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Lodging an appeal

BUILDING STUDY: James Gorst had to overcome numerous obstacles to realise his contemporary design for Whithurst Park Cottage in Sussex.The result is a distinctive home with a 'new barn' aesthetic

Nestling deep in the rolling West Sussex countryside, beyond sleepy hamlets and inviting pubs which still boast beer gardens and real names such as 'The Half Moon Inn' and 'White Horse', lies a gem of a building.

Whithurst Park Cottage is a domestic, new-build scheme built in a contemporary manner on an isolated, rural site in the lea of the South Downs. And architect James Gorst is the man behind it.

Gorst, whose Classically influenced work featured in an AJ study 11 years ago which looked to parallels with the formal villa and its setting in the natural landscape (5.9.90), has fought a long, hard battle with planning committees to see the scheme through to fruition.

A new house with a 'contemporary barn' and 'agricultural shed' aesthetic has resulted which could easily stand as a definition of what is required from national planning policy when it talks of 'local distinctiveness'.

There are, perhaps, echoes of David Chipperfield's River and Rowing Museum at Henley. But, as the local planners recognised, Gorst's realised designs are a world away from pastiche housing. It is a one-off.

The building sits away from the road on a wooded site near Kirdford, a straggling, dispersed village perhaps best described as being near Petworth. (Pevsner called Kirdford 'gracious', with the air of a 'French place done in purely English terms'. ) No wonder, then, given its 'invisibility', that Gorst was annoyed that councillors on Chichester council twice threw out his 'too modern' proposals, one of them coming up with the distinctly Prince Charles-esque, carbuncle-like comment that it was 'like the wart on the neck of an elderly vicar'. It would only be seen by trespassers, after all.

But the Chichester planners backed the designs, along with such eminence grises as former Royal Fine Art Commission secretary Francis Golding and former RIBA president Michael Manser. Gorst, and the new barn, won on appeal.

The Lodge - a title Gorst prefers since 'cottage' only refers to what was there before - is a joy. And it is an unexpected one for the car-borne visitor.

As Gorst's big Audi crunches the first gravel, the house appears, epiphany-like, through a glade of trees.

It springs at you over the right shoulder, its front elevation turned to look out, nigh-imperiously, over an unmanicured, almost wild, roughly semi-circular section of grassland, bordered by a line of yet more trees. The parkland has the 'topographical incident and expansiveness of an 18th century estate'. And, curtained off by thick woodland, the estate also has, for Gorst, some aspect of a lost domain - a mix of English Romantic painter Samuel Palmer and French novelist Alain Fournier. That terrain includes rolling grassland, dense woodlands, a lake and, at its heart approached by a long ascending track, the site for a main house situated about 500m north west of the Lodge.

At the time of the commission in spring 1999, Gorst was under the impression that he would be designing both the Lodge and the rather larger, not to say palatial, main house - the warm-up act as well as the main attraction, as he puts it.

The main house was for the Lodge's clients - Richard Taylor, an 'entrepreneur' who owns gymnasia in London and farming and real estate interests in the US, and American Rick Englert. The Lodge was to have been the necessarily deferential, reticent prelude to the main house.

For the main house, Gorst had proposed a disaggregated group of three parts - a pool house, a guest house and main house around a central court - which he describes as a kind of domestic reworking of Alvar Aalto's 1952 icon, Saynatsalo Town Hall.

It was to sit on an elevated plateau, once a cricket square, framed by giant cedars and specimen oaks with, to the south, distant views over the silent farmscape of Sussex towards Petworth.

But, to Gorst's disappointment, the main house went to another designer - and what he brands 'an ersatz tower house in the manner of Robert Smythson' is currently under construction. It should be completed in approximately two years when Taylor and Englert will move in and their temporary home can be rented out.

So back to the Lodge. The car swooshes in an arc past the Lodge's stiffly upright southern end elevation first, with its untreated timber strips accentuating its verticality and its steeply angled pitched roof.

A narrow tonal range of materials was selected for the building, from silver to light grey, 'like an Armani suit': exposed concrete, untreated oak (it was originally to have been cedar) and zinc. The intention was to create a 'dematerialised spectral effect' against the backdrop of the woods.

