Reared from the landscape
A stylish and striking new house commissioned by Lord Rothschild draws inspiration from the local geology, as John Goodall explains
The Flint House, a new bulding on the Waddesdon estate in Buckinghamshire, draws inspiration from the local geology, as John Goodall explains
Since he inherited the estate in 1988, Lord Rothschild has been very active in repairing, conserving and presenting the great house and collection at Waddesdon, owned by the national Trust. Over the same period, he has also worked to develop the estate as a centre of the Arts and scholarship. His most recent initiative in this regard has been to commission a new house for the accommodation of visiting artists and scholars. The new building, by Skene catlin de la Peña, is a remarkable creation and has already garnered public recognition and numerous awards, including the RIBA House of the Year in 2015.
Lord Rothschild has long experience as a patron of architecture, both in the public sphere and on the Waddesdon estate itself. Recent work here includes the new archive building on Windmill Hill by Stephen Marshall Architects (Country Life, June 20, 2016) as well as the Welcome Pavilion designed by carmody Groarke, which opened last year. The former occupies the site of an abandoned dairy farm, but the latter is a completely new build. Flint House, constructed on a brownfield site, is a consciously contemporary addition to the estate, erected in an agricultural setting.
Part of the interest of Flint House derives from the fact that it is a Rothschild Foundation building, rather than a house that Lord Rothschild intended to live in. it has, therefore, something of the character of an idealised work of architecture. There is, for example, no formal garden setting to the house, but rather a planting of shrubs and trees intended to blend in with the existing groundcover. As will become apparent, this uncompromising approach is important to the intellectual integrity of the design, but it is hard to imagine an owner-occupier agreeing to it. The result is very unusual: a domestic building that feels as if it is to be used and enjoyed not as a home, but as a delightful and intriguing work of art.
Flint House sits within a wide landscape bowl surrounded by farmland. A small
spring rises beneath it and the water from this has been channelled around the house, creating pools that run through and under the building. The design comprises two physically discrete elements, the house proper and small annexe (Fig 1). These are directly aligned on a north-south axis and connected by a short path, its grass surface reinforced by ribs of hardstanding. The result is an unusually long and narrow plan. Allowing for their difference in scale, the house and annexe are formed in mirror image, rising away from each other as stepped ziggurats and dropping sheer to the ground at each extreme.
‘It has something of the character of an idealised work of architecture’
The conceit is that both house and annexe have been reared up out of the landscape like geological features. Rather than the contorted features of folded rock, however, their façades display regular courses of flint and chalk masonry. This combination of materials is a reference to the geology of Waddesdon’s landscape, which forms part of a great chalk belt running across the country from Kent to Norfolk. In the words of the architect, it suggests that the ‘landscape has been carved away to become habitable’. The quality of the flint masonry, undertaken by the Flintman Co Ltd and the main contractor, Kingerlee Ltd, is central to the success of the building as a whole and very carefully executed.
At the lowest level of the external wall are large and ruggedly finished nodules of dark flint. By carefully graduated degrees, the flint blocks become smaller, more regular and lighter in colour as they rise up the building. In the central band of the wall, the masonry is galleted: the mortar interstices between the nodules are densely packed with razorsharp slivers of flint. This type of decoration is rare even in historic buildings, simply because it is so time-consuming to create. Indeed, it’s often a feature of barracks, where the authorities needed work for idle hands. The colour bands of masonry read between the house and the annexe. Towards the top of the main building, the flint gives way to chalk blocks, creating a pure-white peak like a snow-capped mountain. This treatment also makes the building—like a snowscape—reflect to an unusual degree the changing character of the weather and light.
The exterior of the house is boldly detailed, its doors and windows set in rectilinear openings cut straight through the masonry without any softening mouldings. With dark-grey frames inset deeply within the wall, on the outside these openings look like gaping holes in the mass of the building. From within, they frame strikingly wide views, turning the surrounding fields into a living landscape painting, massive, continuously changing and lyrical (Fig 4).
In addition, on both sides of the building, two-way mirrors are externally mounted over a few windows. Their reflective surfaces animate the walls with images of the sky, trees and fields.
