WILDERNESS HOUSE – SARA LOW – SUFFOLK
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – MARK LUSCOMBE-WHYTE
Behind most great houses there is not only a fine architect but also a good client. That is especially true of Wilderness House, a striking new and contemporary country house discreetly tucked away within a slice of Suffolk woodland, not far from the coast.
This is a home that wouldn't be too out of place in California, yet at the same time respects its setting and uses local materials, while also incorporating eco-friendly elements like solar panels and rainwater harvesting. Its relationship with the landscape and environment is a sensitive one, touching the earth more lightly than any of the characterless housing estates cropping up elsewhere in East Anglia.
For Sara Low, who commissioned it, the Wilderness House was a true labour of love and an epic test of patience. As a new English country house in a Modernist style it is a real rarity, given that it's still so tough to get such houses through the planning system, even if – like Wilderness – they have a low impact on the environment and are tucked away out of sight.
Low – who worked during her lifetime as a journalist, as an agent and in television – spent years planning and building with Paulo Marto and Paul Acland of Paul & O Architects, a London based practice working mostly on residential projects in the UK and Europe. Sadly, she died suddenly in the summer, aged 70, having lived just 10 months in the house. Her two sons, Toby, 38 and Nat, 35, have taken the difficult decision to sell – and put the house on the market for £2.75m. Wilderness has become her legacy.
I first met Sara and her architects eighteen months ago when building was well underway and made a number of visits to the house, interviewing Sara, Paul and Paulo earlier this year. I had just finished a book covering 21st century modern countryside homes called New Country House. I had been disappointed by how few examples we could get from Britain, where the planning system is so stacked against such rural one offs. Even when a new country house did get through, it was most likely to be a pastiche period design with planners frightened off by more contemporary projects.
But Low and her architects managed to get Wilderness through on a clause called PPG7 (Planning Policy Guideline 7) which allowed for occasional country houses as long as they were of exceptional architectural merit. The clause was originally drafted in 1997 by John Gummer, the then environment minister, who, fortuitously, is also the MP for Suffolk Coastal, the constituency in which Wilderness House is located. He became a vocal supporter of the project and a friend of the family.
Low used to live in a large 17th century house nearby, but decided it was too big and that she wanted something modern and bespoke. Low's husband had died in 1997, her children had grown up and she was concentrating on her own passions for painting and needlepoint.
"I think she came to a stage where she had discovered an interest in modern art and architecture and wanted to try and live in a house that reflected those passions," says her son Toby Low, managing director of a video communications agency. "She was also desperate to continue living in Suffolk, where she has a lot of very close friends. As you can imagine, Modernist houses of any kind are few and far between in rural Suffolk and so building her own was the obvious – if rather bold – solution. I also think she was looking for a challenge. If she was bored she was unhappy – she always wanted to have projects on the go."
Low wanted to build on woodland nearby, on a site – at the edge of a small village – which cannot be seen from a public road or by any neighbouring houses. The family had bought the woodland back in the 1980s. But her initial calls to the local planners were not encouraging, however; she was told she would never get permission and to save her money.
"All my life I had lived in old, period houses," she told me on a sunny day back in May, over coffee at her dining table, looking out across the woods. "I was living in this stunningly beautiful house nearby but it was rather big for one ageing widow. I decided the thing to do was to sell that house and because I owned the wood, which is fantastic, I wanted to build something there. I wanted to build a wonderful modern house."
At a dinner party in 2002 Low found herself talking to Gummer and also to the 'starchitect' Sir Michael Hopkins, who has a weekend home in Suffolk and – perhaps most famously – designed Portcullis House, the parliamentary building alongside the Houses of Parliament, as well as Glyndebourne Opera House. Gummer explained his PPG7 clause while both encouraged Sara to push ahead with her dream. A few weeks later she was introduced to Marto and Acland by mutual friend Trevor Pickett – founder of Pickett's luxury goods brand – and the three of them began a long creative collaboration.
"It's really entirely thanks to Paul and Paulo and their incredible hard work that we got planning permission," Low said. "John Gummer got behind it because there wasn't a single PPG7 house in Suffolk and because he loved the house and Michael Hopkins also wrote this wonderful letter to the planners. There was all this amazing support for this modern building in a green field site. It's still the only one in Suffolk."
The two-storey, 7,000 square foot and seven-bedroomed house – with banks of glass framing the views and a series of terraces maximising connections between inside and out – was carefully positioned in the woods to take advantage of sight lines along avenues carved out of the trees. Its bold, sculpted form is softened by the trees and landscaping.
"We put some very strong arguments forward to the planning committee and commissioned a historian to do an extensive survey of country houses in Suffolk," says Marto. "The conclusion was that historically many country houses have been restored and very few replaced. If it wasn't for a very forward thinking planning committee it might have been a different story but they looked at it in a very intelligent way.
"It was also about trying to build something appropriate to Suffolk in terms of materials – like the flint and Suffolk render – as well as the colour, texture and light. We thought very carefully about framing the views all the time and bringing light into the house at all times of day. Sara herself was very brave in giving us the go ahead on quite a rudimentary model and choosing the boldest and most modern of the ideas that we presented to her."
Early on Low made a modest wish list for the house which included an open plan kitchen and dining area, a painting studio, a double height library where she tended to base herself when alone, and seven bedrooms with six bathrooms. At the heart of the house is a large sitting room, fifty feet long, with a series of sliding glass doors opening out to the terraces and the landscape. Low planned the house with not just herself but also her two sons and their families in mind, including her four young grandchildren.
Planning permission for the house was secured in autumn 2003 , although work didn't start on building the house until May 2005. Low needed to sell her former home to finance the build, while renting a cotttage in the village. There were also hold ups as ecological surveys were conducted on site and the discovery of great crested newts in the woods led to a delay of six months while they were patiently relocated.
But gradually the house did start to come together. Raised up on large plinth, faced with local knapped flint, its strong, geometric form pushes outwards into the woods, becoming a part of its setting. As well as the terraces and balconies and the mesmerising views from all parts of the house, there is a also a swimming pool tucked away to one side. Ultimately Low spent £1.5m creating Wilderness, not including the land itself.
It's real success lies in its combination of natural materials and high tech engineering, its ergonomic and practical layout and especially its sense of connection to the landscape that surrounds it with every window framing a special vista. As the landscaping around the house settles in the angular form is being gradually softened, intentionally, by the planting and greenery.
"Sara was a fantastic client, putting her faith in us and trusting us implicitly," says Marto. "It was wholly her idea to build a contemporary house, having been inspired by an exhibition on the work of Mies van der Rohe in Berlin, shortly before we met her. She really believed in patronising the arts, whether it be music, art or architecture."
Low's son Toby suggests the house says a lot about his late mother. "It is uncompromising on the outside yet welcoming and warm on the inside," he says. "The achievement of getting planning and then getting the house built says a lot about her determination and charm – there is a lot of her DNA in it. Mum hated pastiche architecture – she thought it was lazy and pointless. She was keen that her house was a real 21st century grand country house and I think she succeeded in spades.
"The decision to sell was a really difficult one, but in the end my brother and I decided that neither of us was going to be able to live in the house full time as we both work in London. We didn't want the house to become a weekend or holiday house as for us, with all the work that has gone into the house, that did not seem like the way to go. It really is the most wonderful living space and it is an enormous wrench."
Savills – Ipswich Office – 01473 234800 – £2.75m.