Page 13, 19th August 2005

19th August 2005
Page 13
Page 13, 19th August 2005 — People who live in glass houses

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People who live in glass houses

If you are one of those people who day-dream about what house they would build if money were no object and the finest architects could be commissioned for the purpose, this may well be the book for you. Thirty of the most imaginative and strikingly beautiful designs are discussed in intimate detail, with very fine photographs and plans. All the commissions date from the last five years and so have a contemporary relevance to what is ne plus ultra today.

The very term “country house” obviously is laden with all kinds of historical references, particularly to do with wealth, seclusion and arcadian escape; Blenheim Palace is quoted as a, perhaps extreme, example. The author poses the question: is the same true of modern country houses? His answer: well, yes and no. Certainly very deep pockets would be necessary to maintain as well as build one of these things. Interestingly, status and prestige seem far less important than before, with a greater emphasis on simplicity and clarity, avoiding ostentation.

What is most satisfying about all of this is how the architecture of these outstanding houses takes the design debate far beyond the rather tedious hi tech/modernist versus classical to a freer, more creative interplay, in which seemingly opposing forces converse with one another and even meet within the same design; the conservative, vernacular and modernist do not have to be mutually exclusive of one another but can interpose successfully.

In Henning Larsen’s Summer Residence, built in Denmark in 2000, traditional vernacular (as in the use of the simple box rectangle and larch wood slatting, typical of Danish cabins) combines with ultramodern engineering to include a massive, glass façade that takes up the whole wall at one end of the building. The larch wood slats on the sides of the rectangle can be adjusted electronically to determine light levels, yet in essence it is still the simple box cabin which is unmistakably rooted in the vernacular canon in this part of the world. The use of fine materials in these commissions goes without saying, but what is most remarkable is the sheer vitality and venustas that they embody.

In his introduction Bradbury claims that country house design “continues to shape architecture” and it is hard to disagree with this thesis. The creativity is incredible: walls, ceilings and floors disappear and we are confronted with the Swiss Alps or the Oxfordshire countryside, as in the famous Jacobs Ladder House. Cantilevered walk ways spring from nowhere, reaching out into the distance, as in Elizabeth Wright’s La Casa in Colorado Springs, achieved of course through very innovative engineering but still strikingly beautiful in effect.

The relationship between house and surrounding land, always strong in any concept of the country house, can become very intimate, with one becom ing part of the other. Tony Blair’s chief tormentor on the Labour back benches, Bob Marshall-Andrews, commissioned Future Systems to design a house that is completely immersed in a Pembrokeshire fell. The glass façade of the wall/windows seems to be an entirely natural, organic part of the hill yet, at the same time, clearly it is not. It is these paradoxes that give modern country house architecture its influence and revolutionary relevance.

Dominic Bradbury has made a successful foray into a complex, elusive subkingdom of the architectural realm. The many photographs are really excellent, evincing the sculptural qualities of the buildings. The publishers have wisely used very highquality, freelance “studio” photographs taken with large format plates. The closest most of us will ever get to these modern-day Bridesheads is in the pages of books such as these. But there is a definite satisfaction, for me at least, in getting this far, and a vicarious pleasure in imagining what it must be like to own and live in one. The powerful images in New Country House will help you do just that.

John Graham

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