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Fragments and dreams: Downley House by Birds Portchmouth Russum

A collage of fragmented forms follows its own dream logic in Birds Portchmouth Russum’s Hampshire country house, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Nick Kane

If the poet Philip Larkin had been in a less bitter frame of mind when he wrote This Be The Verse, its infamous first line might have read differently: ‘They don’t fuck you up, your mum and dad’. Touring Downley House in Hampshire with Andrew Birds and Mike Russum, it’s clear that their progenitors, James Stirling and Michael Wilford, left an influential birthmark; the parental-cum-creative trauma aspect seems muted. 

Birds Portchmouth Russum’s design has produced a £2.5 million country house whose plans, sections, and materiality are complex, faintly tense in places, beautifully crafted, and neither decisively Modernist nor Postmodernist. The most distinctive elements of this 650m2 scheme are a collaged trinity of two silos and a huge horizontal drum.

Birds and Russum delight in fragmented forms. One of Russum’s academic presentations at Nottingham was titled Dreaming Up Homes. ‘We’re juggling balls,’ he explains. ‘We have a [design] dream, and we’re not going to be fettered by convention.’

The graphic formal and material qualities of Downley House are precise but initially opaque. Two of Andrew Birds’ superb design stage illustrations unlock the mystery. The first, one of 400 drawings produced by BPR, is an exquisite pen and ink axonometric visualisation of the exterior of Downley House. It hazes the compacted geometries into a peculiarly rustic, and oddly Piranesian, state.

The second artwork, Ascending into the Landscape, is more significant. It is a conceptual plot-line that doesn’t show the house, but leads us on a verdant promenade that steps across and up the sloping 0.62ha site. Despite the consumate draughtsmanship that produced them (that single axo took Birds five days), neither illustration gives a true idea of the actual collaged physicality of the building, nor of the way the junctions between the main elements seem part of a deliberately, and literally edgy, formal game.

There is the sense of a forced relationship between the graphically precise and the almost poetic, which creates an odyssey through quite different types of internal space, volume, and materials. As architecture and experience, Downley House is bravura rather than virtuosic, but pleasing in many ways. Ultimately, and perhaps unexpectedly, this is a homely building.

That quality owes a great deal to the work of the skilled hands that brought the building’s meticulously contrived details to life: the beautifully fashioned elm pulpit at a turn in the bridge across the building’s barrel-vault volume, which masks the fact that a curved balustrade in toughened-glass was not possible; the bedroom stairs that suggest jammed pinball flippers; the Sussex sandstone courses of the arrival courtyard, whose surface textures and course-depths were copied from hand-drawn elevations; and the finely crafted copper roof and gargoyle details.

The building lies in a fold of the Ditcham Park estate, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The key view is northwards towards a gentle saddle of fields rising into the South Downs half a mile away. About 15m to the east of the house stands a century-old brick, stone and flint wall.

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This is the repaired remains of the house once lived in by the estate’s engineer, the decision to retain it was clever, and critical in giving meaning to the axes of the new building.You arrive at a circular stone forecourt with radiused garages set into rising ground to the west. An oak-framed loggia leads you to the radiused wooden door of the main entrance, which opens into an internal lobby in the first of the building’s two glass-topped towers.

From here, you can reach the guest rooms in the south wing, the kitchen, the terraced garden immediately to the west of the house, and the big central double-height dining room, whose glulam vaulted barrel form - elliptical and axially aligned with the remains of the entrance door in the ruined wall outside - was inspired by the giant wine barrels known as foudres. I calculate that this central space has roughly the same 1.2m litre volumetric capacity as the world’s biggest foudre, La Cave de Byrrh at Thuir.

The building’s most interesting fulcrum is in the northern tower element. There is a finely crafted glass and steel circular staircase, that casts a wash of pale blue translucence through its helical, low-iron glass treads. The beautifully proportioned fulcrum space harbours a full-height glazed wine cellar, and entrances to the sitting room, media room and children’s playroom. On the first and second floors are the children’s bedrooms, a master bedroom with a skillfully articulated dressing room and bathroom enfilade, and a small ‘belvedere’ study looking north over the roof garden.

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In the sitting room, the stonework of the fireplace and its horizontally extended ‘feet’ are in a stripped-down abstraction of an Arts and Crafts baronial manner. And, through the vertical glazing on the room’s double-height corner element, one sees the inner face of the ruined wall a few metres away. The mind jumps to Lutyens’ brilliant conceit: the internal wall given entirely external features, as in the great hall at Little Thakeham, Sussex, built in 1903.

Birds agrees with the connection. ‘The interesting thing about Lutyens,’ he says, ‘is the idea of a series of formal set-pieces that open up to the inside and outside. And that gives an idea of fragmentation.’ Except, of course, that Lutyens’ tableaux never seemed fragmentary.

Birds and Russum’s argument that the formal fragments of Downley House are essentially vertical is also debatable: despite its two drum-towers, the vaulted central foudre, and the vertically oak-boarded elements, the building presents itself as a fundamentally oblong ensemble.

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Neither can the architects explain precisely why they’re interested in fragmented architecture, or the use of drum forms. The latter dates back to projects as functionally disparate as the 1991 Avenue de Chartres car park, Chichester; the 1998 Pacemaker Concept House; and the vivid bongo-forms of their competition scheme for the Somerset House Riverside Terrace.

Russum’s idea of architectural design as part dream process and part post-Stirling collagism has produced a pressing together of the orthogonal and the organic to create an embossed architecture composed of different languages. In 16th and 17th century verse, that method would have been termed macaronic. Here’s a jolly plateful of the stuff by a 16th century Latinist by the name of Stanyhurst:

Then did he make heaven’s vault to rebound
With rounce robble bobble,
Of ruffe raffe roaring,
With thicke thwacke thurly bouncing. 

Some may dismiss Downley House as the architectural equivalent of ‘thicke thwacke thurly bouncing’. Indeed, initially, I moved through this building braced for a grim crumple-zone moment. There wan’t one.

The formal and material junctures of Birds and Russum’s design lingo are redeemed by the rustle of those hundreds of obsessively detailed pages of drawings. They follow you around this house, and what at first seems polemically arbitrary - rounce robble bobble! - evolves into a quizzically finessed exploration of space and atmosphere that recalls WH Auden’s 1954 incantation, Vespers: ‘It is now that our two paths cross … In my Eden we have a few beam engines, saddle-tank locomotives, overshot waterwheels and other beautiful pieces of obsolete machinery to play with … For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.’

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of Downley House by Birds Portchmouth Russum

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