‘The house seems, by turns, sophisticated and unsophisticated, crude and beautifully crafted, artful and occult’
This project saw Charlotte Skene Catling shortlisted for the Women Architect of the Year Award 2016
In the simplest terms, it is a composition of two domestic buildings, Flint House and its annexe, in the form of stepped wedges, set some 50m apart in a narrow swale – unploughable with a rill of water running through it – in the fields below the Rothschild Archive on the Waddesdon Manor estate.
‘Flint House’s design development was a combination of a forensic examination of a place, looking for triggers for a creative process that gets transformed into architecture’
Flint House is metaphorically tectonic: its cast concrete and blockwork frame sits above a chalk fault line that runs for 200 miles between Bournemouth and King’s Lynn. But the building is more than geological mimicry. The narratives and allusions at play in the design are the work of a finely tuned, thoroughly inquisitive creative mind.
As you approach along a rough track, Flint House immediately triggers precedents and references: belvederes, Libera’s Casa Malaparte, faux-Picturesque ruins, the stone steps by Asplund, Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery, the collapsed remains of a Victorian bridge, the 18th-century Artificial Mount Parnassus by Nicolaes the Elder Visscher.
‘Flint House is a remarkable object in the Buckinghamshire landscape, but it has nothing to do with so-called object architecture’
These images signal some of the temporal and phenomenological qualities of the architecture. However, there were hundreds of touchstones for the design of Flint House scattered all around the site when Charlotte Skene Catling first visited it with her client, Lord Jacob Rothschild; she had been recommended to him by Colin Amery, the architectural historian.
Source: Anthony Coleman
‘We first saw it in the middle of winter,’ Skene Catling recalls. ‘The fields were ploughed, and the site itself was very strange. And there were flints in the fields. The site was overgrown and you couldn’t see it through the trees. You could almost have been embedded in a deep forest. Our early discussions were not about architecture, but about the landscape, and how a building could reveal some fundamental quality of the site.’
She describes the development of the design as ‘a combination of a forensic examination of a place, looking for triggers for a creative process that gets transformed into architecture. This often gets lost. A lot of architects work from superficial ideas. She believes that this degree of intense investigation of context should apply to any architectural or place-making situation. Her practice, co-founded with Jaime de la Peña, has produced mainly small-scale work for private or branded clients, though in one project – as part of a team designing a masterplan for a creative community on the edge of Doha – the scale and environmental innovation is considerable.
‘Flint House falls into the hyper-haptic category – a direct expression of the soil and geology from which it juts’
This interest in bigger pictures is evident in Skene Catling’s critical writing, where there is a focus on issues to do with cities, humanity and the digital age: Venezuelan slums, for example; the resilient complexity of London’s historical and commercial development; the super-visual virtual world versus the ‘hyper-haptic’ reality of buildings.
Source: Anthony Coleman
Flint House falls into the hyper-haptic category – a direct expression of the soil and geology from which it juts. This is very clear in the layered materiality of the elevations. Skene Catling conceived the base of Flint House as being ‘almost ripped raw from the ground’, with large galleted flints and black lime mortar at the lowest layer, rising in smooth, finely jointed square flint blocks through increasingly pale layers.
‘Flintwork is usually focused on the restoration of existing buildings, rather than innovation in new structures,’ she says. ‘Here, a team [of flinters] were brought together and challenged to combine the full vocabulary of flint techniques as they progressed from the base to the top of the building.’
Towards the highest portion of the wedge, flint gives way to an ‘evaporation’ of chalk facings; earth to sky, solid to immaterial. The physical dramas of geology obviously fascinate Skene Catling: her practice’s Hidden House scheme on a steep hillside at Formentor, Majorca, makes a visible virtue of the rock-face behind the building.
At Flint House, the direct contextual expression, using brusque materials, is gripping. So, too, is the way the building not only evades typological labels, but radiates ‘otherness’. This architecture is a literal evocation of the limestone bones of its landscape, yet also a mysterious found object that invokes subtler ideas and reactions.
It is no surprise, given Skene Catling’s great interest in art, that the design was germinated by sources like the paintings of Anselm Kiefer and Claude Lorrain; one early visual for the scheme shows the two wedges of the Flint House tableau superimposed on the horizon line of the roughly striated fields in Kiefer’s The Milky Way.
