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Owen Hatherley on FAT's House for Essex

The small structure almost collapses under the weight of FAT, Grayson Perry and Alain de Botton’s ideas, says Owen Hatherley

Although the demise of FAT may be a consequence of being crushed by an architectural culture that alternates between dour pragmatism and vacuous gestures, they can’t complain too much – their last commission is an architect’s dream. Via Living Architecture, they were essentially able to choose a site more or less anywhere in the County of Essex, and the chequebook of Alain de Botton would make it so. The only proviso appears to have been the collaboration with Grayson Perry, who has brought to the project a level of conceptual baggage that is fairly baroque, even by FAT’s standards. On the face of it, his fixations as muralist and ceramicist – class, taste, Britishness, sexuality – are close to their obsessions. Aptly, perhaps, given FAT’s 15-year campaign to rehabilitate Postmodernism, this three-way collaboration between FAT, Perry and de Botton piles on so many complexities and contradictions that this small structure almost collapses under their weight.

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The way in which A House for Essex came into being is similar to the commissioning process of Islington Square in Ancoats, Manchester. There, residents disenchanted with the aesthetics (and either unwilling or unable to challenge the highly dubious politics and economics) of the Urban Splash makeover of the former Cardroom Estate selected the firm that seemed to have least connection to the bourgeois minimalism favoured by the developers and their architects. Grayson Perry’s relationship to Living Architecture, likewise, appears to have been strong dislike of the purity and purged, ‘good taste’ aesthetic of its starchitect-designed holiday homes. This refusenik position with respect to a certain kind of middle class modernism results in an embrace of the design choices of ‘ordinary people’ – strange, artificial, often clashing, impurely historical, deeply personal.  There’s a very big difference between a small social housing estate in Manchester and a holiday villa that is rented out for 750 quid for three nights, probably more than the monthly rent of a house in Islington Square.

The site is given great symbolic import as the northernmost edge of Essex

The site is a dream. Secreted between bushes and trees overlooking the river Stour, outside the house you can see the barrack-room baroque of the Royal Hospital School on one side, the sprawling container port of Felixstowe on the other and, close by, horses, marshes, fields. Inside the house surprising, discrete framings of these are created, not ribbon-windowed panoramas. The site is given great symbolic import as the northernmost edge of Essex, close to Suffolk and the North Sea, in the cosmology that Perry has created for the house. It tells the story of imaginary Essex woman Julie Cope (an odd reference – Julian Cope is from Staffordshire), whose life since the 1950s saw a trajectory leading from the edge-of-London working class industrial hinterland in Canvey Island, up through the suburban modernism of Basildon, the Lord of the Rings-named streets of South Woodham Ferrers, through Colchester up to this semi-rural vista in the village of  Wrabness.  

This story is told obsessively through almost every corner of the house, in tapestries, murals, maps, a ‘tomb’ just outside, and Perry’s signature vases and ceramics. It is, among other things, a story of upward class mobility – rather apt, given the expense of the place, both in terms of conception and function. Perry’s artworks concentrate a great deal on Cope and her marriages but don’t tell us how she managed to get here in terms of cash. Through Right to Buy, maybe.

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In that, the house symbolises someone who has made it to, if not the top, to comfort and affluence, and the path out of the East End of London ends in gorgeous fields overlooking the water, without another house in sight. Perhaps oddly, given the cult of self-built Essex ‘plotlands’ settlements (which had an influence on Islington Square, factoring in resident adjustments and additions), the house is a very finished product, not an ad-hoc thing ready for a new conservatory, stone cladding or a roof extension. Lutyens and Loos are the reference points, not Colin Ward. The details are remarkably well-made and obsessive, from the Arts and Crafts green tiles on the facade, bearing images of the Essex coat of arms and a pregnant Julie as pagan idol, to the astonishing interiors. Here, rather than an informal domestic space up for adaptation, this is a holiday villa as a temple.

Charles Holland recounts getting out a book of wooden Russian architecture to show Perry, as a possible model for the House. It is divided roughly into a domestic and religious half as it slopes down a shallow hill. In the ‘temple’ side, looking out over the river, the combination of small scale and monumentalism is explicitly sacral. The double-height space, a magnificently detailed colour dance of patterned floors, daringly painted woods and monumental tapestries, is dedicated to a religion of class mobility that exists only in Grayson Perry’s head – a daring and totally unconvincing fusion of earth mother worship, elemental sexuality and 1970s-1980s minutiae: St Basil’s meeting Stanley Spencer meeting Abigail’s Party.  The result is hard to imagine as ‘living architecture’, so much as a rented weekend in a gigantic three-dimensional artwork. Even the seats in this room, two ornate armchairs and two waiting-room benches, feel deeply unhomely. It all leaves strikingly little room for anybody else other than the ghost of Julie Cope. CCTV (amusingly placed by the headlight of a suspended Honda motorbike in the central ‘chapel’) and regular cleaning will ensure that the hundreds of people who will sleep in this house will never leave a mark on it.

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Holland speaks of Adolf Loos interiors as one of the house’s inspirations, for the way in which they act as ‘a commentary on domestic life’ at that point in history, on the relations between men and women, the individual and society, class and gender.  

A House for Essex doesn’t say much about domestic life in Essex since the ’50s – it’s far too much one man’s vision for that. It does, however, say a lot about the relationships between art, architecture, class, and clients. It speaks intelligently; but what it says isn’t entirely pretty.

Working detail

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The working detail depicts the fabric of the building and its relationship to internal and external spaces. The building is intended to sit in the landscape as if it had been there for quite some time already. Flowers and plants grow up to the edge of the house. The tiles – made by Shaws of Darwen and engineered and installed by Szerelmey – are detailed to disappear straight into the ground without a plinth or visble edge.  The house is also positioned close up against the footpath so that the tiles can be seen by passers-by, although a certain amount of privacy is preserved by blackberry bushes.

Rather than dissolving the boundaries between inside and outside, the house reinforces them, constructing the interior as an elaborate, imaginative realm. Mirrors are used to accentuate this feeling of an alternative world and also to highlight the transition between the domestic and chapel elements.

The drawing also aims to highlight things not usually thought of as technical, but which have been important in the way the building has been put together. It includes objects, artworks and elements of the landscape, because these, as much as the type of insulation, have been very carefully specified or considered. Seemingly temporary and ‘non-architectural’ content, such as people, animals and wildlife, have also been shown, adding narrative content to a type of drawing normally thought of as empty of such things.

FAT

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Brief

The brief for A House for Essex was to collaborate with artist Grayson Perry on the design of a ‘secular chapel’ that would also be a house, located in Essex. The building was intended to be a reinterpretation of the traditional wayside or pilgrimage chapel with an added domestic programme so that people could stay in it.

Like a pilgrimage chapel, it would be dedicated to a saint, in this case ‘Julie’, a fictional Essex ‘everywoman’. The building celebrates and explores the life of this character as well as the landscape and character of Essex.

As well as forming an integral part of the construction, the building was to include a number of original artworks by Perry. A third element of programme – a gallery –was therefore added to the brief.

FAT

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Data

Start on site July 2013
Completion December 2014
Gross internal floor area 190m2
Form of contract JCT Standard
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect FAT
Artist Grayson Perry
Client Living Architecture
Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates
Environmental engineer Atelier Ten
Cost consultant KM Dimensions
CDM Anglia Building Services
Main contractor Rose Builders
CAD software Vectorworks

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Related FAT projects in the AJ Buildings Library

Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet by FAT

Heerlijkheid Hoogvliet, Rotterdam (2008)

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