Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Private life: the line between domesticity and publicness at Kettle's Yard

Houses like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge navigate the balance between domestic house and public museum

Leave your bag behind, pull the bell, wait at the door, be welcomed inside. Cool sun filters through blinds, dances across the floorboards and worn Persian rugs. A buttery lemon, replaced every Friday, sits in a pewter plate, a brushstroke of the same yellow in the Miró painting hanging nearby. Pebbles, feathers and old chipped china are curated as carefully and deliberately as the Brancusi head placed on the piano. ‘Kettle’s Yard is in no way meant to be an art gallery or museum’, Jim Ede, the former owner of the house in Cambridge, insisted. ‘It is, rather, a continuing way of life.’

Sketch kettles yard cambridge architectural review 02

Sketch kettles yard cambridge architectural review 02

Source: Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Jim Ede’s sketch from 1981 for then Kettle’s Yard curator Jeremy Lewison, describing how the objects in the library should be positioned

Archive kettles yard cambridge architectural review

Archive kettles yard cambridge architectural review

Source: Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Ede’s photograph of the ‘wrong’ arrangement

X jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 08

X jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 08

Source: Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Ede in the cottage dining room

In 1957, Ede, a curator at the Tate in London, and his partner Helen knocked together four unassuming cottages on the northern edge of Cambridge with the help of architect Rowland de Winton Aldridge, and filled the house with art by artists including Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Naum Gabo and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Ede dreamed of ‘somehow creating a living place where works of art could be enjoyed, inherent to the domestic setting, where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery’. Every day between two and four in the afternoon, Ede would open the door to anyone who rang the bell.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha argues that the home is a public building, insisting that ‘all space is public. The only private space that you can imagine is in the human mind’. His Casa Butantã in São Paulo, in which he still resides and which is not open to the public, is arranged around ‘streets’ and squares like a city in miniature, much like Leslie Martin and David Owers’ generous, softly top-lit extension to Kettle’s Yard from 1970, where the first-floor galleries peer down onto a paved square, like a courtyard in an ancient town.

Ar january 1971 kettles yard architectural review

Ar january 1971 kettles yard architectural review

Source: The Architectural Review

AR January 1971

Ar january 1971 kettles yard architectural review 01

Ar january 1971 kettles yard architectural review 01

Source: The Architectural Review

AR January 1971

The extension nearly quadrupled Kettle’s Yard floor area, and gently progressed the slow mutation from home to public gallery. Four years earlier, the Edes had gifted the house and the treasures it contained to the University of Cambridge (an offer it at first unthinkably refused) and the pair eventually left in 1973 for a flat in Edinburgh. But sometimes the transition from home to public building is sudden and fleeting – Ernesto Gómez Gallardo’s Casa Möbius in Mexico City, built in 1978, was opened to the public for the first time for a single week in 2019 while it was up for private sale. Second Life, an exhibition staged in the house organised by Mexican gallery Peana in conjunction with collaborative art organisation Condo, invited artists and architects including Tezontle, Cooking Sections, and Frida Escobedo, to address the question of architectural preservation in Mexico (buildings built after 1900 cannot be considered ‘historic’ by Mexican law and, as a result, many Modernist buildings in the country are neglected and in a critical state).

During the exhibition, these new pieces stood alongside works from Gallardo’s private collection in an ambiguous accumulation of old and new, frozen in a fictional moment in which time is elastic and slippery. At Kettle’s Yard, on the other hand, time seems to dissolve and lightly eddy in the corners. It is as if the Edes had never left, as if the made beds could still be warm, the candles just extinguished, as if the couple could walk back in at any minute. 

Casa mobius second life ernesto gomez gallardo architectural review

Casa mobius second life ernesto gomez gallardo architectural review

Source: Courtesy of PEANA. Photography by Genevieve Lutkin

Casa mobius second life ernesto gomez gallardo architectural review 01

Casa mobius second life ernesto gomez gallardo architectural review 01

Source: Courtesy of PEANA. Photography by Genevieve Lutkin

Ernesto Gómez Gallardo’s Casa Möbius during the Second Life exhibition, when the house was briefly open to the public for the first time

After the Edes left Kettle’s Yard, curators took over from where they had left off. Jeremy Lewison, the curator between 1977 and 1983, made the mistake of installing bookshelves in the library, moving the chest of drawers, and relocating Gaudier-Brzeska’s Caritas from its oval table to a niche by the window – and ‘all hell broke loose’. Ede sent Lewison sketches and photographs annotated with notes to ‘correct’ the moves. ‘A small caution’, one note warns, ‘if you have to shift the plate, it must, when in position, be flat against the wall, not standing forward.’ Another advises helpfully, ‘If tiles are pushed forward to cover stain, their own division covers division in the table – a happy coincidence’. Ede’s particular constellations of pebbles, shells and sculptures are still painstakingly preserved today, the lemon and cut local wildflowers replaced every week (daffodils in spring to talk chattily with the lemon and the Miró).

The house is paused eternally in this ephemeral moment: a quiet theatre, a stage set waiting to receive its actors. Fixed in a single, replaying moment, the house is immortal, but only with determined maintenance and care. A rude reminder of mortality is found at Henry van de Velde’s Hôtel Wolfers in Brussels (AR September 2018), designed in 1929 and inhabited since 1977 by art collector Herman Daled, who has preserved the brown-brick Modernist house in a slowly deteriorating state of ruin. Rather than pausing time, each passing day is marked by flakes of paint falling to the floor, collected in a vitrine by the housekeeper. In the ’80s, the house was the setting for exhibitions of work by artists including Robert Mapplethorpe, Niele Toroni, and Dan Graham. More recently, in 2015 the peeling paint and cracking plaster formed an eerie and fatalistically beautiful backdrop for an exhibition of furniture by artist Richard Venlet and 6a Architects. ‘Je n’y habite pas. J’y suis présent’, Daled says of his inhabitation of the house, reduced to just two rooms and the servants’ kitchen – I do not live there. I am present.