Flint House Skene Catling Pena02
Source: Anthony Coleman
And so, Flint House seems, by turns, sophisticated and unsophisticated, crude and beautifully crafted, artful and occult. There are tensions in these oppositions, yet nothing pretentious about their effects: Skene Catling’s architectural creativity here is neither outré nor à la mode. Ultimately, Flint House is a prism of connections between landscape, domesticity and cameo moments of meticulously staged sensuality.
The richly textured external walls and the march of steps up the terrazzo-surfaced roof enclose an internal domestic composition that is true to the wedge shape in Flint House’s long and transverse sections. The interior is spatially and visually uncompressed and free flowing; it’s as if a huge, partly toppled megalith has been hollowed out and given a Raumplan.
The main ordering device is a staircase rising from the more or less central kitchen through the long axis of the plan to the first floor, where there are two flanking bedrooms, each with a small rectangular balconette slotted into the slope of the roof. The axis continues under the rising ceiling as a bridge across the double-height sitting room, then steps up to a short cross-corridor leading to the master bedroom and upper roof terrace at the north-east end of the plan.
‘There are striking artworks in the house, but the atmosphere is absolutely domestic’
The articulation of the plan on the ground floor is very skilful in the various ways it frames multiple views of the landscape from single points and creates satisfying internal shifts of light, volume and perspective. The exterior of Flint House may have Ur qualities but the interiors are urbane, and in a very relaxed way.
There are striking artworks in the house – Damian Elwes’ Spirit, Beatrice Caracciolo’s Riots 2, and vivid Mexican tin festival figures – but the atmosphere is absolutely domestic; it seems unremarkable that one can find, within inches of each other on master bedroom bookshelves, the 1930 Bloodstock Breeders’ Review, Thackeray’s final novel, The Adventures of Philip, and a copy of Baking, Roasting and Cooking with the Miele Oven.
Charlotte skene catling 6 jpg
Source: Anthony Coleman
Art, books, falls of light. And three miles away, on a hilltop to the south-east, the outline of St Mary Magdalene church at Over Winchendon, on land that in 1874 came into the ownership of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild via the seventh Duke of Marlborough. However, Flint House is more than the embodiment of a rural sanctuary. Skene Catling speaks of the wedge forms of the main building and the annexe as ‘viewing platforms and condensing lenses for the surrounding panoramas’. Images of vanishing points and camera obscuras spring to mind.
These layers of meaning come together most meticulously in the composition of the end wall of the sitting room, and the small and rather surreal grotto that runs at right angles around the outside of the study beyond it, sluicing water through a shallow canal under the house. The grotto, fed by the rill running from a small pond, is overhung by the master bedroom’s balcony with mirror soffits.
‘The grotto – the imaginary flip side of the exposed, no-nonsense external flintwork’
From the sitting room, Skene Catling’s artifice becomes an even more layered scene. The fireplace in the end wall is glass backed; the painting above is William Tomkins’ Painshill Grotto. Thus: flames from the fire, an 18th-century vision of a grotto as spooky confection, glimmers of light on water just outside, reflected and riddled by the mirror overhead, and the artificial grotto with walls of large white nodules of chalk-covered flint, like an ossuary of compacted hip joints. The grotto – the imaginary flip side of the exposed, no-nonsense external flintwork.
For Skene Catling, the nodules suggest ‘going back in geological time, while the grotto is a penetration with water and fire – a dreamlike layer of memory and desire’. That’s a reference to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.’ Skene Catling’s interest in architectural expressions of memory and desire are not new: the Hidden House scheme, a small, tantalisingly slatted bathing pavilion, has subtly erotic qualities, as does the short film the practice made about it.
Flint House Skene Catling Pena
Source: Anthony Coleman
Ultimately, Flint House is architecture as prism, refracting the lives of its inhabitants through overlapping bands of time, geology and imagination. Skene Catling even extends the project into a collaborative experiment involving photographers from the Royal College of Art, who were asked to record the construction process in any way they wanted. The results are fascinating – and one image is hilarious: the ruggedly built flinters, virtually naked, and posed as in François Boucher’s Venus Disarming Cupid.
And the architectural reverberations continue. Charlotte Skene Catling is currently collaborating on a Flint Chamber Symphony with Mark Springer – the musical notations and chords will be based on the figurations and ripples of geological strata.
Architect: Skene Catling de la Peña
Structural engineer: Haskins Robinson Waters
M&E engineer: Max Fordham
Photographs: Anthony Coleman