WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
There is an elegant modesty to John Pardey's houses. These are subtle, sophisticated and grounded buildings, tied into the landscape. Long inspired by the natural beauty of Scandinavian design of the 1960s, Pardey has always made his own way and now, after patient years building up his own practice, his work is increasingly sought after. A small series of striking new houses on the south coast of England and in the New Forest, where the architect bases himself, are undoubtedly among Pardey's best and taking his reputation for soft, considered modernism to a wider and wider audience.
'It's been a long haul,' says Pardey. 'But that's part of the pleasure now. By the time that the work starts coming in, then you really know what you are doing. I never liked the idea of doing what other people were doing. I had to do my own thing. Most architects over-design houses and make them too involved with contemporary fashion or what's hot and what's not. I don't want to do that. My ultimate goal is to design a timeless building. That's my Holy Grail.'
The Watson House in the New Forest, not far from Pardey's own home and offices, suggests just that ambition. Discreetly set back among woodland, within a rural enclave inhabited by many period and pastiche homes, the house is low slung, long and slender in the form of a crisp single storey pavilion coated in sweet chestnut sitting within the forest landscape. Like all of Pardey's houses it both respects its context and surroundings and responds to them.
'The clients told me that they wanted to live close to nature,' Pardey says. 'That sticks in my mind and that was their brief. They wanted one big, open space to live in, privacy for their own quarters and then another wing for their two teenage children and guests. We came up with the idea of sitting the house almost on the ground, just floating above nature, so that we didn't interrupt it.'
With bedrooms positioned at opposite ends of the house, the core of the home is devoted to the open plan dining room, kitchen and sitting room, anchored by a wall of slender, Danish Kolumba bricks that also forms the fireplace. With banks of glass to either side, this key space drinks in the views of the woodland, while being warmed by the use of gentle and characterful materials.
'The fireplace anchors the house,' says Pardey. 'All of our houses have fireplaces and without it there's a kind of sterility. It's that Frank Lloyd Wright idea of hearth as home, which Richard Neutra also did so well. It's a wonderful domestic gesture.'
It's the quiet reverence for countryside and context, while splicing natural materials with up to the minute technology, plus a subtle and common sense green agenda woven into his designs, that makes Pardey's houses so seductive. They are warm and comfortable, yet also tailored, practical and hard working. They are designed, in other words, with real people in mind rather than grand gestures or ostentatious styling.
'The house has exceeded our expectations,' says Pardey's New Forest client Charles Watson. 'There were things that we could never quite envisage like the fireplace until we saw them. The practice has created something very special and unique for us and the lightness of the house on the landscape is critical. Seeing the house lit up at night is a fantastic way to appreciate the proportions of the building and the way it just seems to float.'
Pardey's approach holds echoes of one of his inspirations, Glenn Murcutt, with his houses holding to that famous Murcutt maxim of 'touching the earth lightly'. More than this, Pardey has long admired Murcutt's working method of keeping his practice small and rooted, while spreading his influence through the quality and originality of the work itself nationally and internationally.
'When I first came out of college I won a competition and spent the money going to Australia,' Pardey says. 'Murcutt had only had one house published then but I thought this is what it's all about. So I wrote to him and then phoned him when I got to Austraia and he asked me to come round to lunch. I spent the day with him and it was like being with an evangelical preacher he was so passionate about his work.
'That kind of grounded working model which Murcutt follows has always been in my head. I've always wanted to practice from somewhere beautiful, like the New Forest, but working on a national level, anywhere and everywhere I can.'
The New Forest was also where Pardey grew up, with his father Eric another huge influence. A carpenter and joiner, Eric Pardey worked on building high speed torpedo boats, made with plywood hulls, during the war. He then became a joiner and craftsman, able to turn his hand to almost anything from a cabinet to a roof. John Pardey would spend most Saturdays on site with his father and assumed for a long time that he would follow his father's path into joinery.
