What is the draw of a contest for the spectator? I think it comes partly from witnessing people push themselves to reach new levels of success, and also a little bit from playing the role of the judge ourselves. I know I couldn't help doing just that while watching Grand Designs: House of the Year on Channel 4.
The four-part mini-series, presented by Kevin McCloud, followed the annual competition run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). As I played along, pretending I was the judge, I thought about what my criteria would be. Being a lover of period properties, it is a rare thing when I see a modern house that captures my imagination. So I had to come up with some strategies that would enable me to judge the entries as objectively as I could.
I decided that my winning house should:
- Meet the client’s brief
- Work well in the context of its environment
- Enable a good quality of life for its inhabitants
- Exhibit fine workmanship
- Have a quirk! Something to show wit or whimsy or some other sort of je ne sais quoi that makes it extra-special in some elusive manner.
All of the houses met these criteria in various ways, but my personal favourite was Kew House, designed by architect Stuart Piercy.
This four-bedroom house was built on the site of an old stable block in the Kew Green Conservation Area of London. Its owners, Tim and Jo Lucas, wanted it “to feel like a house that had a history, or could have a history,” and the design certainly gives that impression.
What first drew me to this house were the interesting shapes it creates. I love the rusty new corten steel gables protruding out of the original yellow brick walls of the stable building. And just look at how that long, tall window opening from the old gable has been transferred onto the new structure contained within it – it’s marvellous!
I also love the warmth of the materials and the way in which the colours connect the new building with its local environment of yellow-brick Victorian terraces and a red-brick church with ornate yellow sandstone mullions.
The steel shell of the building was pre-fabricated in a factory and then crane-lifted onto side, where it was welded together; a process that thrilled its owners, who are both engineers. I am a huge fan of corten steel as a building material. I think it is a beautifully tactile and warm material, with a wonderful depth and richness to it. It just makes me want to stroke it! In Piercy’s design, it has an added texture created by the square perforations cut into it using a high-pressure water jet and technology that boasts accuracy to within 1mm.
Conceived as a solution to planning restrictions prohibiting large windows on the roof, the pattern was inspired by dappled sunlight filtered through a tree canopy. And when the light shines through it, that is precisely the effect it creates within the interior spaces.
The wood-panelled interiors are expertly crafted and give the building the same warm feeling inside that the yellow brick and rusted metal create outside. They also reference mid-century modern interiors, a style that is echoed in the couple’s furnishings.
Several of the rooms open out onto the courtyard garden that wraps around the house, allowing for a lovely flow between the indoor and outdoor spaces.
The house itself is constructed in two wings. One half contains the family room and kitchen at ground level, with the children’s bedrooms upstairs; the other wing comprises a sitting room below and the master suite above. The two sides are connected by a glass walkway that houses the staircase. While this bring a lightness and openness to the building, it is the only part that would give me reservations about living in it… call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t fancy running around at night-time in my skimpies in full view of the neighbours!
The site was excavated to include a large basement that contains a workshop and a generous playroom that can be accessed either through the central stairway ... or the slide. Just when you thought this house couldn’t get any better, you discover that is has a slide, the entrance to which is hidden behind a secret compartment in the wall.
Channel 4 have cleverly tapped into this idea of viewers at home doing their own judging, and they conducted a Viewer’s Vote on their website to run concurrently with the TV series. It was no surprise to me to see that Kew House was the viewers’ favourite with 21% of the vote.
What was astonishing to see, however, was that my second favourite house – the one that turned out to be the overall winner chosen by the official judging panel – garnered only 5% of the public vote. That was Flint House, designed by architect Charlotte Skene Catling. Flint House is nothing short of monumental. Commissioned by Lord Jacob Rothschild for his Waddestone Manor estate near Aylesbury, it comprises a wedge-shaped house with a separate smaller annexe that is almost its mirror image.
Lord Rothschild stipulated that he wanted not only a modern house, but a statement of architecture. And that is exactly what he got. Sitting on a seam of flint and chalk that runs through this area and culminates in the White Cliffs of Dover, Flint House is designed to emulate a chunk of rock pushed up from the geological strata beneath. It is encrusted with flint and chalk in an ombre effect graduating from dark to light as the building ascends. The texture is more jagged at the bottom, rising into more finely-worked material at the top.
David Smith’s company knapped a whopping 80 tons of flintstone by hand, and it took six men eight months to face the exterior of the building, inserting one million gallets (flint chips) into the mortared spaces in between. That’s four man-years of labour just to create the sparkling, jewel-like exterior.
Although I cannot bring myself to buy into a political system that sustains landed gentry, as long as such a regime does exist, it seems appropriate that those who are privileged by it would also continue the tradition of patronage associated with it. And, through his commissioning of this building, Lord Rothschild certainly does that by helping to preserve traditional English craftsmanship.
Referencing the eighteenth-century craze for creating garden grottoes, the architect diverted a nearby stream to flow through the centre of the house. It is surrounded by flint-faced columns and topped with a black glass ceiling that captures the glimmering reflections from below.
Another wonderful feature of the building is the way in which its terraced roof entices you to clamber all over it!
I really do applaud a building that encourages such interaction with it. And just look at the view from the top!
The interior is arranged so that the more public rooms are situated at the narrower part of the wedge, with the more private rooms taking advantage of the greater volume at the taller end, among the trees.
In contrast to the stark, hard-edged exterior, the interior is surprisingly cosy. Eschewing the current penchant for open-plan, each of the rooms are self-contained, yet interconnected. The warm homely atmosphere is enhanced by Lord Rothschild’s luxurious traditional furnishings. And I really like it!
The one thing I feel would improve the building is the landscaping. Although the intention is that the building should appear as though it has been thrust out of the landscape, it has a somewhat forlorn appearance to me. I think that the green spaces on the roof would particularly benefit from some sympathetic landscaping that could add interest without detracting from the design intention for the building.
But overall, I think Flint House is a splendid building. Michelle Ogundehin, editor-in-chief of Elle Decoration and co-presenter of Grand Designs: House of the Year, described it by saying that “it is, quite frankly, less a building than an architectural sculpture for living in.”
Why, then, was it not more popular among the general public? I believe the reason is that it seems unattainable and therefore, perhaps, somewhat aloof. Of course, many of the houses featured in the series represent a considerable investment. But it took a lord and heir to a banking dynasty to commission the monumental structure that is Flint House, and it represents a lifestyle that is very much “other” to the everyday experiences of most people.
I think it was wonderful that at least one building that had been constructed on a more modest budget (of £135,000) was included; although I was disappointed that it did not make it through to the short list. That is Gillagh Water House by architect Patrick Bradley, a building that is not only is a very innovative design that makes use of old shipping containers, but also a very aesthetically pleasing building that, given the materials used, sits surprisingly easily into its rural environment.
What do you think? Did you follow the series? What was your favourite house, and why?