AR House 2016 Highly Commended: a monument to an imagination run wild
The estuaries of Essex are endless, absorbent fringes to a defined territory. Out on the salt marshes, in the mud, emerged fragments of Darwin’s Beagle, while legions of Second World War concrete pillboxes occupy riverside water meadows, a counterweight to battalions of flimsy beach huts, tenuously secured against the coastal elements. Now comes the near legendary A House for Essex in which Grayson Perry depicts the fictional life of Julie May Cope, born on Canvey Island in 1953 during the fatal floods of that spring and killed in a road accident (with a take-away curry delivery scooter) in 2014.
She’s a woman of her (and his) generation, caught between tough reality and the dream gifts of social and intellectual mobility. Perry’s young Julie is of the ‘New Town’ era (Basildon, South Woodham Ferrers), the older Julie a mature student of a ‘New University’ (Essex, in Colchester). Two lives, two marriages, two views. This is her house. In a strange way she was the client.
Grayson Perry’s drawing of the House for essex
FAT’s commission from Living Architecture was based on the client’s perception that they had the imagination, the flexibility, to work with the artist in what was to be a highly unusual, and intense, kind of creative partnership. Charles Holland, the partner who continued the commission after the practice was dissolved, remembers Alain de Botton introducing them, rather ‘like a playdate. “This is Grayson – you might get on”. And then he went to fetch us some rolls for lunch.’ The meeting led to what became a ‘remarkably straightforward’ process, a mutual agreement to design a very particular ‘object in the landscape’. By their side was Mark Robinson, the project manager of Living Architecture.
Holland began to search for a site, ‘with Essex as a given’. Born there, he knew the ground, ranging the county from Romford to Billericay to ‘the end of a runway at Stansted’. An ancient Essex site, still a place of pilgrimage, the seventh-century St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell, contributed to Grayson Perry’s desire to design a ‘secular chapel’. When they were guided to the site at Wrabness, with a railway station to hand, close to the Essex Way where it brushes along the Stour Estuary, standing on the very edge of a small village, it felt, Holland says, ‘like the end of a journey’.
From there is a distant prospect of water, but two very disparate views. Looking west, the river is sandwiched between the quiet banks of Essex and Suffolk, while looking east, seawards, is a forest of cranes and gantries marking the thriving international container port at Felixstowe. The house lies equidistant between two entirely dissimilar, yet neighbouring, landscapes.
Considering the architecture of the house, Holland turned to Russian timber churches, with their stave structures and ‘a folk quality’ that provided, essentially, ‘a point of reference that departed from both architect and artist’s usual work’. That steep section allowed for an intriguing plan, a succession of spaces and effects. Telescoping, almost Russian-doll style, the seemingly hermetic exterior provides another of the many counterpoints in this story. Aiming at a heavily decorated effect, they toyed with different cladding options – as Holland remembers, ‘we played with pargetting’ – but it was the neat fit of craft and technology (and, no doubt, Perry’s ease with ceramics) that drew them to the olive green and white tile finish with its symbolic ornament.
The exterior, resembling a medieval enamel reliquary rather than any version of 21st-century domestic architecture, posits an underlying ambiguity between ‘authenticity and pastiche’ that Holland was eager to explore. Adrift in a sea of ox-eye daisies and pink campions, washed with soft grey-blue light and set against lush foliage, clad in ornamental faience and roofed in glowing metal, the ridge crested with elaborate emblems, it looks like an overwrought illustration from a Victorian children’s book, momentarily unsettling to the modern eye.
Living Architecture’s portfolio of architecturally distinguished holiday houses is contemporary but offers many different readings of modernity. At A House for Essex guests find themselves in a work of art (along with attendant heavy security) cum holiday cottage cum folly. Yet Landmark Trust clients happily settle into an 18th-century pineapple so why not A House for Essex? Such has been its popularity that Living Architecture decided to allocate places, for two- or three-night stays, by ballot – and they are hugely over-subscribed. Grayson Perry’s fame, the Channel 4 television programme that chronicled the building of the house, along with its architectural singularity, imagination and the quality of the building and ornament (an expression of the exceptional pride and goodwill between architect, local builder and specialist contractors), have assured it top place on Living Architecture’s list.
