In the tradition of English eccentricity, this Wiltshire country house fuses an architectural interest in the ‘ordinary’ with ambiguous and esoteric moments
Crispin Kelly is almost certainly the housing developer with the best architectural taste in Britain. And even though, admittedly, the field is hardly hotly contested, this isn’t meant as faint praise. Enrolling at London’s Architectural Association in 1989, Kelly spent a formative period with the legendary teacher Peter Salter. Since then his company Baylight has risen to prominence with a series of crafted commercial and residential schemes designed by thoughtful London practices from Pierre d’Avoine, Stephen Taylor and Tony Fretton to Sergison Bates, Stanton Williams and 6a.
Having built his reputation by commissioning such high-calibre architects to design housing for other people, there has been not-a-little interest in the home he has commissioned for himself – an interest that has been piqued, no doubt, by the length of its development and its remoteness in rural Wiltshire. It was in 2006 that Stephen Taylor Architects made the initial proposal drawings, and these were later taken on, interrogated, and substantially evolved by practice ZMMA, who saw the project through three years on site to completion last Autumn.
So now that Four Oaks is finally finished: what is it actually like?
Like many simple questions this doesn’t have a simple answer, and the building exploits this categorical ambiguity as one of the central tenets of its charm. In prosaic terms, it is a 600 sqm house arranged over four floors, with five principal bedrooms. Glimpsed through the trees from the country lane, it gives the glancing appearance of conventional load-bearing brick topped by a traditionally-tiled pitched roof.
The silhouette and composition of the opposing gable ends is entirely within the bounds of ordinary English domestic architecture; and yet even seen straight on they hint at the house’s most extraordinary gesture: the big kink in the plan, as if two misaligned teams of builders started at the tips and had to reach an oblique understanding. (Or is the overall form a witty sculptural abstraction of family life, with the grown-up seriousness of the parents bookending the children and brokered compromise in the middle?)
The long, kinky elevations have been treated in slightly different ways. The lane-facing facade is more formal, with its mid-section angled toward the driveway to enhance the welcoming embrasure of the front door. The garden side is friendlier and, as more openings have been inserted (some as the building was going up), quite a bit busier. The balance the architect and client tried to strike between the needs of the inside and the outside can be read in the final elevational composition, and the subtle difference between the two expresses different priorities. Where the front is about how people relate to the house from the outside, the back is about how the inside relates to nature beyond.
While this distinction clearly plays on the tradition of ‘front’ and ‘back’ denoting different conditions of public and private, in this instance there is not much public to talk of, and the occasional passing car or hiker is just as likely to catch sight of the house from the rear, and see it more lingeringly, because of the lane’s nape and the open fields. However, despite this, it still feels an important distinction to convey, especially on a house where the simple massing is deliberately vague about its orientation.
Internally, again, there is a dance between registering the familiar and subverting it, a pleasurable parlour game that disrupts the homely with the unheimlich. The three main spaces enjoy an ambiguous status and inter-relationship. All on the same level, the different functions of the rooms are demarcated by gradations in the oak parquet floor, from the kitchen’s simple stack-bond, to herringbone in the dining room, and climaxing with the most elaborate tessellation in the sitting room.
But these three spaces can operate as contemporary open plan, with the activities of dining and sitting (and chatting and everything else) free to roam across them and, in the warmer weather, out through the numerous doors on to the patio and the garden. However, this isn’t open plan in the unmediated sense of open views, and the more dynamic perception of foreground, mid-ground and background is heightened by the fact that the two gable-ends of the building are hidden internally from each other by the diagonal in the plan. (It is the interior’s relationship with the longer perspective of the garden that holds the three together.)
Internally, again, there is a dance between registering the familiar and subverting it, a pleasurable parlour game that disrupts the homely with the unheimlich
On the ground floor there are no terminal rooms, so even though the entrance hall opens directly into the sitting and dining rooms, you can also walk round the perimeter in a continuous enfilade through spaces of quite dramatic variations of scale and character. Pulling the interior walls back from the exterior has two noticeable effects, most obviously throwing attention onto the mass of the building envelope, where the architects have emphasised the thickness of the brick wall with various carved-out indentations and apertures.
