WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
It is a unique and gentle process of seduction. The thinking behind writer and philosopher Alain de Botton's Living Architecture is to entice us into a love of the modern house by offering the opportunity to live in one for ourselves. From this autumn we will be able to collect the keys for a new barn style house, coated in shiny metallic shingles, projecting out into thin air overlooking the Suffolk countryside. Or we could take a mini break on the Dungeness coastline in a contemporary reinvention of the local fishermen's huts and enjoy a bath with a mesmerising sea view. These are the very first completed houses for a new collective that de Botton hopes might just 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 thise 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. Busily building five new country houses, it's 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 from the 1940s until the mid 1960s, the Case Study series of houses by architects like Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood and others helped shape the design of the modern house. Sixty five years on, they are the kind of houses that would still give the great British public the fear.
There's 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 showed that the subject is still divisive, while the arguments are so often more emotional than sophisticated. Prince Charles' famous intervention over the Chelsea Barracks site in central London, derailing a residential scheme by Richard Rogers, along with a bitter wave of attacks on Rowan Atkinson's plans to build a new country house in Oxfordshire by modernist 'starchitect' Richard Meier, suggest 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 a handful of architects, including some big names such as Sir Michael Hopkins and the Swiss Modernist master Peter Zumthor. 'The UK is incredibly modern in all sorts of ways, but modern architecture still divides people unnecessarily. 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. That's really the nub of the problem. We have got to try and 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 rural Suffolk, designed by respected Dutch practice, MVRDV, could just be a taste changer. As a seduction technique, it is a powerful charmer with a combination of some big, dramatic ideas but also sensitivity to the landscape and surroundings. Driving down a tree-lined dirt track, the house first appears as a very modest, single storey presence. But this is just one end of the house. As you sweep into your parking spot, the full drama of the building – coated in reflective steel plates - reveals itself, with the thirty metre long home pushing out over a natural dip in the landscape. 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 treehouse feel to the space. The four bedrooms are modestly sized, encouraging guests – who might range from a couple on their own to a full house of eight – into the living room and an open plan kitchen and dining room.
'We wanted to make a beautiful building, of course,' says Frans de Witte of MVRDV, 'but it also has to be practical and sturdy. 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 of the week.'
Working in collaboration with Dutch designer Jurgen Bey, MVDRV have thought through every detail of the interiors, down to the cutlery. Working with the idea of a flexible home for two or for eight, they have designed two special chairs, two special dinner plates, two special glasses that stand out among the more regular staples in the house.
'MVDRV are iconic architects and have created a dramatic gesture at the Balancing Barn,' says de Botton. 'But at the same time we liked their ability to be quite playful and to play 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, even down to the fact that we are asking our architects to suggest recipes and even 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 has been working hard on the marketing and business side of the company. De Botton was born in Switzerland, the son of banker Gilbert de Botton. Alain's father was an art collector and a philanthropist, contributing generously to the Tate Gallery. Alain de Botton spent his early years in Zurich, 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 home sickness.
'I really missed my old home in Switzerland, a 1960s apartment in a block of flats, which I now recognize was one of the fruits of Swiss modernism,' says de Botton. '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….'
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. He 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. I had to overcome shyness and the sense of who would I be do that? It was a challenge.'
De Botton enlisted Mark Robinson, 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. 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, working with de Botton – who has adopted the title of Living Architecture's Creative Director – to select the architects, develop the brief for the houses.
'I think we are doing something incredibly positive,' says Robinson. '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 and are much more open. Five or ten 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 concerns, as he owns a house a stone's throw from the site. It's the one project that has aroused vocal worries about change in this extraordinarily 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 filmmaker Derek Jarman, it is a unique and emotive place.
Yet the design for The Shingle House, by 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 inter-connected 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 bedrooms, 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. 'You can understand why people are so seduced by Dungeness. Our first response was not so much an architectural response 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 heart floors – that echo the layers of natural purple viper's bugloss that grows and 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,' says Pert. 'But it's not overdesigned. If it was over designed then it would become too slick and we are not trying to design a hotel or something precious that you have to tip toe around. It's got to be a place that is practical, comfortable and intimate.'
It's 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's 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,' says Robinson. 'You have to build something where people want to be there in the winter in front of the fire and in the summer, when they can throw the windows open. But that's different to designing with a blank canvas and the idea of flexibility was the hardest thing to weave into the designs.'
The Dune House, on the Suffolk Coast, at Thorpeness, designed by Norwegian practice Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects, also works with the theme of adaptability. Opening in January next year, just a few months after the first two Living Architecture houses, The Dune House is partially pushed into the beach with an open plan ground floor lit by banks of glass looking out to the sea. But upstairs, the bedrooms are arranged like a series of timber pavilions, each with high pointed ceilings like tent shaped saunas.
In North Norfolk, Sir Michael and Patty Hopkins have designed The Long House in flint and timber, a mile and a half from the coast. It's form and central great hall were partly inspired by a medieval timber framed house in Suffolk that the Hopkins once owned and updated and describe as 'the love of their lives'. Again, this is a house designed within a soft, seductive contemporary style – with a particular respect for setting – in which Hopkins excels.
'Alain has hit upon something very timely,' says Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, Living Architecture's Executive Architect, intimately involved with a number of the projects. 'I'd 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.'
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited house in architectural circles will be the South Devon home being designed by the celebrated Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, which will be the last of the five houses to complete. 'The Secular Retreat' also looks to be the most experimental: a series of pavilions opening up to the landscape supported by great monolithic, stone-like slabs. The architect's models suggest a series of ancient obelisks encased in glass.
For de Botton, bringing a little piece of Switzerland to the English countryside promises to be a big moment. 'To bring a man like Peter Zumthor to England is a great moment for me autobiographically,' says de Botton, who 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 ate not going to change the world with this one move but it is a step forward in trying to change the debate.'
De Botton 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 was combined 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 do nothing less than start overcoming this sense of loss and rebuilding a sense of trust in the soft and sensitive, architect designed modern home.
LIVING ARCHITECTURE – www.living-architecture.co.uk