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Have a holiday in modern architecture

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on September 24, 2010

Suspicious of ‘architect-designed’ houses? Then the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton invites you to take a break in one

Telegraph By Dominic Bradbury

It is a gentle process of seduction. The thinking behind the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton’s latest project is to entice us into a love of the modern house by offering the opportunity to live in one for ourselves. From next month we will be able to collect the keys to a new barn-style house, covered in shiny metallic panels, projecting out into thin air and overlooking the Suffolk countryside. Or we could take a mini-break on the Dungeness coastline in a contemporary reinvention of its local fishermen’s huts and enjoy a bath with a mesmerising sea view. These are the very first completed houses for a new collective, Living Architecture, that de Botton hopes will change the way we look at modern architecture and chip away at some of that stubborn British suspicion about the contemporary, architect-designed home.

The buildings are a powerful tool of persuasion,’ says de Botton, who first came up with the idea for Living Architecture after publishing his book on design, The Architecture of Happiness, four years ago. ‘My feeling is that for the majority of people this sense of suspicion is not to do with a hatred of modern architecture, but a lack of experience. Yes, there’s a small vocal minority that loathes all examples of contemporary architecture, but the vast majority are cautiously curious. These are houses that will invite you to open up your senses.’

Living Architecture is a combination of an architecture company, funded by a group of like-minded and philanthropic investors, and a holiday lettings business. With, eventually, five new country houses to rent for a week or a few days at a time, it is a not-for-profit group that has been partly inspired by the example of the Landmark Trust – which does similar things with rare and unusual period houses – and the hugely influential Californian Case Study programme.

A design-and-build initiative promoted by Arts & Architecture magazine, which ran from the 1940s until the mid-1960s, the Case Study series of houses, by architects such as Charles Eames, Richard Neutra and Craig Ellwood, about 20 of which were built in the Los Angeles area, helped define the idea of the post-war, contemporary Cali fornian dream home: low-slung, lots of glass, big views and a fluid relationship between inside and outside living. Sixty-five years on, they are the kinds of houses that would still give the British public the fear.

There is no doubting that de Botton and Living Architecture have their work cut out. They are stepping into the middle of an often heated, bitter and particularly British debate between traditionalists and modernists about the form and style of our homes that has rumbled on for decades. Despite the popularity of television property shows and a more open attitude to design in many of our cities, recent high-profile rows over modern architecture have shown that the subject is still divisive, while the arguments are often more emotional than sophisticated. The Prince of Wales’s well-supported intervention over the Chelsea Barracks site in central London, derailing a residential scheme by Lord Rogers (‘My heart sank when I saw the plans,’ the Prince wrote), suggests that inbuilt British conservatism is alive and kicking.

‘Like many people I’m struck by the resistance to certain contemporary ideas in architecture,’ says de Botton, who has secured the services of several big-name architects, such as Sir Michael Hopkins, the author of Portcullis House by the Houses of Parliament, and the Swiss modernist master Peter Zumthor, architect of the Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland, ranked as one of the most influential contemporary buildings in the world in a recent survey. ‘Britain is incredibly modern in all sorts of ways, but modern architecture still divides people unnecessarily,’ de Botton says. ‘So it struck me that really the issue is a problem of taste. Who is the enemy in this game? It’s not property developers or architects or the Government. It’s us. It’s the public and what they choose to buy when they choose a home. We have got to try to change people’s taste. How do you do that? One of the first things you can do is give people an experience of something that they might not otherwise have had.’

The Balancing Barn in Thorington, rural Suffolk, designed by the respected Dutch practice MVRDV, could be a taste changer. Powerful and seductive, it combines some big, dramatic ideas with sensitivity to the landscape and surroundings. When you drive down a tree-lined dirt track, the house first appears as a very modest, single-storey presence. But this is only one end of the house. As you sweep into your parking spot, the full drama of the building – covered in reflective steel plates – reveals itself, with the 100ft-long home pushing out over a natural dip in the landscape so that half the building seems suspended in space. The living-room is at the end of this cantilever, suspended over the landscape, with big windows, a skylight and also a partly glazed floor revealing views in all directions.

