Words – Dominic Bradbury
Photographs – Bill Batten
If there's a totem of the age which the style cognoscenti love to pick apart and pull at, twisting it this way and that, then it has to be minimalism. To my mind, I've decided that minimalism only really works when a passionate attention to detail is bound hand and foot to a statement building with a strong, vibrant architectural character all of its own.
That was true of John Pawson's treatment of an 18th century Dutch barn in Essex a few years back, where the minimal approach allowed the exquisite texture and scale of the barn to breathe freely. It's also true of a head-turning collaboration between Pawson and Nigel Tuersley within a very different kind of building: Wardour Castle in Wiltshire. Here, Tuersley's 18,500 square foot apartment at the very heart and hub of a vast Palladian villa designed by James Paine – 'the Georgian minimalist' – has been brought back to contemporary life with the lightest of touches. And it works very well.
"Because of the austerity of Paine's work I always thought that any approach to the interior of Wardour should be unobtrusive," says Tuersley, who has spent the last decade working on the restoration and revitalisation of the house and surrounding estate. "You really can't get much more unobtrusive than John Pawson so for me he was the obvious choice. I love contemporary interiors as much as I like classical architecture and what I really wanted for the apartment was a solution which allowed the historic architectural detailing of the interior to speak for itself."
Wardour was designed by Paine for the 8th Lord Arundell. The Arundells spent so much building their new house that they could afford little furniture for the house, adding to the feeling of simplicity that existed already within Paine's architecture and creating some sort of a precedent for a minimal approach to the interiors. The house only fell out of the Arundell family in the 1940s; from the 1960s it was home to Cranbourne Chase School.
Nigel Tuersley's first glimpse of the house was in the property pages of Country Life in 1991. He is a highly unusual blend of ecologist turned property developer, who combines sense for business with a handful of passions – classicism, sustainability, environmental awareness, social responsibility. As a student studying zoology and ecology, he started buying up cheap houses and letting them out, then he worked in rain forest conservation, raising funds for projects in Cameroon. But he came to think that to get anything done as an ecologist he would need to make his own money. He started out with redevelopment projects in Docklands and more recently has concentrated on urban renewal schemes in Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset. His company Classical Order, has just done a masterplan for Trowbridge, and bought up some sites there for mixed use developments.
In some senses, Wardour is both shop window and labour of love for Tuersley, as well as a home to himself, his wife Vanessa and their two children. To fund the restoration of the estate, his apartment and the rest of the main house – with "the most gorgeous Georgian interior of Wiltshire", as Pevsner put it – Tuersley set in motion a chain of sympathetic enabling developments, including ten apartments in the two wings, avoiding the crass partitioning that has ruined many classical country houses harvested by a different breed of developer.Tuersley and his family lived nomadically in some of the renovated flats and then in a house in the Walled Garden before they could start focussing on their own apartment, set around a dramatic 60 foot high domed rotunda at the centre of Wardour, about four years ago.
"I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and structurally the house was very sound," says Tuersley. "The school had done a good job in preserving the fabric and done some work with English Heritage on preserving the roof and repairing the stonework. But it had been badly institutionalised and so the apartment has had new oak floors throughout, replastering, electrics, plumbing, lighting. But one of the defining characteristics of the house is the tranquillity and serenity of the whole thing and that's what I really wanted to retain."
Turning to Pawson, they agreed on the ebb and flow of the apartment, following the piano nobile approach with the main living rooms and bedrooms up on the first floor, while guest rooms, garden room and Tuersley's office went down below. The greatest challenge was to introduce kitchen and bathrooms in a way which wouldn't upset the original proportions and detailing of the rooms or look incongruous.
"We are so restrained by convention sometimes and John had some very fresh ideas about making the bathrooms very big, using large rooms, which hadn't really occurred to me. You tend to think of a bathroom as being small, so you think of solutions that fit with that but can end up avoiding the obvious. John has really pioneered the whole concept of a bathroom becoming a real room, something you enjoy. And with the master bathroom especially putting sanitary ware against those historic walls would have been ridiculous, so we wanted to separate the functional, contemporary elements within an enclosed area and create a room within a room."
In the kitchen, too, the functionality almost disappears. Hob, ovens and the rest are hidden away behind retractable doors within white units which almost disappear into the walls, while an island with a white Corian top holds the sink. With their shared obsession for detailing, Tuersley and Pawson looked at ways of disguising other hallmarks of modern living. As well as underfloor heating and some concealed lighting, specially commissioned light switches disappear into door architraves. Shutters throughout do away with the need for curtains. And the sun above, which is always a good judge of these things, really loves Wardour. Whenever I've been to the house, the sun floods through the ranks of windows, casting shadows around the pure white walls, bringing alive the textures and purity of the house.
Unable to find much contemporary furniture to suit the size of the rooms, Tuersley designed many pieces himself and had them made to order, including the five metre dining table. It's only recently that the apartment has been fully realised and come into its own although it does, Tuersley admits, demand that you live an ordered life, not so much because of the minimalist approach but because of its sheer scale. Leaving your mobile or wallet in the kitchen can be a challenge – or an exercise opportunity – when you are down in the office. India and Joseph, Tuersley's children, love this spaciousness which offers good opportunities for bike rides round the place.
"Apparently the Arrundel children used to ride a bathtub down the secondary staircase and learnt to horse ride around the kitchen table, says Tuersley. "So its entirely appropriate that mine should take their bikes around the rotunda."
And what of Pawson, the prince of contemporary minimalism, who seems to feel an affinity with the man from the past who shares his initials and the credits for Wardour? "For me," Pawson says, "there's a lot to be learnt from Georgian architecture, especially James Paine. Like me he was fascinated with the development of the private house, like me a lot of his stuff didn't get built.... So I really didn't want to muck around with any of those beautiful spaces. The worst thing you can do is to start carving things up; you might as well embrace those soaring rooms."