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Friday18 August 2017

Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project

Peter Zumthor sketching his Secular Retreat.
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Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project is creating architecturally interesting buildings for short-term lets

Living Architecture has had a long, sometimes difficult, birth. The idea to build a series of architecturally interesting domestic buildings that could be rented for holidays was first floated over five years ago.

But its founder, the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton also had a more lofty ambition, which was to change perceptions of modern architecture by giving people a chance to experience great architecture at first hand. Just as the Landmark Trust has been successful in renting out restored historic buildings, so Living Architecture would do the same with modern buildings, although as de Botton himself acknowledged the trust’s success “reflects Britain’s reluctance to engage with contemporary architecture”.

By this summer, three of the houses will be on site overseen by Mark Robinson, whose previous job was as project manager for the Serpentine Pavilions. Dickon Robinson, Living Architecture’s chairman, says: “Alain has been the midwife. He was the inspiration behind it but he doesn’t want it to be seen as his thing. He wants it to have a life of its own.”

But there is no doubt de Botton, a Stirling Prize judge two years ago whose book the Architecture of Happiness asked what makes a beautiful building, has played a key role in commissioning the first five houses. This includes persuading one of the world’s most sought after and elusive architects Peter Zumthor to design the largest of the five, a house on the edge of Dartmoor.

“We wanted some mature and established architects and one or two emerging names,” says Robinson. “We talked to loads of architects and no one refused us, but in the end we chose what we thought would be a good mix and would respond to the five locations.

“We spent a year looking at lots of places. They needed to be terrific sites and accessible from London… We needed to be very pragmatic in order to get the programme going.”

They also needed deep pockets. Even a conservative estimate suggests the initial investment is in the region of £10 million because the sites, in some of the most sought after locations in the country, were purchased at the top of the market. The only real benefits of the recession, Mark Robinson explains, is that it has been able to pick and choose its contractors.

The project’s backers have agreed to give the venture 15 years, but before they can know if there is a real appetite for de Botton’s idea there are some more pressing issues, such as how to ensure that the houses are also comfortable and will appeal to families.

“The challenge,” explains Mark Robinson, “is that the architects will be trying to please their peers by doing something very interesting. But at the same time we don’t want a situation where the people are asking how do I turn the lights on or are having to sit on hard benches. It’s about balancing the architects’ vision and what we want as clients.”

More difficult still is ensuring the houses’ very exacting designs are built on time and to budget. Mark Robinson emphasises that his Serpentine experience has been crucial, adding: “What we found is that you just need the right contractor, the right architects and for everyone to buy into the project and to want to be part of the team.”

The first house to be built will be MVRDV’s Balancing Barn in Suffolk, the most complex and challenging to build, at least on paper.

The architect was chosen by Robinson, who knew the practice from his Serpentine days, though its pavilion remains frustratingly unrealised. Set in a nature reserve and cantilevered at the northern end, the Balancing Barn is made even more dramatic by a glass floor and ceiling that will give a sensation of being enveloped by the landscape.

By any standards it’s an extraordinary project, and one that fills the team with some trepidation. “You look at all the steel work and how much you’d save if you put a column in the end,” says Dickon Robinson, “but sometimes in order to produce a great piece of architecture you need to say what the hell. It may be illogical but the experience will be fantastic.”

And it’s this that will be Living Architecture’s real point of difference. It may not have the desired effect of changing perceptions — after all five is still a modest number — but for those who decide to rent one of the houses it will open their eyes to not only what is possible, but what it took to get there.

The first five houses

Secular Retreat by Peter Zumthor

Location Chivelstone, Devon
Size 400sq m

Description Peter Zumthor was attracted by the secluded site which is set on a rocky outcrop overlooking Dartmoor in one direction and the Devon coast in the other. Taking this as his inspiration, he has designed a house built from pre-stressed concrete, stone and glass. Stone will come from a local quarry which has been in use since the medieval period The house- the only one not to have planning so far – is also the largest of the five. It has four bedrooms and a music room designed to appeal to professional musicians.


Secular Retreat Peter Zumthor
Secular Retreat Peter Zumthor


Balancing Barn by MVRDV

Location East Suffolk
Size 224sq m

Description The traditional barn shape and reflective metal sheeting take their references from the local building vernacular. The architect has played on the site’s location which is in a nature reserve and accessed via a 120m-long drive. As visitors approach just the southern end of the house will be visible, but in fact it extends 30m back and at the half way point cantilevers over a slope. All the rooms have full-height sliding windows, roof lights and a glass floor.


Balancing Barn MVRDV
Balancing Barn MVRDV

Balancing Barn MVRDV
Balancing Barn MVRDV

Ground floor plan
Ground floor plan


Shingle House by Nord

Location Dungeness, Kent
Size 177sq m

Description Living Architecture purchased a former smokery on Dungeness beach, which has one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world, a remarkable variety of wildlife as well as two nuclear power stations — one now decommissioned. The replacement house takes its inspiration from its surroundings: the house will be covered in black-tarred shingles and the interior will be concrete and timber.