One corner of the cliff-like end of the main house is cut away to create a cavernous opening. Within this space, the stream that runs beneath the house has been retained as a reflective pool. The enclosing walls of this architectural cavern are covered in flint nodules still in their natural, chalkcoated casings, a treatment that suggests we are peering into the unworked geology of the landscape itself. In addition, there are sheets of silvered steel on the ceiling above the pool that multiply its reflections. The importance of the pool and its ingenious use within the plan, however, can only be fully appreciated when you go into the building.
Passing through the front door, the visitor enters a cross-passage created by the line of the main stair (Fig 2). To the right is the kitchen, which is flanked to either side in an open-plan arrangement by a living room and a dining room (Fig 5). Because the ground-floor plan is only one room deep, these are well-lit spaces. Above them and accessed up the main stair are the two secondary bedrooms of the house. Each is served by its own compactly designed bathroom and also by a balcony that is discretely contrived in the descending steps of the building (Fig 7). On the stepped elevation, the surface finish is of terrazzo, which is coloured to match the graduated flint and chalk of the walls.
Turn left along the corridor from the front door and you pass into the sitting room, a generously spaced interior with a large glass doorway in one wall that opens onto a patio and the landscape beyond.
‘house The exterior of the is boldly detailed, its doors and windows set in rectilinear openings’
‘The reflective surfaces animate the walls with images of the sky, trees and fields ’
At ground- and first-floor level—via a gallery—this tall interior connects the living and guest rooms of the house with a discretely planned master apartment. A corridor opening off one corner of the sitting room leads to a study or library that is isolated in the ground-floor plan by the internalised pool. The views across the reflective surface of the water between the internal facing windows of these two rooms are cleverly contrived (Fig 3).
From the study, a small staircase rises to the master bedroom on the first floor with its own balcony. Another stair then leads up to a two-tier terrace inset within the steps on the very top of the building. Again, the terraces provide wonderful views across the landscape, but also make clear the relationship between the house and its annexe. From above, in particular, the strips of hardstanding in the connecting path are clearly visible.
The interior is eclectically and comfortably furnished in a decorative scheme conceived by David Mlinaric, a figure long involved in Lord Rothchild’s projects at Waddesdon. Much of the art and furniture here is contemporary, but there are older objects as well, a combination that reflects the breadth of its owner’s collecting and interests. One witty inclusion is an 18th-century view of the grotto at Painshill that hangs over the sitting-room fireplace; the grotto’s spectacular artificial interior covered in feldspar echoes the treatment of the internal pool visible from the neighbouring windows.
Access to the annexe path is from a door in the dining room. It is sheltered between the spurs of the descending stairs that form one side of the building. The annexe is a miniaturised and simplified version of the main house and its interior is open-plan, with a first-floor bedroom and balcony connected by a stair to a kitchen and living room (Fig 6).
Flint House is of such a distinctive character that it might seem difficult to contextualise. There are connections with other buildings, however, that make it very much of its own time and place. The desire to root the house in its setting through the use of local materials, for example, is an idea encountered in many exemplary contemporary projects, regardless of their particular architectural character. So, too, is the dramatically managed interpenetration of interior and exterior spaces.
It is intriguing to note that some elements of the design are anticipated in Windmill Hill, the nearby foundation and manor archive. Here are also to be found walls rising from pools of water, for example, as well as a broad opening in the main courtyard wall that frames the landscape like a picture.
Lord Rothschild has, for many years, focused his attention on the inherited cultural riches of Waddeson, which he has done a huge amount to preserve. Following the completion of Windmill Hill, the Welcome Pavilion and Flint House, however, he emerges not only as a remarkable guardian of the estate’s past, but as an active contributor to its present development.
Fig 1 above: The house and annexe of Flint House rise from the landscape like geological features. Fig 2 right: A view of the main stair. The entrance corridor is to the left and the kitchen and living room to the right
Fig 3 above: The view from the study across the internal pool into the sitting room. The walls are covered in unworked flint nodules and the ceiling with reflective steel. Fig 4 top right: The kitchen with its magnificent views over the landscape. Fig 5 bottom right: The dining room. A path leads to the distant annexe
Fig 6 above: The annexe interior. Fig 7 facing page: A view from the annexe of the main house showing the arrangement of the terraces