What place in modern Britain for a place in the country?
Do we need a country house tradition in the 21st century? Two practicing architects, both involved in building in the countryside, offer opposing points of view
NO - Margaret Mackinder
As a rurally based architect, I have always felt rather uncomfortable with the country house element of PPG 7, since I am regularly engaged in the fight to obtain permissions for modest dwellings for people who work locally and whose families have lived and worked in the area for generations.
Relocation to the country is popular and the competition intense for even the tiniest of sites and cottages. The current policies are extremely restrictive for all but the super rich who can afford a stately home, and one questions why in the 21st century this group should be so favoured. From my damp rural paradise, the arguments look different and the injustice deeply felt among my client base.
One justification for this piece of guidance favouring stately homes was to provide jobs in rural areas. This does not happen. The construction of these buildings does not provide work for local crafts people, open up quarries or timber yards or create masses of service jobs as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When built, they might provide work for the odd security guard, but now even the extensive lawns can be mowed by a robot lawnmower. In any case, the labour is not there, as people have moved to local towns and cities, unable to afford rural house prices.
Here in North Yorkshire, most villages are overshadowed by large country houses. All of these stately homes find it hard to make ends meet. The Lost Houses of East and North Yorkshire catalogues the demise of several hundred large houses, mainly post 1950, when they became too expensive to keep up.
Some were indifferent architecturally and required whole villages of labour to run them.
John Gummer, who introduced the country houses policy, used the disappearance of such homes to justify the need for more. But those that are left still struggle; a significant number are now let to commercial tenants who do not keep them well and move on quickly when they find modern accommodation; office needs and listed buildings do not mix.Why do we need yet more?
The only justification for building new large country houses is to indulge architects in their fantasies; a dubious motivation for a planning policy. As architects, surely we should be concerned with the social and functional need for, and the operation and maintenance of, the buildings we create?
To fund these monuments we need a good supply of 'fat cat' captains of industry, but these may be on their way out if their shareholders have anything to do with it.
We rural hobbledehoys accept we have to live with strict development control over the countryside, so we get our kicks from the small project that fulfils its purpose and respects its surroundings, be it modern or traditional. Those who wish to make larger statements have plenty of opportunities in our cities, university campuses, business parks (and even sometimes in the countryside) that reflect contemporary needs and interests, rather than creating yet more private stately home dinosaurs in the countryside to burden future generations.
Like the medieval castle, the stately home has had its day. Please let's concentrate on preserving the good examples that we have, and move on to other building types now.
YES - James Gorst
Two years ago I was contacted by a friend, an architectural journalist, and asked my opinion on PPG 7. I remarked that what seemed exciting was the potential opportunity it afforded for a rekindling of radical and progressive architecture in the countryside.
However, I was sceptical about the appetite for Modernism in the countryside and noted gloomily that it would probably lead to a spate of large, over-heated houses draped in a variety of ersatz idioms.
After the article appeared I received a call from a reader who had both 100 acres of grade B agricultural land in the Green Belt fringes of Chelmsford and an appetite to build a large modern house. Thus began my induction into PPG 7.
The design of a new house in open space - modest or large - is a central challenge for an architect. The response to the intimate intricacies of the private house produces work that, at its best, is self-revelatory and intense in the way that few other commissions can be. This holds true from Scamozzi in 16th century Venice to the present day.
It is axiomatic that the big house is the building type that launches careers, and it is equally the case that those careers often disappoint when the chamber-work intimacy of the house is exchanged for the orchestral gestures of the public domain. In no other building type is the unfolding development of progressive architecture more visibly manifest.
The importance of the private house as a medium within which innovation and formal experiment can occur should not be understated. Nor should it be construed that size is a precondition for this expression.
Many of the opponents of PPG 7 seem to view the policy note as a permissive charter to enable the rich to flaunt their status and wealth in a socially and environmentally provocative display. It is also contended that in some way this will be at the expense of affordable rural housing. But this is a false dichotomy - there is no reason why the one should displace the other.
As for being a rich man's exemption, under PPG 7 it is no easy matter to obtain the imprimatur of CABE and of the local planning agencies. Nor is there any guarantee, even if these exacting conditions are met, that the committee will not reject the advice of their officers and throw the scheme out, as was our recent experience with a PPG 7 scheme at Ropers Farm, near Chelmsford.
Our ambition at Ropers Farm was to develop an abstract contemporary architecture of pure form, as opposed to Neo-Classicism's politically loaded connotations. At the same time, it seemed to us that, for a house of this size to be socially acceptable, we needed to counterbalance its generosity of scale with an equivalent frugality of energy consumption, exploiting all current feasible principles of sustainability.
With deference to the context, we carefully located Ropers Farm within a pre-existing settlement of farm buildings. The landscaping, by Watkins Dally, similarly used the existing patterns of rural Essex, eschewing the imposition of formal vistas and axes or the planting of non indigenous species.
The client was prepared to sign a Section 106 agreement to tie the parkland as an amenity to the house in perpetuity, so strengthening and enhancing the Green Belt. A separate 106 agreement committed a generous financial provision towards affordable housing in the local community.
Ropers Farm suffered at the hands of a planning committee that was implacably opposed to Modernism. However, I believe the fundamentals of our approach were correct. It is a clichéd but pertinent observation that the charm of the English countryside lies in its cosmetic, man-made lushness, where husbandry, cultivation and architecture coexist.
Of course, PPG 7 needs to be rigorously applied and I suspect that the antipathy towards affluence that is a characteristic of our society is guarantee enough that this will be done. The guidance is no loophole for the rich.
Outstanding design should be encouraged across the board. Rather than ditching PPG 7, we should look to extend its scope and ambition to all other planning guidances.