Maison wolfers house museums architectural review 02

Maison wolfers house museums architectural review 02

Source: Richard Venlet

Maison wolfers house museums architectural review 01

Maison wolfers house museums architectural review 01

Source: Richard Venlet

Hôtel Wolfers by Henry van de Velde, built in 1929, has been kept as a decaying ruin by its owner of 40 years Herman Daled. It has periodically opened for exhibitions, including this, of work by Richard Venlet and 6a Architects

Hôtel Wolfers’ inhospitable semi-ruin stands in stark contrast to the deliberate warmth and easy domesticity of Kettle’s Yard, but the omnipresent tropes of the typical gallery or house museum are nowhere to be seen. There are no artwork captions (house guides are available instead) or ‘do not touch’ signs. The physical – and metaphysical – velvet ropes, ubiquitous in most house museums, are conspicuously absent. Comical plastic overshoes are thankfully unenforced and visitors are free to sit on the Edes’ furniture (the only pinecones are found as part of curated displays, rather than deterring weary visitors from sitting on furniture as found dotted liberally around National Trust properties) – although the line is drawn at handling the valuable sculptures as visiting students were invited to in the ’60s.

The illusion of authenticity and realness fractures and crumbles under inflexible attitudes towards preservation – drawing the velvet rope tighter chokes and suffocates. Sherban Cantacuzino wrote in his review of Martin and Owers’ Kettle’s Yard extension, in AR January 1971, that ‘there is also the inevitable conflict between the ideals of its creator and the practical problems which an institution committed to controlling it must face’. It is a precarious tightrope to walk, pulled taut and tense between preserving quiet domesticity and opening up to as broad and large an audience as possible. Over the five decades following Cantacuzino’s review, Kettle’s Yard has incrementally grown and welcomed more visitors, the largest augmentation in 2018 with Jamie Fobert Architects’ substantial extension welcoming nearly 250,000 visitors in its first year – three times the annual number before the project.

Sketch kettles yard architectural review 01

Sketch kettles yard architectural review 01

Ede’s 1981 sketch describing the oval table assemblage

X jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 07

X jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 07

Source: Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge / Paul Allitt

The oval table assemblage including Gaudier-Brzeska’s Caritas

The Kettle’s Yard gradual evolution is symptomatic of the growing global heritage ‘business’. National Trust properties in the UK receive 26 million visitors annually, the USA has more than 15,000 house museums across the country (more than the number of McDonald’s), and entry to visit the interior of the Eames House in California costs $275 ($10 to look from the outside).

While time may be accelerating outside its walls, inside the house at Kettle’s Yard, it remains still and slow. The rituals are still scrupulously observed: although you now obtain your free timed ticket from reception, you must still pull the bell (the original, appropriated from the servants’ quarters of a Scottish manor house) and wait at the door. The lemon still sings from its pewter plate. You must still wind your way through the old house, up the spiral staircase, across the plant-lined ‘bridge’ watched by the gently rotating glass eye of Gregorio Vardanega’s Disc, and step down, down to the generous terraces of the ’70s galleries.

But perhaps it is not the rituals, the maintenance and care that give these special houses eternal life. It is the public who preserve them, giving these places precious time. ‘Do come in as often as you like’, Jim Ede wrote to one undergraduate visitor in 1964, ‘the place is only alive when used.’

Kettle’s Yard, by Jamie Fobert Architects, 2018

Jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 01

Jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 01

Source: Hufton + Crow

Jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 03

Jamie fobert kettles yard cambridge architectural review 03

Source: Hufton + Crow

One of the new galleries looking out to Castle Street

Following a number of additions since Leslie Martin and David Owers’ extension in 1970, Jamie Fobert Architects’ (JFA) plans swept away the accreted buildings between the extension and the Victorian facade on Castle Street, including reconfigurations by Martin in the ’80s and further changes in 1994. Occupying this facade, the gallery on the street is lit by a single large window (perfect for transporting monumental artworks in and out), while the second gallery is entirely top-lit, a nod to Martin and Owers’ design – ‘the starting point for all of this work was my admiration for the 1970 extension’, Fobert admits. JFA’s proposals revealed and repurposed some of the original brick galleries which had been cluttered and neglected while used as education rooms and rarely seen by the public. The sculptural brick bench, now stretching from the reception through to the large shop, had been rebuilt after it was replaced by a timber bench, and the plasterboard has been ripped away to expose the brick walls. The new café (its first) inhabits what was previously tucked away as staff offices, and a new double-height learning studio sits on the street. The gentle meander around the house remains unaltered since 1958, when Jim Ede first welcomed students inside – even if the ticketing system is slightly more advanced. The changes will allow many more people to experience the special beauty of Kettle’s Yard – for those who remember its previous, endearingly small operation, perhaps the new crowds are unwelcome. But the secret is out and the experience should be shared, unselfishly, as Jim Ede first envisioned in 1958.

Kettles yard cambridge jamie fobert architects

Kettles yard cambridge jamie fobert architects

Click to download

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today