The windswept and unworldly coastal settlement of Dungeness provides the location for Living Architecture’s second holiday home.
“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places,” wrote Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. Like television’s Changing Rooms and Grand Designs, this book was met with glee by the public, and suspicion by architects. Hailed for elucidating an often arcane topic, while attacked as naive and condescending by the profession, it nonetheless projected de Botton into our collective consciousness as the thinking man’s Kevin McCloud.
The Swiss public intellectual has since elevated his pursuit of beauty and happiness in the built environment into a nationwide building project, christened Living Architecture. A not-for-profit organisation, with de Botton as creative director, it plans to build a new architect-designed holiday home every year, to give anyone the chance to find out if they will indeed become a different person by staying in a mirror-clad, cantilevered long house, or moody concrete retreat.
The initiative came out of the observation that most people’s only encounter with contemporary architecture is through fleeting moments in public buildings – that galleries, libraries and designer restaurants might be the only places you get to experience the frisson of a shadow gap, or the ecstasy of a soaring double-height space. Modern architecture, argues de Botton, has yet to invade the private domain of the home – or even the domestic consciousness.
“We have learned to be fussy and complain about food,” he says, but as a nation, our architectural sensitivities have yet to be awakened. He describes the ticky-tacky boxes that most of us inhabit as “the Turkey Twizzlers of architecture” – inevitably implying that he might be the Jamie Oliver of housebuilding, come to save us from the tide of Barratt and Wimpey. Although, for now, he seems happy to leave that job to Wayne Hemingway, and concentrate on exemplar one-offs, escapist novelties.
The second completed house, following MVRDV’s gleaming Balancing Barn in Suffolk, is the rather more demure Shingle House in Dungeness, by Glasgow-based Nord Architecture. Dungeness has long been a place frequented by artists and architects, who come to wallow in the compellingly bleak end-of-the-world feeling provided by its unearthly expanse of shingle and tumble-down huts, the endless horizon punctuated only by occasional telegraph poles and the ghostly apparition of two vast nuclear power stations. It is a place where everything seems ad hoc and temporary, where most houses are manufactured from old, abandoned railway carriages, hastily clad in timber and anchored with breeze blocks. It has the same flimsiness as an American trailer town, waiting for the day a hurricane might come and whisk it all away.
Artists and architects come to wallow in Dungeness’s compellingly bleak end-of-the-world feeling
Yet this temporariness is an illusion: now protected as a National Nature Reserve, a Special Protection Area, a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Dungeness is essentially in aspic. The beady eye of Natural England ensures that little will change – which goes some way to explain the story behind the Shingle House’s form.
Two doors down from the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s house, Nord’s project replaces an old smokery: a motley assemblage of three buildings, comprising a cottage, fish shop and garage, plus a little smoking shed off to the side, which has been preserved as a garden shed. The proposal had to stick to this footprint, as well as retain the sense of three separate volumes, and follow, as far as possible, the envelope of pitched rooftops. Seen from a distance, with your eyes screwed up, you would be forgiven for thinking it was the same building, only tightened, streamlined and smothered in new blacker-than-black clothing.
“We conceived it as three buildings for the three rituals of cooking, bathing and sleeping,” explains project architect Mark Bell, as we walk across the shingle towards the tripartite silhouette of distinctively house-like gable ends. The main cottage form to the north is home to the living room and bedrooms, the middle element houses a bathroom, while the southernmost building – formerly the garage, defined by the length of the owner’s two vintage cars – houses the kitchen and dining space. Articulated as squared-off volumes, like dinky monopoly houses, the three buildings are connected by slender panels of recessed glazing, allowing a view through to retain the impression of separation – and just keeping enough space for an existing telegraph pole to poke through between them.
Their external faces have been carefully detailed to give the impression of a seamless skin, although – unlike the shrinkwrap effect of Simon Conder’s Black Rubber House down the road – the elevations are differentiated, with east and west facades clad in vertical boarding, while the north-south elevations and rooftops are clad in cedar shingles, expressing the roofline as one continuous surface.
