The Dune House, Thorpeness by Jarmund Vigsnæs Architects
The latest holiday home for Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project sits well with the maverick whimsy of this Suffolk seaside village
The British coast, more than any other part of the land, fosters a particular kind of architectural madness. Whether it is due to the sense of unbidden freedom that comes with being far from inland reality, or something in the salty breeze, the seaside has always reigned as an unparalleled sponsor of whimsy. And there is perhaps nowhere more potty than Thorpeness in Suffolk.
Built in the 1920s by Scottish barrister-turned railway magnate, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, Thorpeness was the world’s first model holiday village. It was to be a place of fairytale fancy, “for people who want to experience life as it was when England was Merrie England, where the hours could be whiled away in an effortless haze”.
With the help of architect WG Wilson, Ogilvie transformed the small hamlet of Thorpe into a fantasy land centred around a lakeside country club, complete with tennis courts and swimming pool, golf course and club house, surrounded by winding lanes of holiday homes, all built in half-timbered Mock Tudor style. Serving staff were accommodated in grand almshouses, and even the water tower was dressed up as a small timber house, an utterly surreal vision that still hovers precariously above the treetops – now let out as a holiday rental property.
In keeping with his choice of curious, characterful locations, it is here that Alain de Botton has built his third Living Architecture holiday home, the Dune House by Norwegian practice Jarmund Vigsnæs Architects (JVA) with Ely-based executive architect Mole. A vast, jagged roof, floating above the sand dunes, it is an appropriately startling sight for this place of fanciful visions.
The building sits directly on the beach on the outskirts of the village, halfway along a 20-mile stretch of shingle that lines the Suffolk coast, a year-round freeway for dog-walkers and hearty ramblers, as well as holidaying families in the warmer months.
The floating roof is appropriately startling in this place of fanciful visions
Here, the seafront comprises a meandering strip of bulky suburban houses that occupy the centre of their plots, agglomerations of pitched roofs and boxy extensions, variously half-timbered and heavily glazed to take advantage of the sea view. It would be fair to say that the wayward pitches of JVA’s design take their inspiration from the local vernacular of seaside ad hoc.
“Our concept came very quickly after the first visit to the site,” says Håkon Vigsnæs, describing how they drew the first sketch in the airport while waiting for the flight back home. An early image shows the pre-existing building on site – a lumpen house, similar to its neighbours, which had been extensively remodelled over the years – only with its ground floor wiped out, leaving a pitched roof floating alone against the blue sky in a kind of Magritte-like surrealism. An accompanying sketch shows how the living space would be slightly sunken below this hovering canopy, set down and sheltered by the rolling dunes.
“We wanted to make the dune itself the architectural element at ground level,” explains Vigsnæs, “while the top floor is related to the gabled roofs of the neighbouring buildings.”
The asymmetrical, faceted rooftop has become a somewhat tired architectural trope – the recurring hallmark of Sketchup Moderne – although here it seems justified, and surprisingly successful. From the shore, its oblique angles read as a convincing addition to the local contextual jumble of gable ends. The roof is carved from one mass to create four peaks, cut flat along each elevation to form an irregular silhouette on each facade. These are then peppered with a random spray of square windows. The windows, of varying size, are hung flush with the facade, if fixed, or set back, flush with the interior, if openable, creating a variegated rhythm across the elevations.
Reflecting local materials, this upper level is clad with vertical larch boarding, finished with a matt black Falun stain. But the roofing surface itself is a radical departure. Behind the dark elevations, a folded skin of pressed stainless steel panels rides up and down the valleys of the roof, its iridescent, bronzed surface shimmering in the sunlight.
From a distance, the panels look like glittering fish scales, reflecting the changing light conditions throughout the day. It is a strange, shape-shifting concoction, a building that changes its character according to view as much as the weather. From different angles, it can read as a jaunty childlike hut, or a menacing witch’s castle. Ogilvie – whose boating lake, The Meare, sports a “Peter Pan’s Island”, “Wendy’s house”, a life-size crocodile and a pirates’ den – would be proud.
This bold, hat-like form sits on slender steel columns above a glazed box, gently set down into the grassy dune, the horizontal cut-off line creating a strong datum that relates to the eaves of its neighbours. The site plan is simply arranged according to use during the day, with a sunken morning terrace at the eastern corner, and a similar afternoon one to the west, accessed from sliding windows at the column-free corners, which allow the ground floor to be completely opened up to the elements.