Shingle House Nord
Shingle House Nord

Shingle House Nord: floor plans
Shingle House Nord: floor plans


In Between House by Jarmund Vigsnæs Architects

Location Thorpeness, Suffolk
Size 272sq m

Description The complicated roof geometry was inspired by the irregular gable roofs of houses in the area as well as the existing house on the site. The design evolved from four separate pods around a central space into the current design which has a large sitting room area on the ground floor with built in furniture, and four bedrooms and a library above. Materials are black timber on the vertical facades, and a metal roof clad in bronze coloured steel shingles.

In Between House: Jarmund Vigsnæs Architects
In Between House: Jarmund Vigsnæs Architects

In Between House: Jarmund Vigsnæs Architects - floor plans

Long House by Michael and Patty Hopkins

Location Wells-Next-The-Sea, Norfolk
Size 341sq m

Description The house has a double-height gallery hall and four bedrooms above with views of the sea and salt marshes to the north, and open country to the south. At ground floor, the gallery hall leads to a kitchen and dining area and at the east end and a sitting room at the west end with full-height glazed end walls. Materials are flint and timber inspired by local flint buildings, mainly barns. Above the flint walls are a series of timber structural mullions, which are mostly glazed, and an exposed roof.


Long House Michael and Patty Hopkins: section
Long House Michael and Patty Hopkins: section

Long House Michael and Patty Hopkins: floor plans
Long House Michael and Patty Hopkins: floor plans


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Readers' comments (7)

  • I'm bewildered by this de Botton guy. He seems to have his fingers in a thousand pies. He seems to have started a school, made TV programes, written a trillion books. Does he really exist or is he some sort of media phantom? Now you're asking me to believe that he's got Peter Zumthor to build a house in England! Well, all credit to this guy, real or not.

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  • De Button's efforts and these buildings are another unfortunate expenditure of resources to into the inhumane abyss of the failed modernist experiment. There are no true ideals remaining to drive this architecture apart from a banal appetite for novelty. They are the orphans of a long dead avant-garde. A return to timeless principles will give rise to a renaissance free from the flawed ideologies of the Bauhaus tradition and will make this ugly nonsense irrelevant.

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  • I wish the Suffolk clients cared as much about the surrounding area as they do about their own design. I live directly opposite the floating barn and have no problem with it, but do they realise that directly opposite their barn a 'holiday village' of 20 caravans and 12 huge norweigen style log cabins is going through planning at the moment - far more intrusive and aesthetically challenging than the hanging barn! And what a lovely view the holiday makers in the barn will now have. Shame the client's didn't use some money and influence to challenge bad architecture as well as promoting cutting edge work!

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  • I think that it is a real shame that you knocked down one of the oldest houses on Dungeness, and a famous one. To build something you call "Living Architecture". You could have built something kind to the eye.

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  • I am appalled by the way in which this venture is being handled. I have no complaints about modern architecture (how could I, I live in a prize-winning example) but architecture does not exist in a vacuum, and must acknowledge context no matter how beautiful the individual building is. I cannot speak for the other sites, but the way the house at Dungeness has been handled speaks of the most gruesome 'de haut en bas' 'we know better than the oiks who happen to be sharing the space with my glorious idea' attitude. There is a community in Dungeness, based around a struggling fishing industry, a community that goes back generations and their opinions were totally overridden. Pearl Cottage - the oldest house on the beach was up for demolition to make way for Alain de Botton's 'vision' and they objected to the planning committee in huge numbers. Their objections were ignored. These are no Luddites or haters of modern architecture - there are already two striking modern houses on the beach. But enough is enough. This is a living, working community, not a Vitra architectural museum. The fragile ecology of this place is often cited and care is taken of it, but what of the human ecology which is just as fragile? The community has absorbed weekenders for years, but weekenders who mostly 'join in' and respect those who live and work here all year round. What Dungeness does NOT need is a house let out on a short term basis to people who can have no interest in the real life that goes on in Dungeness and who will bring nothing to it.

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  • Indeed A de B exists, and it's astonishing what almost unlimited money can buy you (200 million trust fund). I would be having a holiday on the International Space Station instead of annoying the residents of Dungeness by bulldozing one of the oldest houses on the beach in a planning conservation area. And probably investing in a really good wig - all those brains have pushed all the hair out.

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  • I am aware that the new Shingle House by Nord to be built in Dungeness replaces an historic timber fisherman's cottage, used as a smokery for a number of years. A great many residents at Dungeness feel that they have been let down by the removal of this historic building. While I am fully in favour of and excited by this living architecture project I feel that more local consultation should have taken place to ensure that the long term residents of this unique corner of England will be supportive. The residents have an additional concern that this new building will attract even more visitors who treat the place as an open air museum and feel free to wander at will over the unfenced gardens and peer through windows. The Living Architecture project should be also about people as well as buildings.

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