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Browsing the AJ Buildings Library: David Hills on Artist House

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David Hills, director at DSDHA tells us how the Artist’s House, Salisbury, by Munkenbeck + Marshall has inspired and informed his work

David Hills DSDHA

As an architectural student, I spent my summers working in a town called Pawling, in upstate New York, where the influential German-born American gallerist André Emmerich had turned his 60ha country estate into a stunning sculpture park named Top Gallant.

This was a very private setting for Emmerich’s sculpture collection, and I was lucky enough to be invited for long walks through the fields, where I could encounter large-scale works by Anthony Caro, which masterfully framed the landscape, or Beverly Pepper’s monumental drill bits, which emerged on the prow of a hill as giant obelisks. At the end of the route you would end up in one of the barns near Emmerich’s house, where you could admire the collections of smaller works, for instance Alexander Calder’s delicate sculptures, which I remember looking strangely at home in this agricultural setting.

The beauty of  Top Gallant was jealously kept away from the public eye by its owner. Emmerich’s house was completely off limits and indeed, to my great disappointment, I was never allowed into his in-ground pool, where the walls were painted with ocean waves by artist David Hockney. Despite its exclusive character, Top Gallant proved an invaluable experience in my development as an architect; one that has shaped my approach to design throughout my career. The sculptures on display here were clearly acting as a point of engagement between landscape and architecture to reveal the specificity of the place. This was for me a striking revelation that threw light on the way in which art, architecture and landscape could interact and even blend within each other to enhance the experience of a place – something that can be lost in the anonymous setting of the urban-industrial gallery spaces where contemporary art is typically displayed.

Each of the house’s spaces are elegant architectural compositions in their own right

After graduating, I was introduced to another remarkable space closer to home: the New Art Centre at Roche Court. Its owner, Madeleine Bessborough, with an approach diametrically opposed to Emmerich’s, had decided to use her elegant period home and estate in Wiltshire as a setting for contemporary sculpture, opened both to artists in residency and to the public. Roche Court is indeed a truly accessible sculpture gallery, complemented by a noteworthy educational programme. Although the artworks displayed are for sale, the setting retains something of the quality and dignity of a museum.

Bessborough’s aspiration to open her estate to public viewing was also the start of an inspired patronage of client and architect working towards the realisation of such a vision. The first step was the commissioning of a new glass gallery for the showcase of her art collection, completed in 1998 by Munkenbeck + Marshall Architects, with Stephen Marshall as lead partner.

Artists House, Salisbury, by Munkenbeck + Marshall

Marshall’s intervention mediates effortlessly between the early 19th century house and the stunning surrounding landscape, allowing the artworks to be displayed in dialogue simultaneously with both settings. This was achieved by means of the stripped language of the materials, almost casual in their simplicity, always harmonious with the period nature of the house, and yet distinctively modern in the way the project anticipated the use of structural glass as a counterpart to historic settings.

It is important to note, however, that there is no overt technical trickery here. Each architectural element is but a carefully studied expedient through which the new architecture facilitates the dialogue between the art pieces, the existing historical setting and the landscape. For instance the enormous planes of glass are restrained top and bottom but never meet; they provide shelter without hampering the visual continuity between interior and exterior. Glass is only used as planar material: to hold a view, always carefully avoiding the compositional distractions of frames or opening mechanisms. By contrast, the openings are made of solid oak, simple and discreet full-height doors, which only interrupt the glass planes above: the slender roof that appears to float between the existing house and a small orangery.

Artists House, Salisbury, by Munkenbeck + Marshall

The fecund relationship between client and architect has proven itself in the subsequent commissions for the Artists House at Roche Court, which Marshall completed in 2001. This small project elegantly completes the modest courtyard setting, and in a way starts imposing the typology of the countryside-gallery-house as a strong counterpart to the industrial urbanity of the galleries for which artworks are often conceived.

The concept of displaying art in a domestic setting was clearly not a new idea, and the brief was indeed deliberately inspired by Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, another remarkable art space which, in the words of its founder Jim Ede, was meant to provide ‘a living place where works of art could be enjoyed … where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery.’

Artists House, Salisbury, by Munkenbeck + Marshall

The relationship between interior and exterior is carefully composed

Despite the apparent success of this illustrious precedent, critic Kenneth Powell’s review of Roche Court suggested that ‘the idea of the building as a house is something of a conceit, since domestic and gallery use are virtually incompatible’. I would argue that this concern proved unfounded, mainly because the domestic scale allows for an intimacy and a proximity with the works on display, which invites a more fundamental appreciation from the viewer.  When the main living room was recently filled with Joseph Walsh’s spiralling and cloudlike sculpture, such space clearly abandoned its private character to become more manifestly public. Despite this, the nuances of the domestic architectural setting retained something of the former private and intimate character, allowing one to experience that sort of wonder typical of those cabinets of curiosities we find in the best period houses, where the personality of the owner/curator is always invariably present.

The latest intervention at Roche Court, the Artists House, was meant to be, of course, only a temporary home for the artists in residency. As such it did not need to accommodate the clutter of personal possessions one would normally expect to find in a domestic setting, nor to express that functionality that is required of our homes to perform as the backdrop of our daily activities. Each of the house’s functional spaces has therefore been conceived as an elegant architectural composition in its own right.  The kitchen is not burdened with the practicality of ease of use, but is rather an effortless series of furniture elements, the use of which forces a particular relationship either with the main volume of the interior or with a carefully composed window to the exterior.

Artists House, Salisbury, by Munkenbeck + Marshall

A pyramid-shaped structure supports a frameless glass ceiling on the first floor

The language of materials employed in the Artists House continues the thematic simplicity of the glass gallery, with frameless glass, oak and stone. While using traditional construction of blockwork walls rendered externally, the same inventiveness of engineering is evident in the open roof structure using a structural steel pyramid opening to a frameless glass skylight, which allows the free volume of the first-floor living space without steel supports or walls. Clearly the main focus of the design in this newer extension is the dialogue between the domestic, the gallery and the landscape; something which the building has recorded in a peaceful way.  The timber has weathered subtly, and the stone sills acquired a patina of lichen which softens the precise glass vitrines punctuating the building’s planes.

The sensitivity of this architecture has allowed Roche Court‘s domestic and agricultural qualities be transcended with an openness and intimacy that invites one to consider the work shown within the particularity of the setting and inevitably requires one to question the relationship between the acts of making, collecting and interpretation.

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