A deep, long, vertical cut in the roof splits the triangle in two and runs along the length of the building. The rooflight's purpose is to illuminate the central, triple-height volume of stair, landing and gallery. And light from this cleft diffuses through translucent screens into the two guest bedrooms which lie off it and whose glazed walls face each other. There is a formal symmetry here but the slightly risque effect without the blinds must leave one feeling exposed (Gorst makes the point, however, that if only one of the rooms is used, that guest has twice the space, as it were). A further mini staircase from the rear and most easterly of these bedrooms, with tiny alternate treads, leads to extra attic space above.

The lower ground floor of the Lodge has been dealt with as a more open feature, heavy on glass, bright and open, to enjoy as much of the rural setting - pheasants and deer included - as possible.

'There are no distractions - nature is the wallpaper, ' says Gorst, and the sense of being in the landscape acts as a foil to the more interiorised, cellular spaces above.

The shuttered and closed aspects of the upper levels, underlined by the hay barn typological references, formally recognise the two types of consciousness we commute between: wakefulness and sleep. Even a large window in the western elevation was a reluctant concession.

The car passes the front door and terrace, taking in the view of as much of the scheme as possible - living room, dining and then kitchen areas sweeping round to the double garage to the north, as one would if one were slowly circling a cut-down model of the real thing. A tall chimney element to the rear reiterates that this is a residential building.

The detached garages are like a mini version of the Lodge's upper floors, spun through 90infinity and connected to another entrance into the main building's light kitchen area by a walkway. Gorst had considered creating two linear reflecting pools around this but thought better of the idea, with the prospect of too many dank leaves getting in the way. A line of magnolias might be planted instead.

The Lodge sits in pensioner country - West Sussex has a significantly older population than average. Two in five households contain at least one pensioner and almost a third of its population is aged 55 plus, compared with an English average of 26 per cent.

So it is encouraging that a such a goahead project as the Lodge should have proceeded against the wishes of councillors who were concerned about the 'suburbanisation' of the county, despite the fact that the site lay outside of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The scheme's design came to Gorst after visits to Finland, and he developed its unapologetic, 'arhythmic' aesthetic to try and blend the agricultural with the domestic, the barn with the house, the lodge and the cottage. Meanwhile, the other chief polarity - public engagement/private retreat - underpins the Lodge with a metaphorical resonance strengthened by its location on the threshold of forest and field.

The clients, says the architect, were 'curiously untouched' by the beauty of his proposal for the main attraction.

But in the Lodge, Cottage, Barn and House, all rolled into one building, James Gorst's warm-up act might just have stolen the show.

Structure The use of exposed fair-faced concrete columns on the ground floor provides stability, visual purity and an open-plan layout. The potential problems of damp-penetration and coldbridging associated with solid concrete construction, were considered from the outset and addressed through attention to the quality of the materials and detailing of the finishes. In particular, the setting out of the timber window frames and internal cladding at ground floor level and the underside of the first floor ensured the damp paths are broken and the appropriate thermal performance achieved.

The poor subsoil conditions required a piled-foundation solution, bearing into the firm underlying clay. The foundations support an in situ reinforced-concrete ground slab that projects beyond the superstructure on all elevations, to create a plinth.

The first floor and roof comprise large wall panels and open eaves, and are framed steelwork, to facilitate their form and scale, and provide a stable framework onto which the finishes were applied. The timber-clad construction is highly insulated and the steelwork is hidden within the wall thickness.

The structure, while simple, required a high standard of finishes, and tight tolerances, to achieve the necessary level of quality to the exposed concrete. This was achieved by the contractor.

The use of a projecting ground-floor slab and expressed concrete frame to the first-floor level was perceived as a strong form, off which the more delicate timber clad upper construction would rise confidently. In execution, the proportions of the concrete columns and first-floor slab blend pleasingly with the scale of the building and palette of materials.

To summarise, the structural form of this building is simple, but relies totally on careful detailing and quality of construction to achieve its effect. It is also refreshing to have the opportunity to develop the design to execution, without any compromise of the purity of the original.

Chris Boydell, Alan Conisbee & Associates

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