AR House 2015 Winner: while its columns evoke a timeless classicism, this dwelling’s courtyard plan is a radical new take on the English country house
For all the international recognition that David Chipperfield Architects has enjoyed over the course of its more than three decades of practice, the firm’s homeland has proved a notably less than generous source of patronage. Happily, recent years have shown signs that British clients are finally waking up to the firm’s talents, but the tally of its UK buildings remains modest. All the more surprising then is the fact that two of their number are to be found just five miles apart in the depths of the English Home Counties, an area of the country hardly renowned for its sympathy for modern architecture.
In 1997, DCA completed its first - and for many years only - public building in Britain: the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames. The project marked an important development in the practice’s sensibility, prompted in significant part by the conservative nature of the local planning culture. Where its earlier work had been characterised by a strident abstraction, the River and Rowing Museum saw DCA begin to explore the possibilities of a more associative vocabulary. Comprising a family of timber-faced vessels elevated above a glazed lower floor, the scheme deftly married a Miesian plan to forms that made explicit reference to the imagery of local boathouses and barns.
A concern with context and history has continued to inform the practice’s work and is much in evidence in its latest building, Fayland House. Designed for the occupation of the property developer Mike Spink and his wife Maria, this substantial, not to say palatial, private residence stands within the Chilterns, the range of hills that rise up from the Thames Valley to the immediate north of Henley-on-Thames. Long designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - a classification that imposes considerable restrictions on development - this richly wooded chalk escarpment is the site of some of the most sought-after housing to be found within commuting distance of London. New homes, let alone ones of the scale and modernity of Fayland House, are a rarity in these parts and it comes as no surprise to learn that, on the building’s completion, one of the Spinks’ neighbours felt compelled to ask them to plant a wall of conifers to hide it from view. The fact that planning permission was granted in the first place was only thanks to the unfortunate condition in which the site then stood. Occupied by an early 20th-century house of no architectural distinction surrounded by an ad-hoc clutter of outbuildings, it presented a visual confusion that was only compounded by some distinctly suburban landscaping.
‘The columns are not load-bearing elements in any meaningful sense; they seem scarcely grounded in a larger architectural order at all’
In essence, DCA’s scheme represents a very emphatic exercise in tidying up. In place of the eight buildings that formerly occupied the site, the practice has introduced a single structure on one level. It extends across the entirety of a 60-metre-wide plinth - an intervention that straddles an undulation in the ground, like a dam. As with all the house’s exposed vertical structure, the plinth has been constructed in a custom-produced white Hebrok brick, bedded in lime mortar of a similar tone. The mortar was applied thickly then sponged off - a technique that left a thin residue on the brickwork’s uneven surface. The resultant sfumato effect enforces a sense of the wall’s homogeneity, inviting a reading of the building as an outcrop of the chalk on which it stands.
The substantial area of sloping open ground in front of the house has been stripped of unsympathetic planting and is being returned to a meadow-like condition, extending all the way to the plinth. The reintroduction of wildflowers is central to that project and has prompted the acquisition of a small herd of Dexter cows, tasked with the requisite conservation grazing.
The entrance is consigned to the rear of the plot, preserving the clarity of the encounter between house and landscape. Having driven through the dense beech forest that edges the meadow, visitors are directed to a steeply descending ramp framed between high walls. At the bottom, they are admitted to the largest of four courtyards, a sparely planted space, enclosed on all sides. The principal rooms of the house lie ahead, ranged in single file along the plinth’s leading edge but the entrance is located within the ancillary wing to the right, maintaining a pattern of movement across the site that resembles the progression of a knight across a chessboard.
The front door is set behind a loggia supported by a pair of columns, which are again constructed in the white Hebrok brick. Columns featured rarely in DCA’s early work and where they did, their presence tended to be suppressed. The lower level columns of the River and Rowing Museum, for instance, are of the minimum possible dimension and sited inboard of the glazing, so as to maintain an impression of the upper storey as a family of free-floating volumes. Yet in recent years, the expressive possibilities of the column have emerged as a central preoccupation of the practice’s work. In projects like the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach (2006) and the James Simon Gallery in Berlin (2017), it developed a language of square-sectioned trabeations that present an almost cage-like effect.
In these buildings, the close intervals at which they are distributed serve to suppress each column’s individual presence in favour of a reading of the whole structure as a continuous field. However, Fayland House belongs to a more recent family of projects - including One Pancras Square and Museo Júmex (both 2013) - in which the columns maintain a far stronger reading as singular components. Of circular section and generous spacing, they are also a lot fatter than the vertical elements of DCA’s cage buildings. At a metre in diameter, those at Fayland House present an almost Egyptian stockiness.
Arranged in continuous enfilade, the primary living spaces enjoy spectacular elevated views across the valley through full-height glazed doors. However, as a consequence of its embedding in the sloping site, the house is essentially single aspect. The ancillary spaces are therefore oriented towards the internal courtyards, each of which has been given a distinct planting treatment by the landscape architect Christopher Bradley-Hole. The clients’ desire for a close relationship to nature is further supported by the continuity of materials between inside and out. Save for two oak-lined studies, all rooms are lined in the same brick as is employed externally, while an exposed concrete soffit and terrazzo floor extend throughout. Quite extraordinary pains have been taken to achieve the optimum build quality. Propped on a steel structure, the roof slab was cast first followed by the floor. Only then was the brick installed - a sequence that, for all its structural perversity, ensures the horizontal surfaces present a perfect continuity of finish.
The most spectacular space is reached last: a wide south-facing loggia that extends along the plinth’s leading edge. Comprising a run of 11 columns, distributed at a stately, unmodulated pace, the device provides the building with a scale capable of registering across the landscape, while making explicit its relationship to the long history of country houses in England and beyond.
‘Quite extraordinary pains have been taken to achieve the optimum build quality. Propped on a steel structure, the roof slab was cast first followed by the floor ‘
Yet much as the composition invites a reading as a vestigial classicism, it ultimately resists resolution in those terms. The shortfall is partly a matter of the deadpan seriality of the columns’ form and distribution but still more problematic is the way their considerable size is left all but unanswered by the minimal concrete slab that rests on top. These are not load-bearing elements in any meaningful sense; they seem scarcely grounded in a larger architectural order at all.
This freedom from any underlying, rationalistic order is a quality that has also been discussed in relation to Mies’s work. In his 1984 essay ‘Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form’, K Michael Hays argued against the then received opinion of Mies’s buildings as objects of classical idealisation, emphasising rather the phenomenological effect of their ubiquitous gridded surfaces. ‘Mies insists that an order is immanent [only] in the surface itself,’ he writes, ‘and that the order is continuous with and dependent upon the world in which the viewer actually moves. This sense of surface and volume severed from the knowledge of an internal order or a unifying logic, is enough to wrench the building from the atemporal, idealised realm of autonomous form and install it in a specific situation in the real world of experienced time.’
The unmodulated run of columns that form the frontage of Fayland House maintains a similar ambiguity. While evoking a timeless classicism it also serves as a register of fleeting perception: an effect comparable with that cultivated by the work of an artist like Donald Judd. The abiding impression is therefore one of invitation to movement. It is a house where one lives on one’s feet and takes pleasure in the constantly shifting relationship to the landscape beyond.
Architect: David Chipperfield Architects
Landscape architecture: Christopher Bradley-Hole
Structural engineer: Alan Baxter Associates
Services engineer: Spink Property
Photographs: Simon Menges and Rik Nys