MVRDV’s Balancing Barn in Suffolk is bold and brash with a real sense of fun, says James Pallister. Photography by Edmund Sumner
For a holiday house, the basic brief is straightforward: build a habitable and enticing temporary home in an attractive location and the visitors will come. Add a bit of charm and they might return.
MVRDV’s Balancing Barn, however, is not an ordinary holiday house – it’s a Living Architecture house. Set up by Swiss writer Alain de Botton, his wife Charlotte and Mark Robinson (former project manager of the Serpentine Pavilion), Living Architecture’s built products must not only serve up comfy bed and board to its holidaying punters, but also provocation. They must encourage the general public to reconsider their perspective on both modern architecture and the countryside.
The brief dished out by Living Architecture, then, has room for – and indeed requires – a little razzle-dazzle, a bit of sashay and shake; something of what RIBA chief executive Harry Rich calls the ‘L’Oréal factor’ – architects showing that ‘they’re worth it’.
Living Architecture has a little razzle-dazzle, a bit of sashay and shake; something of what RIBA chief executive Harry Rich calls the ‘L’Oreal factor’
This doesn’t necessarily mean formal spectacle. The other Living Architecture houses (there are five in total) draw on other well-worn caricatures that consciously articulate the value of the architect’s contribution.
Hopkins Architects offers its immaculately detailed Long House, NORD its brooding black Shingle House, Jarmund/Vigsnæs a sand-buried glass house, and Peter Zumthor his thus-far mysterious rammed-concrete concoction.
MVRDV though, working with Mole Architects as executive architect, has gone for the show-pony option – and spectacularly so. The route to the house near Thorington in Suffolk takes you down a 300m-long dirt track flanked by sunflower fields. At the end is a gable end, its cartoonish silhouette sporting a stainless steel chimney and cowl hat.
Approaching its two glazed doors, the eccentric cladding and galvanised steel gantries make it look like some sort of livestock cold storage unit.
So far, so strange. The real drama, however, is around the side of the building. It’s set in a natural amphitheatre; to the foot of the plot is a lake and nature reserve. Rather than coyly overlooking, the building hurls itself into the void, its platonic gable extruded 30m, half of which is cantilevered above the slope.
Diagonal struts support the cantilever and help provide rigidity
Entering the house from the grounded end, you find a generous kitchen and dining area. The space goes up to the rafters, uninterrupted by ceilings. The steel structure retains the basic barn shape of the hammerbeam roof, beloved of Pevsner and typical of the region, but without the timber tie beams and corbels.
The structure is expressed on the interior elevation: diagonal struts support the cantilever and help provide (partial but not complete) rigidity. Their additional weight dispenses with the need for a counterweight in the ceiling.
A long corridor leads to four double bedrooms. Part of Mole’s design, the building is divvied up into 10 bays, each 3m long and 7m wide. Every double bedroom has a large picture window and an en-suite bathroom, top-lit by a skylight. At the end of the corridor is the living room, aloft over the lawn, with a 5.8m2 glass floor panel at its centre.
Much work was done by structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates to ensure that the living room had a frequency that gave a feeling of movement without unpleasant resonance. Sure enough, jump up and down and you can feel the building sway.
There are several other moments of fun to be had. A secret staircase leads down to a basement utility room (which acts as part of the cantilever’s counterweight), whose exit consists of a hydraulically operated concealed hatch opening on to ground level – ideal for enacting comic exit fantasies.
Emerging under the house’s cantilever, you can look up into the living room through the glass floor or have a go on the swing that hangs from the building’s belly.
MVRDV director Winy Maas describes the Balancing Barn as a little gift to East Anglia from his native Netherlands, one that articulates a shared wry sense of humour.
The Balancing Barn is bold, brash and successful, transforming a humble hillock into exciting topography
The building is also a part of a barn typology with a robust and respectable history that architects and photographers have drawn from: the photos of Eric de Maré and Bernd and Hilla Becher, and in the buildings of Foster + Partners, Grimshaw and van Heyningen and Haward.
MVRDV’s innovative new riff is cartoonish – refreshingly so – but not without logic. The cantilever makes the most of its surroundings and is accentuated by landscaping (the replacement of non-native trees with a line of cypresses soups up the already strong composition). The Balancing Barn is bold, brash and successful, transforming a humble hillock into exciting topography.
There are a few quibbles. The linear plan means that there are no semi-private spaces where you can linger, away from the family, but not in the bedroom. The cladding produces a tricksy effect which is fun, but reflective properties aside, it’s no beauty to look at. In his 2007 book Affluenza, psychologist Oliver James argues that the obsessive pursuit of more money and possessions is a direct contributor to unhappiness.
Does high-end architecture littered with designer furniture fuel this kind of pathological consumption? De Botton probably isn’t too troubled by the laws of unintended consequences, and rightly so. Any client with the vision (and the cash) to address the public’s appreciation of architecture should be made welcome. As for meeting the brief, MVRDV has done it in style.
Start on site June 2009
Contract duration 16 months
Gross internal floor area 220m2
Form of contract JCT Standard building contract 2005
Client Living Architecture
Executive architect Mole Architects
Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates
Quantity surveyor Boydens group
Planning supervisor Anglia Building surveyors
Main contractor Seamans
Balancing Barn, Suffolk by MVRDV with Mole
Balancing Barn, Suffolk by MVRDV with Mole