorst (2019). The Hannington is set within a working deer farm, wraps around a lake, and, Gorst says, draws inspiration from “18th-century mills in the Welsh valleys, 2,000 years of tradition, exterior lines and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao,” with a Scandinavian flourish and thoughtful culture. The asymmetry adds to the sophisticated, slightly ruined modern manor house aesthetic. “The client was the type who loved to hunt, so of course that had an influence as well,” says Gorst.
Hannington Farm at Holcote, Northamptonshire, by James Gorst (2019)
Ultimately, he believes, good architecture boils down to “expressing the potential of different materials,” and perhaps nowhere is this more true than at Flint House, designed by Skinny Catling de la Peña. Located in the grounds of Waddesdon, this mansion was built 126 years later for the same family – the Rothschilds – on the chalk line that runs north from the Cliffs of Dover. The building uses blocks of white stone at its highest points, helping it blend into the winter sky, while flint nodules at its base reflect the surrounding rocky fields. “Waddesdon Manor in itself is a curiosity: it is a mansion in the Loire Valley that fell like a spaceship,” says architect Charlotte Skinny-Catling. “We were drawn to the local geoarchaeology, dating back millions of years. Flint House is like pulling out a chunk of chalk and flint – a visual extrusion.” It was awarded House of the Year by the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) in 2015.
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Back to why this is important. De Botton writes in his introduction to The famous British house “We should be inspired and a little angry… The fact that 50 beautiful homes deserve a book is in part an indication that the other 23.7 million or so dwellings in the UK may not deserve this kind of attention.
Greenways at Coombe Park, Surrey, by Nick Eldridge (2017)
However, Skinny Catling, who also works on creating housing units for inadequate backfill sites in London, believes such models serve an important purpose. “The design style is consistent whether you are building a mansion or a cottage,” she says. “Architecture follows economics and politics, so the main problem is land ownership. In Europe, local governments provide land for people to build on; in the UK, all this is taken over by large-scale housebuilders, so you either get One-offs like Flint House or Junk. Hopefully the individual matches will show what can be achieved. Houses are metaphors for the mind and theaters of memory – of course we should demand more.
Flint House in Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, by Skinny Catling of the Rock (2015)
Bradbury hopes his book will inspire a change in attitudes. “The book largely argues that developers need to use the talent we have in this country and the groundbreaking ideas they come up with,” he says. “You have to ask: Why don’t you do it?” ”
The Famous British House: Modern Architectural Works Since 1900 by Dominic Bradbury (Thames & Hudson £50). To order a copy go to timesbookshop.co.uk Or call 020 3176 2935. Free British Standard P&P for online orders over £25. Special discount available for Times+ members