There is no visitors’ book but the guests’ immediate experience is, unsurprisingly, intense. ‘Most people are very over-excited when they arrive,’ says Jo Scott-Haynes, who usually greets them. Kate Kincaid, next-door neighbour and housekeeper, notices how people often linger indoors during their stay, the better to absorb everything. Architecturally trained, she has been an enthusiastic advocate of the project, built on the site of a derelict cottage owned by her family, from the beginning. Some visitors blog about their visits; Emily King’s Frieze diary ‘Postcard from Essex’ was of a weekend earlier this year. A day spent largely in the ‘secular chapel’ – the main hall hung with tapestries recording Julie’s life – was ‘like spending time in Perry’s head, no bad place to be on a wet day in Essex’. She was less impressed by Living Architecture’s coy ‘Conversation Menu’, which prompts guests to consider their responses. Maybe a visitors’ book would have been a better idea.
Coming after the resilient exterior, its density of forms, materials and tones, the interior is a revelation and, in some measure, light relief. The house has been angled to catch the views, and more daylight pours through the copper-hooded dormer windows than seems possible. Guests walk into a hall passage with a sequence of buttercup yellow chevron-patterned doors, opening onto cupboards and bedroom stairs, its source of light disguised. From there, first in the kitchen and dining area, with its Ernest Race table and chairs, then in the full-height ‘chapel’, comfortably furnished for sitting and lounging, light and colour become incrementally stronger.
As King noted, the intense detail in Julie’s story is reflected in Holland’s range of architectural references. Scattered, often oblique, they wittily acknowledge a pantheon of heroes – Lutyens, Loos, Soane and Vanbrugh. This is no place for po-faced pastiche. So, in the kitchen-dining room canted tiled walls flank a freestanding fireplace, subliminally Arts and Crafts, and lead from there via a mirrored ‘rood screen’ into the full-height room. There, concave mirrors are borrowed from Soane, though mounted in utilitarian discs, while incisions (Soane again) in the rich red paintwork are picked up in magenta. Throughout, there is theatrical progression from dark to light (yet another nod to Soane, his lumière mystérieuse). Upstairs, deep ‘corridors’ of cupboards lead from each bedroom out to a balcony, overlooking the main space and framing the resplendent full-size figure of Julie. In the bathrooms, however, only visitor comfort rules. Finally, the double-height north porch (or should it be narthex?) is mosaic floored and valedictory in mood (Julie gets the last word) while ironwork adds a light touch – more garden pavilion than mausoleum. It is at that point, the north side, that the house meets the public: taking the path up from the riverside, walkers can legitimately observe it.
Living Architecture was set up ‘to change public perceptions of modern architecture’ but ramblers leaning on the fence below will not glimpse the massive tapestry life cycle that is the heart of the ‘chapel’ or the monochrome drawings of episodes in Julie’s life above. Nor will they meet Julie and her first (walrus moustache and denim) and second (binoculars and outdoor clothing) husbands, as seen in portrait tapestries in the bedrooms. To see those is the privilege for which guests have paid – for the rest, they have as much privacy as is compatible with the site.
Living Architecture did its level best to accommodate initial misgivings about their scheme within the village – producing an explanatory booklet and holding meetings. In 2012, the Essex Chronicle published the, as yet unbuilt, design and gently wondered what its readers thought. Given that not a single comment is recorded, perhaps they failed to believe it would ever become reality. Four years on, the balance between notoriety and acclaim seems to have reached equilibrium after a wave of hysteria about the ‘bizarre’ house, typified by the Daily Mail online quoting an (anonymous) villager in March 2015 as saying: ‘We’re not a snotty London art gallery, yet our tiny roads are now besieged on a daily basis by day trippers asking for directions to the dreaded “Gingerbread House”.’ I was one such tripper, stopping off from a visit to Harwich that month, nervously skirting the grass verges with their tetchy ‘keep off’ signs. Now the local authority (Tendring) has improved car parking at the station and road signage, clearly prohibiting unauthorised traffic on the lane down to the house. A community shop is prospering, and among its wares is a snowball model of the house. The intense, sometimes overwhelming, interest will slacken with time but the diminutive, exceptional house above the Stour will go on shining out, its gilded roofs concertinaed above the pastoral landscape like a cottage for Rapunzel painted by Arthur Rackham.
A house for Essex
Architect: FAT Architecture
Artist: Grayson Perry
Terracotta tiles: Szerelmey and Shaws of Darwen
Photographs: Luke Hayes and Jack Hobhouse