Loyn & Co’s Outhouse represents a welcome direction in the evolution of the modern house, writes Isabel Allen
Outhouse is routinely referred to as ‘the first private house to grace the Stirling shortlist for 15 years’. Which is odd – and also not true, since Caruso St John made the shortlist in 2006 with its Brick House in west London. In fairness, the house that made the shortlist 15 years ago, The Lawns in London’s Highgate by Eldridge Smerin, is a more pertinent point of reference for the Outhouse. The two buildings have a shared pedigree. Both are distant descendants of the Miesian glass box. Both are the work of a generation that favours a more nuanced – or less rigorous – approach to the modern house.
The early evangelists viewed the International Style as a means of eradicating the past and establishing a Brave New World. Both Outhouse and The Lawns give a knowing nod to the buildings that preceded them. The Lawns envelops – and on occasion reveals – a 1950s house designed by Leonard Manasseh, drawing on the regular grid of its loadbearing brick cross walls to inform the new design. Outhouse uses the footprint of the three buildings that previously occupied its site to inform the size and position of three courtyards, which bring light deep into the plan. Order and transparency are viewed not as ends in themselves but as a means of layering and framing, of building on what went before, of allowing other elements to sing.
As much as people like big spaces, big statements and big views, there are times when they crave intimacy, too
Both houses acknowledge the fact that, as much as people like big spaces, big statements and big views, there are times when they crave intimacy, too; that however contemporary their tastes, there is a value in feeling anchored to the past, to the surroundings, to the natural world.
Both give a deferential nod to those who might be offended by their contemporary clothes. Birch trees soften the stark lines of The Lawn’s street facade. Outhouse belongs to an emerging global trend for outsize rural homes that hide their bulk beneath the landscape – see also AR+C’s House Gazebo in Guayllabamba, Ecuador; OSA’s hillside house above Italy’s San Giuliano Lake; Vasho’s Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic; and Future Systems’ Malator in Pembrokeshire. Outhouse lies half-buried, its grass-topped roof expressed as a continuation of the surrounding field.
Both homes are about spectacle: dramatic spaces inside and magnificent views out. The Lawns’ walls slide away to form a single showpiece party space; Outhouse is centred on a corridor of gallery-like proportions; The Lawns’ glazed top floor and terrace look on to Highgate Cemetery and all of London beyond; Outhouse enjoys panoramic views to the Wye Valley and Severn Estuary.
Brick House, by contrast, is entirely inward-looking, built on a narrow strip of land surrounded – and overlooked – by houses on all sides. The result is a house with no facades. Its only public face is a front door lurking at the end of a less-than-charming cul-de-sac. There are no views to speak of. The only external spaces are tiny Spartan courtyards accessed from the cell-like ground-floor bedrooms. The overwhelming sensation is of being cloistered from the outside world.
If The Lawns and Outhouse evoke Le Corbusier and Mies, Brick House has echoes of Louis Kahn and Aldo Rossi, a tradition that exploits and celebrates the intrinsic qualities of brick: its density, its timelessness, its essential sense of calm. But its roots seem older still. It speaks of an architecture that is primal in its origins – a cave, a church, a chapel – a timeless gravitas that is impossible to date.
Little wonder that it was never officially decreed to be the Building of the Moment. This was not a year for quiet intelligence. The 2006 shortlist was particularly showy: Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers (twice!); Michael Hopkins, David Adjaye. Caruso St John’s understated masterpiece was simply overlooked. It is an extraordinary building; intelligent and poetic. But it is difficult to celebrate, hard to visit, impossible to capture in photography or words. How best to frame a world of moods and moments; unfolding spaces; captured light? Elusive, hard to know, it has slipped out of Stirling folklore, disappeared from view. Surprising, really, that it even made the shortlist. Public buildings have their own PR machines. Private houses tend to need a champion. The Lawns, in contrast, was destined to be published and applauded. Commissioned by Frances Newell and John Sorrell, two of the brightest stars in the design world’s glittering firmament, it was launched into society like an eager debutante. It was a struggle to find a critic who hadn’t sipped champagne at their legendary Christmas bash.
They haven’t built their house as a status symbol but as a place to enjoy together
Outhouse has its own champions: its ebullient architects and, more importantly, its owners – two artists of a certain age and apparently boundless joie de vivre. Commissioning a new home is an optimistic act: a decision to look towards the future and shape a different way of life. To commission this home, and at this stage of life, is a life-affirming celebration. A riposte to the dread fear that the best we can aspire to in retirement is a McCarthy & Stone apartment and the occasional Saga cruise. The presence of ‘his and hers’ studios speaks of a shared creative spirit and a determined independence. The modest number of bedrooms suggests this is not a house for entertaining. They haven’t built their house as a status symbol but as a place to enjoy together, suggesting a contentment and companionship that it’s hard not to envy – especially when you see photos of the owners zipping round their home on scooters, painting in the studios and chatting in the sun.
Outhouse represents a welcome direction in the evolution of the modern house; a move to reconcile the clarity and simplicity of concrete, glass and steel with respect for the environment, for character and context; for the tastes and preoccupations of the clients. But it is representative, as opposed to transformational. For all its glorious appeal it’s difficult to argue that it has ‘made the biggest contribution to architecture’ of any building this past year. Then again, it is undoubtedly the building that has made us smile the most.