Reared from the land­scape

A stylish and strik­ing new house com­mis­sioned by Lord Roth­schild draws in­spi­ra­tion from the lo­cal ge­ol­ogy, as John Goodall ex­plains

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Will Pryce

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

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