But legendary Dutch De Stijl architect Robert van't Hoff changed his mind. The architect of the Villa Henny one of the earliest houses built completely out of reinforced concrete happened to be Pardey's neighbour in New Milton, having moved to England, and a good friend of his father's.
'Robert kept on at me and giving me books about architecture,' says Pardey, who wrote a dissertation on van't Hoff at architecture school in London. 'He got me into it and that's what started me off.'
After college, Pardey turned down a job with James Stirling, suspicious of the whole idea of big brand superstar architects. He joined PRP Architects, but within four years had left to start up his own firm, based in London at first but then moving to the New Forest, having taken on teaching work in Portsmouth to help fund building up the practice.
'I did whatever it took and it was tough,' says Pardey. 'There was never a plan B and I have never had a big, grand idea about being an architect, partly because of my background. I am just another worker.'
Another mentor was Danish master Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, with whom Pardey had a long friendship before his death in 2008. Pardey wrote a book on Utzon's two houses in Majorca, Can Lis and Can Feliz, spending a good deal of time with Utzon.
'I was convinced he was a genius but he was also very down to earth, very funny and he cared about his family more than anything,' says Pardey. 'And for me, if I could have been an architect at any time, any place then it would have been Denmark in the 1960s. That was the high point and I love that kind of work. It's very human and uses lots of natural materials, but it's also very modern.'
Pardey's freshly completed Pooley House - at Hayling Island on the south coast, not far from Portsmouth - was indirectly influenced by Utzon's Can Lis. Like Can Lis, the Pooley House, which was designed for two devoted windsurfers, faces the sea and the view is everything. Like Can Lis, the design of the house would succeed or fail on how the architecture responded to the seascape.
'When you are in the living room of Can Lis, you feel as though you are being shot out of the windows towards the horizon but at the same time everything on the horizon seems to be drawn into the room,' says Pardey. 'You are both pushed and pulled and it's the same thing with the house on Hayling Island.'
Among the challenges Pardey faced in designing the two storey Pooley House was dealing with such a narrow site, slotted between neighbouring houses, as well as facing up to the need to protect the house from tidal surge and flood risk. Pardey raised the house on a brick plinth, with bedrooms on the lower level. The house then opens up dramatically on the upper level, with the open plan living room projecting outwards to the sea in the form of a crafted, timber lined box using red cedar inside and out. As with the Watson House, there is a big emphasis on craftsmanship, finishing and detailing, but without spending big money on gadgets and hardware.
'The clients wanted it to feel like a beach house and I have been hankering to do a timber lined room for ages,' Pardey says. 'It's very Scandinavian and very warm, which I like. The living room is a sleeved tube like a camera obscura pushing out into the harbour.'
No wonder, perhaps, looking at Pardey's two new houses that the practice has become best known for these careful, character buildings, tied to a sense of place, although its portfolio includes many larger scale residential and commercial projects.
'The houses are maybe half of what we do, but the lessons that you learn from designing houses are really acid,' Pardey says. 'You can learn everything about a city plan from a house. It applies to everything. It's the hardest thing to do for an architect, even though people might think it's the easiest.'
New commissions include houses in Wales, Norfolk and Lincolnshire, as well as the Home Counties and the south coast. Pardey is enjoying spreading his wings, with a project in Florida also on the cards. Unlike Murcutt, he has no hesitation in taking his work abroad. But you can always expect a certain integrity, a certain modesty to Pardey's buildings, no matter where he is. He will carry on doing his own thing.
'It's about scale,' says Pardey. 'I'd love to do an office building and an art gallery. But I don't want to do enormous, blanket corporate projects. There's an instinctive side to it. If you think too much then you end up copying other people or trapped inside some kind of fashion. I do put a great deal of thought into the projects, of course, but it's like painting. If you think all the time then you can't paint. You have to get on and do it.'
John Pardey Architects – www.johnpardeyarchitects.com