But this is also a considered, warm building. As well as ticking lots of boxes in terms of sustainability, with its own well and a ground-source heat pump, the interiors are decked out in sheets of ash plywood, giving a designer tree-house feel to the space. The four bedrooms are modestly sized, encouraging guests into the living-room and an open-plan kitchen and dining-room.

‘We wanted to make a beautiful building, of course, but it also has to be practical and sturdy,’ says Frans de Witte of MVRDV, a practice best known for some innovative housing projects in Holland – and remembered in Britain for a highly ambitious and ultimately aborted scheme for the Serpentine Pavilion in 2005. ‘It’s treated as a private house but in the end it’s not for one single client, which makes it special. Things like the glass floor in the living-room are ideas that you might accept in a holiday house, but might not want in a house where you live every day.’

Working in collaboration with the Dutch designer Jurgen Bey, MVRDV has thought through every detail of the interiors, down to the cutlery. Working with the idea of a flexible home for between two and eight people, the architects have designed two special chairs, two special dinner plates, two special glasses that stand out among the more regular staples in the house (and all for about £1,400 a week for the house in low season; £3,000 in high).

‘MVRDV are iconic architects and have created a dramatic gesture at the Balancing Barn,’ de Botton says. ‘But at the same time we liked their ability to be quite playful with vernacular forms. Not everyone is going to love every detail of these houses, but you will feel that the architects have had a good hard think about it.

‘There is an unusual level of detail, down to the fact that we are asking our architects to suggest recipes and things that they like to do on holiday. It’s a curated stay and nicely bossy, but then you can always ignore those things if you don’t like it.’

For de Botton, Living Architecture – although a collective – is a very personal project, shared with his wife, Charlotte Niser, who is responsible for the marketing and business side of the company. De Botton was born in Switzerland, the son of the banker Gilbert de Botton. Alain’s father was an art collector and a philanthropist, contributing generously to the Tate Gallery. Alain spent his early years in Zurich, in undoubtedly one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to modern architecture.

But the family then moved to London, which was not an easy transition and spurred a sense of homesickness. ‘I really missed my old home in Switzerland, a 1960s apartment in a block of flats, which I now recognise was one of the fruits of Swiss modernism,’ de Botton says. ‘When we moved to Britain my parents bought a post-war 18th-century pastiche house and I remember thinking that this country is horrible and one of the reasons it’s horrible is because they build this sort of thing. That has always stayed with me. Often, when people are interested in building a house, they go back to what they knew as children. For me, my nostalgia for my childhood expresses itself in a desire for modernism. But here things are so static in architecture.’

De Botton now shares a modern house in north London with Niser and their two children, and was intimately involved with the design process of their house from start to finish. Caring so passionately about good design, he admits that he could have proved a ‘challenging’ client.

The first ideas for Living Architecture were born after de Botton began questioning the impact of his book The Architecture of Happiness, not in terms of sales or readers but the ability of a book to make a practical difference. The book examined ideas of architectural taste, beauty and the character of houses, as well as what buildings say to us about the cultures and individuals behind them. But de Botton began to think it should be possible for him to do more and started talking through the concept of Living Architecture, gathering investors and hunting for sites.

‘Some writers say that they are writers and don’t do anything else. I’m interested in ideas and changing things and my books have been about that. But as a writer you do always wonder about your relevance. On one level a book is a powerful tool and on another level it doesn’t do anything because all you are doing is talking about things. It struck me at a certain point that as a writer you can carry your ideas over into other areas.’

De Botton enlisted Mark Robinson, now the director of Living Architecture, to help secure sites, work with the architects, steer the houses through the planning process and manage the build programme as well as the build budgets, starting from about £500,000 per house. With years of experience working with big-name architects on building the annual temporary pavilions at the Serpentine Gallery, Robinson has plenty of management skills and a deep understanding of modern architecture.

