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Rowan Atkinson: 'Modernism does belong in the countryside'

Rowan Atkinson and Sunetra Sastry talk to Merlin Fulcher about Richard Meier’s design for their modernist Chilterns home, which has been branded ‘completely inappropriate’ by opponents

Two and half years ago, comedian Rowan Atkinson and his wife, make-up artist Sunetra Sastry, commissioned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier to design a home for them in Oxfordshire. Atkinson saw New York-based Meier as an ‘extremely low-risk’ option, even though he has never built in the UK, and hired him to design a ‘classical modernist’ replacement for his 1940s Handsmooth House, set in 6.5ha of land near the village of Ipsden.

The couple considered a number of British architects for the job, but ruled them out. ‘They just hadn’t built enough houses for me to feel in safe hands,’ says Sastry, who married Blackadder star Atkinson in 1990. ‘I didn’t want somebody to cut their teeth on the only opportunity we would have to build a house.’

Unsurprisingly, given the site’s location overlooking the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, things haven’t run smoothly. Meier’s proposed 9m-high, white steel and glass five-bedroom home, with a two-bedroom guesthouse, has been recommended for refusal by planning officers and branded an ‘ugly space-age petrol station’ and ‘completely inappropriate’ by neighbours.

While Meier says he has no response to these particular objections, he wrote to the Chilterns Conservation Board to defend his trademark use of white. ‘It is against a white surface that one best appreciates the play of light and shadow, solids and void,’ his letter reads. ‘Whiteness is one of the characteristic qualities of my work… To me white intensifies beauty, and best complements the beauty around it.’

Atkinson is convinced by Meier’s approach and his design for the house, which he describes as ‘terribly simple and graceful and unpretentious’. ‘There’s something very odd about some of the reaction to our proposals, the implication of which is that modern design belongs in he town or in the city and not in
the countryside,’ adds Atkinson.

‘People are just nervous about the unknown or the unfamiliar – I’m very aware of that in my own line of business. You’ve got to put faith in the creative leader of the project. You’ve not got to give people what they want but what they are going to like, and therefore you’ve got be to brave.’

Sastry, who Atkinson admits is ‘leading the way in terms of our interest in modern architecture’, says: ‘I still find it bizarre that we live in a society where people expect you to build a house that doesn’t represent the time that you live in. It seems so wrong.’

When the couple bought Handsmooth House back in 2006, it came with planning permission for a grandiose neo-Georgian house. Atkinson’s planning consultant, Terence O’Rourke, says: ‘There’s no dispute by the council or anyone else that Handsmooth House has served its day and should come down. The only discussion point is what should replace it. Should we put up a historic pastiche of rather poor quality
or should we try and produce something that is a piece of 21st-century high architecture?’

Though the situation bears the superficial hallmarks of the modernism versus classicism debate, neither Atkinson nor Sastry fear a letter from the Prince of Wales. ‘If there’s one thing the Prince of Wales does believe, in my opinion, it’s the concept of good taste and good skill.’

And while Atkinson believes the couple have chosen the right architect for the job, he is unwilling to be cast as a hero of modernist architecture. He says: ‘My personal aim is to further the cause of Richard Meier and his wonderful architecture, not the cause of Rowan Atkinson, nor me as a lobbyist or talisman for modernity or modernism.’

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Thierry BIDET

    It's very brave to promote modern architecture in the British countryside. 80 years after Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye was built outside Paris as a country house, proposing something expanding similar ideas is still labelled by many as "futuristic".

    There is no doubt hiring a Pritzker Prize architect was a wise decision to gain planning permissions for such a large modern house in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (9m high and around 27m long!).

    As often with Richard Meier the house looks pretty big seen from the outside but more intimate in the inside. In order to reach this effect the volume of the house has to be stretched and it is relatively slim. In spite of that the house is still "immensely energy efficient" as claimed by the architect, which makes sense if you compare to the house it's replacing.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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