December 27 2013
“We were on holiday in Sicily. The architecture was surreal – everything was something other than what it seemed. A Roman ruin would turn out to be Greek. And there were baroque constructions on top of medieval ones, which were built on top of Arabic ruins. I said to John, ‘Why can’t we do something similar?’”
We are sitting in the sun-filled drawing room of Susanna and John White’s beautiful new house built from scratch in the Cotswolds countryside. The classically proportioned windows give views on three sides over the surrounding landscape – green and brown folds of gently rolling farmland. Immaculate plasterwork, recreated from original 18th-century moulds and featuring bucolic garlands of flowers spilling from baskets, runs around the edge of the high ceilings, above the cornice and around the ceiling rose. The furniture, including a reclaimed wooden fireplace, possibly from Cecil Beaton’s old country house at Ashcombe in Wiltshire, is an idiosyncratic mix of period pieces, comfortable sofas and smart glass coffee tables. This pocket Palladian villa, one room deep and in pale honeyed Syreford stone, features a classical pediment, Ionic pillars, symmetrical façades either side of the main entrance, and stone steps down into a sunken terrace. The house rises incongruously from a low point in the terrain, but fills the occasional rambler’s heart with amazement that something so ambitious, so picturesque, should have sprung up in this sheltered spot. It comes into view a bit like a mirage, as you hop over the stiles between fields of sheep.
The English country house has always been as much a matter of dream and fantasy as it has been a practical solution to the problem of habitation. The Romans gave Britons the villa, introducing an architecture specifically devised to maximise the pleasures of rural life. Since then, in every century, those who acquired wealth have sought to create the house of their heart’s desire, whether that be a Gothic confection of brick turrets, a neoclassical structure or an eco-neutral Corbusian “machine for living”. Changing social circumstances since the late 19th century, however, have made the large country house as much a domestic nightmare as the realisation of a dream – all those corridors to clean and rooms to heat – with many converted into hospitals or schools, or even, during the second world war, requisitioned for the army. In 1974, an exhibition at the V&A, called The Destruction of the Country House, calculated that more than 600 had been demolished since 1870, replaced by more manageable homes. Recently, though, there has been a modest resurgence in country-house building, with a number of people deciding to build from scratch rather than simply convert an old property. This has been aided by a piece of legislation introduced by the Conservative government in 1997. Known as Gummer’s Law, regulation PPG7, section 3.21, was intended to relax planning guidance surrounding the construction of solitary buildings in open countryside (as opposed to within a village envelope or on brownfield sites).
“An isolated new house in the countryside may… exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings,” it stated.
However, few buildings have actually been built under this legislation or its successor, PPS7, perhaps because of its precise stipulation that any successful application “should be truly outstanding and groundbreaking in its use of materials, methods of construction or its contribution to protecting and enhancing the environment”. As a result, the properties built using this legislation have ranged from the radical and futuristic Swinhay House in the Cotswolds, by David Austin for industrialist Sir David McMurtry, with its high-tech metal roofing, spiral tower and glass-roofed interior garden, to the austerely neoclassical Great Canfield House in Essex, by Quinlan Terry.
The Whites knew Swinhay and admired its courage, but wanted something less avant-garde. “I was brought up in Georgian houses – and I like to live somewhere full of light,” says Susanna. At the time of the trip to Sicily, the couple were restoring a handsome Georgian town house in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, where John runs a construction company. But, inspired by their travels, they subsequently made the decision to start on another property in the countryside from scratch. With this one they rejected the strictures of neoclassicism. “We wanted something much more organic than Robert Adam or Quinlan Terry,” says Susanna. So, with the help of architect Martin Branston (now retired) and former stonemason Julian Wilson, they developed their own plans from pattern books such as Colen Campbell’s three-tome publication Vitruvius Britannicus (1715-1725) and Georgian House Style by Ingrid Cranfield. “We didn’t want to be slavish,” explains Susanna, a professional interior decorator. “I like quirk and I like frivolity, so there are rococo elements.”
The Whites’ new house was designed to fit onto the footprint of the property that had preceded it – a modest 1960s build – and in order to do so, says John, they had to reduce the size of the hall and place the inner ground-floor windows hard up against the door jambs. “A façade with seven windows across it meant that if both reception rooms were to have three windows, then the hall had to fit in between. I was worried about this until I saw they had done something quite similar at Uppark House on the South Downs.” A significant pleasure for the Whites has been working with master masons, stone carvers, engineers, metalsmiths, experts on architectural mouldings and other craftsmen who used traditional methods to make their dream a reality.
