Holiday havens don’t get much more exhilarating than Alex Michaelis’ new build high on the Cornish coast
architect alex Michaelis doesn’t mind a challenge – and his Cornish coastal home is no exception. welcome to the house that focuses on what lies outside…
Architect Alex Michaelis is known for digging down – his subterranean Notting Hill home was the design that launched 1,000 basement excavations beneath London’s most desirable streets and squares. But, 13 years on, the design of his Cornish home innovates by looking in the opposite direction: up and out towards the endless expanse of beach, sea and sky. ‘This house is almost a reverse image of that early project – it’s all about what’s above ground,’ says Alex. ‘But it comes from a similar philosophy.’
This time around, the innovative architecture takes the sea’s horizon as its reference point, with almost every room – yes, including the bathrooms – gazing out on to it. ‘There’s something quite rare about this stretch of coastland,’ says Alex. ‘It’s both soothing and reviving – an antidote to the way our senses are overloaded in everyday life.’
What used to stand on this spot was an utterly unremarkable house that nevertheless had a very remarkable view. ‘Lots of older Cornish houses were originally built quite closely crammed together, up alleyways and narrow lanes that protected them against the storms,’ says Alex. That’s all very quaint and charming, but for him and his partner Susanna Bell, this dramatic clifftop location beat ‘quaint’ hands down.
However, when they bought the original dilapidated house, locals still thought the couple were completely mad. ‘It had been empty for years and the surveyor said the walls were basically crumbling slate, held together with layers of paint,’ explains Alex. ‘If we’d started to renovate what was
‘This house is all about drinking in the uninterrupted views of nature at its most raw, most pure’
already there, the house would probably have collapsed anyway.’ Knocking it down and rebuilding was the best option – and it allowed Alex’s architectural imagination to run loose in a refreshingly wild setting.
As one half of Michaelis Boyd, his previous landmark projects have included Babington House, Soho House (that’s LA and Berlin), The Williamsburg Hotel in New York and, most recently, the remodelling of Battersea Power Station into luxe apartments. This altogether more escapist beachside project draws on what have become Michaelis Boyd signature touches in its emphatically urban projects – pure white organic curves, porthole windows and circular light wells – and releases them back into their natural habitat.
‘Yes, there’s a fair few porthole shapes here,’ Alex says with a smile. An equally creative take on ‘nautical’ rises up from the house’s core. ‘The curved staircase is inspired by the spiral of a seashell, so it gradually tapers as you climb to the top,’ he says, gesturing to the awesome design.
The central, open-plan living, eating, cooking plus ‘hanging out, whatever’ space is fronted and backed by glass, with the sliding doors on the seaward side kept open as much as possible during the summer months. Set away slightly from this light-filled hub is the ground-floor kids’ bunk room. ‘We’ve been known to cram up to 12 in there – it’s like a big dorm-sized sleepover party sometimes,’ says Alex. ‘But because the “grown-up” bedrooms are upstairs, you can’t hear a thing.’ The three double bedrooms on the first floor are each quite different, ‘but they all have one thing in common: glass screens that open on to the sea.’
By maintaining the ocean as the constant focal point, the architecture is never too clever-clever or confounding. Each room is set to lap up the view, with the exterior walls simply working as an outer skin to draw them together. ‘It’s a very easy building to read,’ says Alex.
This beach house is also centred around sustainability. Alex has long worked with new energy and his father was the pioneering solar architect Dominic Michaelis. ‘He was ahead of his time really,’ says Alex, who believes that energy conservation and insulation need to be set into a house’s blueprint from the start. ‘It’s no good just adding, say, solar panels as a kind of decorative trim at the end of a project,’ he says.
This house borrows some of the principles of Scandi architecture, retaining and reusing the existing heat and light while allowing for ventilation. ‘The layout means we get the absolute maximum natural light, so there’s no need for artificial light in daylight hours,’ Alex explains. Meanwhile the house’s structure – render wrapped around a prefabricated timber frame – is extremely well insulated.
Today, all that remains of the old house is the rickety wooden gate. ‘People open it and expect to come down the path and find a quaint little place,’ says Susanna. ‘And then this rather amazing building reveals itself.’
See more of Alex’s architectural portfolio at michaelisboyd.com
‘Even the bath has a sea view, while the roof lights are designed for stargazing on a clear night’