In plan, the three volumes are aligned along their western edge to form a flat frontage, with the central building stopping short to provide a small external courtyard, screened by a continuation of the vertical boarding. Randomly placed windows reflect the local haphazard vernacular, although here they are variously articulated as flush, black-tinted picture windows, and slightly recessed French doors. A series of hidden shutters pick up on the openable flaps of old smokery sheds.
Within, the house takes on a tardis-like quality, the compact black form giving way to an airy open-plan interior, lined with bright-white timber boarding. A white concrete spine runs through the house, connecting the three buildings and terminating in the living room, where it climbs up to form an integrated stair, hearth and chimney – cast in situ – that rises through the double-height volume. At the other end, the same concrete turns into a weighty pre-cast kitchen sideboard. Like a massive armature, balanced at either end, this concrete spine “grounds the building on the site”, says Bell, and provides an air of permanence – in contrast to most of its neighbours.
The only touch of colour comes in the rich purpleheart timber flooring which extends throughout the ground floor, picking up on the deep hue of the viper’s bugloss flower that miraculously sprouts out of the surrounding bleak moonscape in summer. The floor continues into the bathroom, a dark moody space, where a black concrete bath is cast into the ground, next to a full-height window which opens on to a narrow balcony, screened only by slatted boarding. Featuring similarly expansive windows in the bedroom, which opens directly on to the public shingle beach outside (following Dungeness’s unwritten rule of no plot boundaries), this is clearly a house for exhibitionists.
Opening on to the public shingle beach, this is clearly a house for exhibitionists
Hung flush with the walls to form a seamless interior lining, heavy doors lead off the living space into the three ground-floor bedrooms. The rooms have a nautical feel, with the same white oiled timber, simple brass fittings and a row of Shaker pegs on the wall, also turned from purpleheart, as well as bespoke poplar beds made by John Galvin. The concrete staircase leads to a mezzanine landing level, a second seating area with a large, low window positioned where the entrance to the net loft used to be, and a doorway to the master bedroom, housed in the pitch of the roof.
The house contains a carefully chosen palette of furniture, including vintage chairs – individually salvaged and reupholstered. These sit alongside pieces by early modernist designers, including light fittings by Alvar Aalto, Joe Colombo and Jean Prouvé – the arm of whose cantilevered Potence Lamp is picked up in the form of the stair’s slender, steel handrail. Such attention to detail is evident throughout, from the long letterbox window in the kitchen, placed perfectly to frame the horizon at eye-height for those sitting at the dining room table, to the back of the fitted wardrobe doors – designed to mimic those in train carriages.
These details evidence a clearly legible architectural narrative at work, in keeping with de Botton’s didactic programme. One gets a feeling that such things have been designed for residents to dwell on, to provoke musing on a door handle, or spark reverie on one of the individually sourced vintage bedside drawers. Such little games are played throughout: only the most astute visitor might notice that the interior timber boarding on the east and west facing walls is 75mm wide, while that on the north and south is 100mm – an optical trick, to widen the narrow aspect. But, despite the overarching nautical and railway themes at work, such games never descend to pastiche.
Describing the initial process of demolition, Bell tells me that they discovered the original buildings had been variously assembled from the carcass of an old caravan and a refrigerated van – out of the back of which fish had been sold. I ask why they hadn’t kept these fragments, as a kind of quirky structural archaeology. “Because we are serious architects,” he says, dourly, aptly summing up the project.
Talking to Mark Robinson, director of Living Architecture, who himself has a house nearby, I get a sense that this project is particularly dear to the team’s heart – not only for its unique location, but for the architect’s thoughtful response to this fragile context.
De Botton’s ultimate aim is that “people should return home less happy”, after staying in one of these houses, “but with an increased sensitivity to what architecture can do”. Nord has gone some way towards making this a pretty convincing argument.
Architect Nord Architecture, Client Living Architecture, Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates, M&E ZEF, Quantity surveyor Boyden Group, CDM co-ordinator Anglia Surveyors, Contractor Ecolibrium Solutions