The architects behind Britain’s most striking modern homes
A book of the 50 greatest contemporary homes shows what we can build with a bit of ambition. Jonathan Morrison reports
There was a time, the philosopher Alain de Botton writes, when Britain built hundreds of thousands of near-identical homes that were elegant, functional, uplifting and — most importantly — affordable. Unfortunately, the last time that occurred was during the great age of Georgian housebuilding, from the year of George I’s accession in 1714 to about 1830, when George IV died.
Certainly in modern times we seem to have struggled to produce the sort of houses in which most people want to live. De Botton goes on to say that “in the UK, it is as hard to find a delightful home today as it would have been to find a well-appointed bathroom in the 12th century”.
While that might be overstating it, he is right that this matters: our residences determine how we feel, our degrees of hope and satisfaction, and whether we can be fully ourselves. In the acres of Identikit Barratt boxes on the edges of our towns, in the mushrooming of rectangular apartment blocks in our city centres, something important has been lost: beauty, certainly, but also ambition. Perhaps even a degree of happiness. In many areas domestic construction is so bad that, as Barbara Weiss of the Skyline Campaign said to me recently, “I feel like I should be wearing blinkers when I go out.” And yet paradoxically, house and home remains something of a national obsession.
All that in mind, you may think it reasonable to conclude that British architects have given up on building beautiful residences. However, a new book by Dominic Bradbury, The Iconic British House, for which de Botton has written the introduction, shows that charge couldn’t be further from the truth.
Something of a history as well as a polemic, it starts with the Arts and Crafts movement that emerged from the Great Exhibition of 1851 — with Goddards in Surrey, built in 1900 by Sir Edwin Lutyens — before art deco makes an appearance in the form of the subtly modern Hill House in Helensburgh, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1903). It is a gentle and uncontroversial beginning. What soon emerges, however, is just how experimental British architecture became. First, émigrés from Europe, such as Berthold Lubetkin and Marcel Breuer, left their icons of radical modernism in places as diverse as Whipsnade and Angmering-on-Sea. Then we had Peter and Alison Smithson, whose work inspired the term “brutalism”, and Peter Foggo, whose design in Wimbledon Village must be one of the finest examples of midcentury modernism in existence. The high-tech movement came next, exemplified by the Wimbledon house that Richard Rogers designed for his parents in 1967. Then came postmodernism, seen in Sir Terry Farrell’s Cosmic House in Holland Park, west London, which was built for the critic Charles Jencks in 1983.
Where the book really comes into its own is after 1994 — a period covering half of the 50 entries. When visitors think of grand homes in the UK often they picture the palatial residences that wouldn’t look out of place in Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle, Waddesdon Manor, Blenheim Palace. Yet there are singular country houses in every nook of our green and pleasant land, ranging from the Origami House in Ballymena, Co Antrim, by Jane Burnside (2008), which resembles a traditional grouping of farm cottages, to Future Systems’s buried (save for the oval glass frontage protruding from the hillside) Malator in Pembrokeshire (1998), which could pass for a Bond villain’s lair.
These may be extremes of camouflage and concealment but subtlety also abounds, in the deliberately low-lying, retro-modernist Middlesex pavilion Skywood House by Graham Phillips (1999) — inspired by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s seminal Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 — and in Richard Found’s 2012 Cotswolds house, in which swathes of the local warm stone form a streamlined extension to the grade II-listed, 18th-century gamekeeper’s cottage. All were designed to minimise their visual impact on areas of outstanding natural beauty but feature ultra-contemporary interiors and mod cons. There’s room for the playful and the weird, such as Grayson Perry’s extroverted A House for Essex, and the Mole House in De Beauvoir by David Adjaye, who took the shell of the building and the underground warren of hand-excavated tunnels left by William Lyttle, known as the Mole Man of Hackney, and turned it into a home for the artist Sue Webster (presumably after lots of structural work).
“The argument that’s threaded through the book is that there is an evolving British style based on paying attention to the context, the terrain, the materials and the vernacular,” Bradbury says. “All the projects featured frame and respond to the landscape in particular — the relationship between the architecture and the landscape seems especially British and is really interesting.”
That’s evident in projects such as Hannington Farm in Northamptonshire by James Gorst (2019). Hannington, set within a working deer farm, wraps itself around a lake and, Gorst says, draws inspiration from “18th-century mills in Welsh valleys, 2,000 years of tradition, the contours and the Guggenheim Bilbao”, with Scandinavian flourishes and a studied asymmetry adding to a complex and slightly subversive modern manor house aesthetic. “The client was a hunting, fishing type,” Gorst says, “and of course that has an impact too.”
Ultimately he believes that good architecture boils down to “expressing the potential of different materials”, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than at Flint House, by Skene Catling de la Peña. Set in the grounds of Waddesdon, it was built 126 years later for the same family — the Rothschilds — on the seam of chalk that runs north from the cliffs of Dover. The building uses blocks of the white stone at its highest points, helping it to blend with a wintry sky, while the flint nodules at its base reflect the stony fields around it. “Waddesdon Manor itself is quite curious: it’s a Loire Valley château dropped in like a spacecraft,” Charlotte Skene Catling, the architect, says. “We were drawn to the local geo-archaeology, which goes back millions of years. Flint House is like pulling up a section of the chalk and flint — a visual extrusion.” It won the Royal Institute of British Architecture (Riba) House of the Year award in 2015.
Back to why this matters. De Botton writes in his introduction to The Iconic British House that “we should be inspired and a little angry . . . That 50 lovely houses deserve a book is in part a sign that the other 23.7 million or so other dwellings in the UK may not be worthy of this kind of interest.”
Yet Skene Catling, who is also working on modular housing for awkward infill sites in London, thinks such exemplars serve an important purpose. “The approach to design is consistent whether you’re building a palace or a shack,” she says. “Architecture follows economics and politics, so the main problem lies with land ownership. In Europe, local government makes land available for people to build on; in the UK it’s all snapped up by big-volume housebuilders, so you get either one-offs like Flint House or junk. Hopefully the one-offs show what can be achieved. Houses are metaphors for the mind and theatres of memory — of course we should be demanding more.”
Bradbury hopes that his book will inspire a change in attitudes. “The book is largely arguing that developers need to use the talent we have in this country and the pioneering ideas they’re coming up with,” he says. “You have to ask: ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ ”
The Iconic British House: Modern Architectural Masterworks since 1900 by Dominic Bradbury (Thames & Hudson £50). To order a copy go to timesbookshop.co.uk or call 020 3176 2935. Free UK standard P&P on online orders over £25. Special discount available for Times+ members