For Paul Acland, director of Paul+O Architects, the Palladian and neoclassical styles are too freighted with history to be used today. “The mindset of the Georgians was all about controlling the landscape and controlling nature,” he explains. In 2003 Acland was a young architect recently arrived in Britain from New Zealand, working alongside Paulo Marto from southern Africa, and became one of the first architects to design a contemporary isolated house in the country under the PPS7 legislation. A chance meeting with the late theatrical agent Sara Low led to her inviting them to help her realise her ambition of building a modern, sunny house in the middle of the 50-acre wood she owned in Suffolk. The planners had rejected her initial idea of a prefabricated house by German firm Huf Haus, but Acland worked with Low to produce a new design, called the Wilderness House, which met the original Gummer criteria and won the endorsement of architect Sir Michael Hopkins. “We made it appear larger by designing a ‘scaleless’ entrance elevation,” says Acland. They wanted the house to blend into its setting, rather than dominate it, so Acland and Marto chose for it a natural clearing.
From the outside, the Wilderness House looks like a series of plate-glass and rendered boxes arranged across the land, but as the woodland reflects off the ground-floor windows, these “boxes” appear at times to be floating. Inside, three double-height volumes – library, dining room and entrance hall – create an exhilarating sense of space, yet the ground-floor areas can be left to flow flexibly one into another or be closed off by sliding doors. “We aligned the house with the hedgerows and the fields, with one long view running for 200m down one side,” says Acland. They built it on a plinth of knapped flint, so that “even if the brambles came right up to the house, it would not matter”. Upstairs there are seven bedrooms, all enjoying amazing vistas of the landscape. “The natural materials and the proportions are just beautiful,” says current owner Jim Ashton. But the main feature is the way the enormous picture windows bring the outside in. “It’s like living inside Springwatch. It is just gorgeous.” According to Acland, “The smaller country house has always been an important experimental arena, a testing ground for new architectural ideas.”
For architect Richard Found, his own exquisite secluded house in the woods has provided just such an arena, winning a Riba National Award in 2012 and being shortlisted for the Manser Medal. Found discovered his secret valley down a beech track in Gloucestershire in 2004 – complete with ponds and ancient woodland – and bought it straight away. There was a dilapidated 18th-century gamekeeper’s cottage on the site, and Found’s intention was to knock this down and create an entirely modern family home in the midst of nature. “This would have been a mistake,” he now admits. Fortunately, English Heritage decided to give the cottage a Grade II listing and the planners then insisted that it become an integral part of any design. This resulted in Found’s ingenious essay into marrying the old and the new.
His two main inspirations were the intimate views into the woods and the still-visible Cotswold-stone terracing. First he restored the gamekeeper’s cottage, stripping everything back to the original bones, putting underfloor heating beneath new flagstones and sheep’s-wool insulation in the roof, and installing a simple but perfectly functioning bathroom and kitchen. This old building is linked to the new family quarters by a cubic concrete entrance hall. The new building is both thrillingly uncompromising in its pared-back modernism and use of contemporary materials and technologies, and whisperingly discreet. Much of it is built into the hill behind to reduce both the visual and environmental impact of the building. And the low roof line means that unless you stand away from the house, you only see one half of the building at any one time, always in relation to the gamekeeper’s cottage – a modest and equal balance of forces.
The materials of the new building are dry-stone cladding, concrete, glass and anodised aluminium, with Corian used throughout the interior for baths, basins and worksurfaces. “I am so pleased by how warm the concrete is and how it complements the Cotswold stone,” says Found. The building is further blended into its surroundings by a green roof, with shrubs already bedded in. “It was meant to look as if the forest was continuing over the building.” Found became so obsessed with minimising any interruption to the flow between house and landscape that he used a cantilever construction for the ceiling in the sitting room. This avoided the need for structural columns and left the long glass window with views of the valley free of visual obstructions. Here, in the furthest corner of the new house, you feel yourself to be all eyes, reaching out into the landscape. It is only at night, when the glass becomes a blank wall, that the vast hearth comes into its own and visitors turn their backs on the dark to face the fireplace.
Each of these country houses represents a leap of imagination. Each also has required the hard-won goodwill of the planners for their realisation. But whether harking back to the old or experimenting with the new, each one enhances the landscape it inhabits. As John White said when I entered his house: “We wanted to leave something on the earth to mark our passing.”