From different angles it reads as a jaunty, childlike hut or menacing witch’s castle
Within, the floor is conceived as a polished concrete landscape, with a coarse aggregate used to give the impression it has been washed-up from the sea, as an extension of the beach. A central core, cast in-situ, houses the hearth and staircase, as well as an extra bedroom, its warm grey finish the result of using unsealed timber shuttering, which allows the tannins to leach into the concrete. Early plans for furniture units cast in concrete – from the kitchen island to the sofas – were abandoned in favour of a modular system. “There is this idea that the holiday house doesn’t belong to you,” says Vigsnæs, “but while staying there you can reorganise it towards your own taste and needs. You can individualise the house.”
The central hearth acts as a kind of fulcrum to the loose plan, from which the various living spaces pinwheel, allowing guests to follow the sun around the house during the day. The sense of this fluid space is underlined by the soffit, clad with narrow timber boards that change their orientation as they rotate around the core, subtly defining the room layout below. A low concrete wall lines three facades, rising to meet the level of rolling dunes outside, exaggerating the sense of being dug down into the landscape, safely shielded from both wind and the view of passers-by.
Reached by an enclosed timber stair, set into the concrete core, the world upstairs speaks an entirely different language. The upper level was originally envisaged as four separate tree house-like forms, each accessed by its own ladder from below – “so you could climb up to your own little hut,” says Vigsnæs – but this proved a little too impractical. Nonetheless, the feeling of being raised up in a cosy woody nest remains, with four bedrooms defined by massive intersecting panels of cross-laminated structural timber. Digitally modelled, then cut off-site and craned into place, the whole assembly was slotted together in just one week, and forms a dynamic series of spaces, the rooms’ individuality expressed by the different geometries of their sculpted ceilings.
Inevitably, given the complex intersections, there are some awkward hand-finished junctions, but it generally gives the impression of a seamless spruce lining, with set-back windows providing deep, cushion-covered reveals for perching. Top-lit bathrooms are housed in left-over corners, although the bath tubs themselves are placed squarely in the bedrooms, oriented to maximise views out, an unusual move – also repeated in MVRDV’s Balancing Barn – that you sense might have come from de Botton himself.
A rich array of quilt-like fabrics – already singled out for praise by several visitors – have been designed by Håkon’s wife, textile designer Linda Knoph Vigsnæs.
The upper level was envisaged as four tree house forms accessed by ladders
A small library area – complete with de Botton’s books – occupies the landing space between the bedrooms, leading on to a little roof terrace that nestles amid the steep pitches, with just enough room to stand and look out to sea. The chimney rises up through the stairwell, emerging on the landing as an exposed metal flue, a reminder of the hearth as the central pivot of the house, tying the two floors together.
Of the three completed Living Architecture houses to date, this perhaps provides the greatest variety of spatial experiences – surely the prerequisite of a campaign premised on introducing the public to the escapist qualities of contemporary architecture. For, while the Balancing Barn’s daring cantilever is a breathtaking sight, its interiors are a rather uniform row of pokey rooms, its plywood walls covered with bad hotel art. Nord’s Shingle House, meanwhile, is a carefully executed riff on local influences, but has a continuity of material finish and consistency of spaces throughout.
In the Dune House, JVA has achieved a holiday retreat that offers both the bright transparency of open-plan, beach-side living, deeply connected to the landscape, and an elevated, protected realm, a timber lair of Nordic cosiness. A clear line is drawn between the public carpet below, and the private haven above.
While its architectural form tries a little too hard to be modish, and some of its details could have benefited from slightly more care, the Dune House is an appealing place where, in Ogilvie’s terms, “hours could be whiled away in an effortless haze”. And visitor feedback proves that it has already achieved de Botton’s aim, that people should return home less happy: “A very clever design and an inspiring space,” wrote one guest, “(although very depressing to have to return to normality).”
Architect Jasmund/Vigsnaes Architects (JVA), Collaborative architect Mole Architects, Client Living Architecture, Engineer Jane Wernicks Associates, Quantity surveyor Boydens Group, Drainage consultant James Thomas & Partners, Concrete consultant: David Bennett Associates, Contractor Willow Builders