‘I think we are doing something incredibly positive,’ Robinson says. ‘We are not going to please everyone, and everybody will have an opinion about these houses. But the fact that we have managed to do this in a downturn is admirable. Alain has kept his nerve while budgets have gone up and after we paid top dollar for our sites at the top of the market. All the planning authorities have been very supportive, which is partly down to getting in early and talking to them about our ideas. That was the key to it. Planners have really opened their minds. Five or 10 years ago there would have been a very different attitude.’

Robinson has been particularly concerned to steer the Dungeness project in Kent – the Shingle House – through local anxieties, as he owns a house a stone’s throw from the site. It is the one project that has aroused vocal worries about change in this extraordinary coastal landscape, with its collection of black pitch-painted shacks that look as though they could blow away in the wind. With its power station, miniature railway and a famous home and garden that once belonged to the filmmaker Derek Jarman, it is a unique and emotive place.

Yet the design for the Shingle House, by the Scottish practice Nord Architects, has taken all of this into account within a considered, thoughtful design. Like all the Living Architecture houses, the Dungeness house went through planning as a replacement dwelling, taking the place of an old cottage and adjoining smokery, shop and shed. Nord adopted both the idea of a small compound of buildings and a familiar pitch-painted timber coat in a house that is contemporary but also respects and celebrates both the natural setting and history of Dungeness.

The Shingle House uses a quartet of interconnected structures, with each of them given different uses and characters. One will be a bath house, with a sunken concrete bath looking out across the sea to the beach from a latticed window. In one of the four bedrooms, which sleep eight in all, a corner window seems to invite the miniature railway trains inside the house as they whistle by on the track just behind the house.

‘The place is so incredible that it does become quite a challenge doing anything here,’ says Alan Pert of Nord Architects, a fast-rising practice rather than a big-name design house, with a mix of carefully crafted buildings to its name, including a new headquarters for Wexford County Council. ‘You can understand why people are so seduced by Dungeness. Our first response was not so much an architectural one as a response to the place. We have ended up with quite a humble approach, but at the same time it does have a lot of drama and subtleties.’

Again, the level of design has reached into every detail, from the purple floors – echoing the layers of natural purple viper’s bugloss, the wild plant that coats the shingle once a year – to bespoke furniture, chopping boards and menus for smoking fish. ‘From day one we wanted to get involved in all the details,’ Pert says. ‘But it’s not overdesigned. If it was, then it would become too slick and we are not trying to design a hotel or something precious that you have to tiptoe around. It’s got to be a place that is practical, comfortable and intimate.’

It is this combination of beauty, drama, practicality and flexibility – as well as sustainability and contextuality – that has made these houses such a challenge for their architects. It is a huge amount of work and investment by practices that will barely break even on their commissions and who have, as de Botton acknowledges, given generously of their time and passion.

‘The architects are designing for a client they don’t know and for a number of different scenarios,’ Robinson says. ‘You have to build something where people want to sit in front of the fire in winter and throw the windows open in the summer. But that’s different to designing with a blank canvas, and the idea of flexibility was the hardest thing to weave into the designs.’

‘Alain has hit upon something very timely,’ says Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, Living Architecture’s executive architect, who is intimately involved with a number of the projects. ‘I hope that staying in one of these houses will give people a new picture of what living and life can be about. All of them have a great sense of occasion and will show people how the best modern architecture can be as wonderful as the great houses from the past.’

De Botton hopes that Living Architecture will be able to add one new house to its portfolio each year. ‘But the grand project is to subtly change people’s perceptions of contemporary architecture. We do want to have an impact beyond these individual houses. We are not going to change the world with this one move, but it is a step forward in trying to change the debate.’

He suggests that at the deep root of the British distrust of modern houses sits the reaction to the poor design and quality of so much of the housing that was thrown up after the Second World War, as the country struggled to rebuild. This is combined, he believes, with the assumption that really things were better, at least in terms of taste and style, long before this post-war building boom ever began. Living Architecture aims to start overcoming this sense of loss and rebuild a sense of trust in the soft and sensitive architect-designed modern home.

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