More unexpectedly, it islands the central diagonal axis as a hybrid connecting piece that must resolve the transition between the differing underlying geometries. This reveals itself with a certain spikiness in the plan, but – like the artful merging of pinstripe fabric where a suit’s arms meet its body – the effect is one, not of overwrought effort, but of inevitable solidity. The spine wall becomes inhabitable: the kitchen pushed against it (and through it, even, with a serving-hatch door); the poche of the downstairs loo; numerous shelves; and – most dramatically – the sinuous Soanian swoop of the pirouetting staircase.
Between the front hall and the back door is a small cosy room that is loosely defined in purpose, seeming to neither fully belong to either the served or servant spaces. It can be used as a snug, or as a kind of look-out post over the front door, and it’s difficult to tell whether it will be the central focus of, or an escape from, the internal life of the house. This is your first encounter – though it is used effectively in the upper and lower reaches of the house too – where the programme is deliberately indeterminate.
In the basement, for example, the architects told of how they were building a large space but had no idea how it would be used, and it was only quite late on that it became a cinema room. With its exposed ducting and brickwork, the sense of squatting in a found space creates Four Oak’s most transgressive-feeling room; and, with its proportions so similar to a double garage, recalls (to me at least) childhood memories of provisional suburban games rooms, of ping-pong, and later teenage rebellions.
Moving up through the building also has its surprises, with the lateral generosity of the suite of main rooms unexpectedly trumped by the epiphany of the first-floor landing, often the most rotten space (as any developer would know), but here starring as the building’s largest volume. Opened up to the sloping roof soffits, the spatial effect is like finding the ground floor of a barn-conversion shifted upwards in the house’s vertical hierarchy. From here, the staircase leads on to the attic’s mezzanine landing, bigger than some of the other rooms, yet also welcomely lacking in programmatic description.
The house wilfully counterpoints these moments of generosity with much tighter spatial experiences. The narrow little stair, which runs from the back door up to the first landing, has a scale that suggests servants or children or secret passages. And a tiny adjunct to a larger first-floor bedroom has connotations of a dressing room – of the earlier world of valets and maids – but today is ideal for the children of visiting parents. A bathroom between the two bedrooms could deliver this easy family use, or thrust you together into a more intimate negotiation with some other hardly-known guest; you can imagine a cupid-like chatelaine deploying it tactically in the bedroom allocations.
Other principal bedrooms have a more singular ensuite arrangement, which has enabled the walls between the washing elements to be unusually dissolved in places, most theatrically in the master bedroom with the ceremony of an open bath in one corner. Both the master bedroom and the adjacent one share a narrow balcony, too tight for a table and chairs, which could allow for sleepy, morning chats with conversant offspring; but also, in some Jeeves and Wooster way, the covert nocturnal rearrangement of the guests.
At times it feels like the firmest decision Crispin made was not to make too many firm decisions: of being strategically ad hoc. ‘I love compromise,’ wrote Kelly in a 2009 issue of BD Magazine, revisiting the 1960s Grade II-Listed Ryde housing outside London, ‘could we not do something in between and make suburbanism acceptable to the metropolitans?’
This line of thinking can be clearly seen to manifest in the house, but not as a ‘compromise’ in the pejorative sense, more like the in-between state where meanings are enhanced rather than diluted. So is this a large suburban house deracinated from its suburban neighbours? Or does it draw its references more from the agricultural buildings of Wiltshire? Or the architectural culture of London? Is it luxuriously modest, or modestly luxurious?
The family of architects used on the client’s speculative projects feels more identifiably in a camp that traces its roots to the Smithsons and their interest in the ordinary. But this house seems to go further back to a fruitier past. Like Lutyens at Castle Drogo – where the architect had fun choreographing architectural periods, from Romanesque to Georgian, to imply centuries-long evolution – Four Oaks also creates an instant richness for itself. The house is not a lamentable one-liner, but a script of references that bears re-reading.
With ZMMA working with an inherited form from Stephen Taylor, and with the leisurely procurement method allowing numerous adjustments to be made on site, and with both being guided by Kelly’s nuanced architectural sensibility, Four Oaks has evolved a quirkiness that few newly-built houses can match. The relatively generous gestation period for the house has compressed into its make-up idiosyncrasies that typically in British domestic architecture tend to take generations to emerge. In this rich and enchanting salvo, future generations will no doubt find much to delight in, respond to, and play with.