For almost a decade now, Living Architecture has been dotting remarkable houses around the UK, from the flat expanses of Suffolk, Constable’s north Essex and the otherworldly shingle-scape at Dungeness in Kent to the rugged clefts and valleys of mid-Wales. The company has built just six houses so far (seven if you include the David Kohn-designed boat that perched temporarily above the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank). All are holiday homes available to anyone who can secure a booking. Yet the quality, and occasional exuberance, of the houses has earned the project many inches of press coverage, which was at least part of the point.
The not-for-profit operation, modelled after The Landmark Trust, is the brainchild of pop-philosopher Alain de Botton. The author of The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton has thought a lot about how buildings can enhance our sense of wellbeing and make us feel better about the world through space and light, human scale and engagement with the landscape.
This is serene and spare domestic architecture with secular sacred spaces to calm the mind and soul
De Botton hoped a series of innovative new holiday homes might move the needle of public affection for contemporary architecture; that they could persuade people to swap the quaint yet dark and gloomy cottage for something more spare and lambent, then proselytise about the experience. Press coverage, meanwhile, would help change the conversation around modern architecture and counter accusations of concrete carbunclism and architectural arrogance.
Mark Robinson was chosen by de Botton to be the director of Living Architecture. Robinson had helped to make the Serpentine Gallery Pavilions an architectural showcase, securing the services of the world’s best architects. De Botton hoped Robinson could now find sites for the houses, draw up a wish list of architects and designers to work with and keep an eye out for fresh talent worth Living Architects’ patronage.
The Living Architecture portfolio now includes the Balancing Barn, a 100ft-long single storey house designed by Dutch practice MVRDV, which is sheathed in reflective steel plates and improbably cantilevered over a dry riverbed in Suffolk. The Dune House, by Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects from Norway, is a jagged landscape of a building, near the village of Thorpeness in Suffolk. The Long House, set on the north Norfolk coast, has been designed by two greats of British modernism, Michael and Patty Hopkins. And the Shingle House at Dungeness, designed by young Scottish practice NORD, is clad in tarred black shingles.
One of the newest Living Architecture additions, and perhaps the purest expression of its mission, is the Life House. Set in the rolling hills of mid-Wales, it’s the vision of designer John Pawson, the champion of a spare and serene domestic architecture, with secular sacred spaces to calm the mind and soul. The house includes a contemplation chamber buried in the hillside and an outside contemplation zone. “I think the Cistercian monastery I designed in the Czech Republic was very much on Alain’s mind when he asked me to do the house,” says Pawson. “He was interested in the idea of creating a secular retreat.”
Life House is about offering the scope for different people to pursue different priorities while sharing the same space
Pawson was on Robinson’s original wish list and the house was five years in the planning. Such a long gestation period is often to do with finding the right plot for the house and the architect involved. “The type of site we are looking for is pretty rare,” says Robinson. “It takes many hours of scanning searches, visiting and generally driving around an area to find the right spot.” The design then has to engage fully with the location, pulling and pushing the house’s visitors into that landscape. “It took a while for the site to come up, but as soon as I saw it, I loved the wildness of the place,” says Pawson. “I liked the contrast between the intimacy of the creases and clefts of the site and the broad drama of the outlook.”
Designing a holiday home presented new challenges and opportunities for Pawson. “My approach is usually to allow a design to emerge from conversations about how someone lives, but here that detail is largely coming from the architect. The Life House is designed to feel like a home, but a home you only live in for a few days. From the architect’s point of view, it means the choreography of the house has to be immediately clear. For me, the Life House is about offering the scope to do things differently, with the possibility for different people to pursue different priorities while sharing the same space.”
It also means that people have a chance to actually live in one of his designs, if only temporarily, rather than seeing them in magazines or on Instagram. “Most people’s experience of Pawson architecture was through the medium of photography, when the whole point is the physical and emotional experience of the spaces. This is what the Life House — and all the other houses created by Living Architecture — offers.”
The house itself is a hunkering single-storey black-brick exercise in discretion, settling into the dark gorse of the surrounding hills; Living Architecture tends to favour the wild and almost barren rather than the fecund and overly picturesque, perhaps because such sites are cheaper and budgets are tight. Typical of Pawson’s restricted palette, the interior brick is grey as is the terrazzo floor while the Douglas Fir woodwork blooms pinky grey.
The bedrooms are off a long, light-filled corridor. Each has a contemplative theme. One has a bathtub with wraparound windows so you can wallow while marvelling at the majesty of nature; another has a collection of elevating books, bound in grey cloth; a third has a high-end music system and a selection of CDs chosen by Pawson’s son Caius, whose record label Young Turks did the smart business of signing acclaimed band The xx. The house also offers bespoke details with the local environment; “walking artist” Hamish Fulton has designed a series of walks with the house as the starting point.
The other, much darker corridor in the Life House leads to the contemplation chamber, a Zen cell with two long brick platforms and a stone slab set in the floor, which quotes the 17th-century French philosopher Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
Living Architecture’s next project, the Secular Retreat, is due to open early next year in the hills behind Salcombe in Devon. In perhaps the company’s biggest architectural signing so far, it has been designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
Ironically, perhaps, Living Architecture’s best-known project is not an exercise in austere serenity but A House for Essex, a glorious folly designed by Charles Holland (of the now defunct FAT architects) and the artist Grayson Perry. Situated in the village of Wrabness, this is a shrine to a fictional lady of Essex killed by a food delivery moped (a typical Perry conceit). It is a riff on an eastern European or high Nordic chapel, but with a gold roof and walls of green and white tiles. It is a profoundly moving and a masterful collision of art, architecture and craft. But would we really want estates full of Houses for Essex?
With a gold roof and walls of green and white tiles, A House for Essex is a profoundly moving collision of art, architecture and craft
For Mark Robinson, it is about creating a portfolio of properties that stretch from the spectacular to the more serene and throw contrasting ideas out into the world to see if they stick. “I always say our houses are pushed to the limit,” he says. “Some have too many ideas, but this is in the hope that someone experiencing them might take one or two away. We are not expecting too many Balancing Barns dotted around the country, but it might influence the way someone thinks about placing a building on a site or using a reflective material to soften its presence in the landscape.”
Rowan Moore, architecture critic of The Observer and author of Why We Build, insists that the more spectacular of Living Architecture’s projects are its most successful: “Essentially the whole concept is about building houses that are in some sense follies, so FAT and MVRDV are true to this spirit. They make the most of the fact that you can do things with these houses that you couldn’t do anywhere else. You wouldn’t want to spend your life with those Grayson Perry images in your living room, for example, but they make for a memorable weekend.”
Moore also believes that Living Architecture has made us think about what buildings are actually for. “It has raised awareness and created examples of what contemporary architecture can do. There are, of course, limits to this — it’s not about creating responses to the housing crisis, but it is showing the power of design to delight, divert and provoke.”
For Robinson, though, there is a lot of work left to do. “I’m not sure the conversation around contemporary architecture has changed that much over the past eight years,” he says, sounding a little battle-weary. “It still appears that the majority want their houses to reference some pastiche of the past and people are afraid of anything outside of this.”
In whatever way Living Architecture moves forward, it already has a legacy of creating remarkable buildings across the country. They are buildings that ask us to think about how we live and how we relate to our environments, built and natural.