Ushida Findlay Architects’ third poolhouse sees the practice playing with the typology, says Rory Olcayto
Discussing Kathryn Findlay in 2004, AJ editor emeritus Paul Finch said that she is one of only a few architects whose work merits the word ‘poetic’. Even the type of building she is hired to design seems loaded with metaphor. Take the recently completed Poolhouse 2 in the Chilterns. The typology suggests reflection, depth, the subconscious, and the excavated pool resonates with Findlay’s Boolean design methodology: hollowing out space from solids.
When Ushida Findlay Architects relocated from Japan to London in 1999, one of Findlay’s first commissions, the vernacular-busting Poolhouse 1 in south-east England, was hailed for its fresh take on the merging of old and new technologies - in that case, a thermally sealed, glazed skin with a thatched roof.
The bristling roof and its planted ridge also recalled the tactile qualities of the practice’s Soft and Hairy House in Japan, completed in 1994. Poolhouse 1 was a stand-alone structure, but Poolhouse 2, set on the edge of the Aylesbury Vale, is more immediately contextual. It is wedged between a Grade II-listed farmhouse and a barn, linking separate parts of the family home.
David Miller Architects’ role as executive architect on this project reflects Findlay’s new collaborative approach. Ironically, Robert Adam, who is building a neo-classical pile on the site of Findlay’s abandoned ‘starfish’ country house at Grafton Hall in Cheshire served as planning consultant. Adam also hired TV presenter and architectural historian Dan Cruickshank to counter the planning department’s assertion that long-preserved views would be blocked by the poolhouse. Cruickshank showed that the site had once been occupied by a non-descript farm building.
The poolhouse’s thatch is supported by a steel frame-structure roof augmented with timber elements. As with Poolhouse 1, the elevations are glass-wrapped. The contrast between the heaving, bulging grass roof, the high-tech glazing and the fade-to-grey columns is mesmerising. Reading the courtyard-facing elevation from left to right, the roof ridge undulates, stepping up in three places to address the height of each adjoining building. The thatched eaves do the same, languidly sloping upwards, tracing a line that hovers above the glazing.
Findlay’s interest in traditional roof technology originates in Japan and in her tenure as a professor at the University of Tokyo, where she researched local thatching methods. Initial designs for Poolhouse 2 detailed the roof as three separate, overlapped entities with clerestory glass between them. But the project’s master thatcher advised against this approach - rain would have collected at the overlapping edges and rotted the thatch directly below.
With the help of spline modelling software, the roof shape was moulded into one continuous form. It’s all the better for it. Four distinct roof sections would have crowded out this tightly plotted site.
This blending of craft, dialogue and new technology was also learned in Japan, where construction details are often worked through on site and new methods are readily absorbed into craft techniques. Findlay has often spoken about the relationship between digital tools and handcrafting. The philosophical idea underlying Poolhouse 2 - reworking the vernacular - is also central to her work.
Inside, the smoothly plastered ceiling has an arced peak that curves along the barn-to-farmhouse route which defines the plan. At the fringes, structural steel columns merge gently into the plasterwork, rounded and thick below the eaves. It looks like a layer of heavy snow under, rather than on, the roof.
To the rear, several tonnes of earth were removed to accommodate exercise and study spaces below the pool. Limestone terraces on both levels are lined with timber balustrades expressed vertically with hundreds of clear glass rods. The impression is not one of ice, but rather a heavy rainstorm.
Poolhouse 2 is actually Findlay’s third poolhouse. The first, numberless scheme was completed in Japan in the 1990s. Ushida Findlay is already committed to another, with Geoff Mann of RHWL Architects, which will explore the application of tiles. Findlay is probably the greatest poolhouse architect in the world, but now a bigger challenge is needed.
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Photography by Katsuhisa Kida /FOTOTECA