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Owen Pritchard on FAT's House for Essex

Owen Pritchard takes a look around FAT’s final project - an ‘ultimate decorated shed’

Wrabness is at the end of a branch line around an hour by rail from London’s Liverpool Street station. The village has a population of 400 and is the site of A House for Essex, the latest holiday home for Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture programme. The project is the last built work by FAT and the design was developed in collaboration with the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry.

A House for Essex is a two-bedroom holiday cottage in a meadow on the banks of the river Stour. It has a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room and is available to rent for £94 to £150 per person per night. 

The exterior is clad in green and white ceramic tiles, with a roof covered in gold-coloured standing seam copper alloy.  The cladding disguises the prosaic construction: the structure is concrete block walls and the roof is timber-framed;  the tiles are rainscreen cladding and the dormer windows are prefabricated steel, craned into position.

It is also a polychromatic, secular chapel

A House for Essex is, however, more than the sum of its parts. It is also a polychromatic, secular chapel, a monument to a fictional, deceased Essex ‘everywoman’ called Julie Cope, who was killed when hit by a delivery boy’s moped.

‘Loos said only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument,’ says FAT’s Charles Holland, with a laugh. ‘This is both.’

In recent years the protagonists in ‘constructed reality’ show The Only Way Is Essex have personified the county in the eyes of the public. A House for Essex at first glance may look like a colourful  TOWIE riposte, yet it, too, is also a ‘constructed reality’, born of Holland and Perry’s nostalgia for their home county, its characters and its architecture.

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Approaching the house from the lane that descends to the expanse of the Stour, the building sits aloof from the sleepy village. The roofline, which takes four steps skywards as the site drops away, is decorated with acroteria proclaiming a secular deity. On a sunny day the roof glows gold and heightens the clash of the red-painted dormer windows and jade green and white hand-glazed faience tiles. The approach leads to a back entrance off the stairway and the ground floor toilet, but at the opposite end is a grand porch with an oversized door that leads to the main, double-height living room.

Inside A House for Essex there are varying degrees to the ornamentation. At the rear of the building, the architect calls the style of these quieter, domestic spaces ‘vestry chic’. On through a tight passage is the kitchen, with a dark wood floor laid in chevrons, buttery yellow cupboards, a designer table and chairs and green tiles (reminiscent of the exterior) covering the walls.

Around a central fireplace (shared with the main room) the exterior tiles that depict a pregnant Julie have been installed. Upstairs are two rather snug bedrooms, each with its own Perry tapestry, and a bathroom clad in avocado-coloured tiles with gold taps – a knowing update of the ’70s trend now considered unfashionable.

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It is beneath the largest of the four roof steps that this building springs to life in a style christened ‘Gypsy John Soane’ by Holland. Entering from the kitchen between the bright red doors in the bifurcated walls, the scale of the space jumps to reveal the full volume of the interior. Light pours in from the deep-set dormer windows. Below, pushed against the walls and set in red frames with bright yellow cushions are banquette seats, inspired, says Perry, by Chartres Cathedral.

Overhead hangs a Honda C90 moped, repurposed as a light fitting. It is, according to the legend, the moped that killed Julie – a grisly reminder of the myriad ways that our brief time on earth can end. Above, set into a crimson rood screen adorned with mirrors, are two balconies that lead to the bedrooms. They flank an idol, Julie again, set like a deity into an alcove half-way up the dividing wall. Perry’s ceramics sit on plinths and his garish tapestries depicting a collage of events from Julie’s life hang from the walls. ‘We sketched up the plan and then drew into it. Every room is a design in its own right. You still have to draw every door, you still have to measure every board,’ says Holland. ‘I always thought it needed to become more formal. There is a tension between the fairytale and the formal side to it. I suppose our role was to bring architectural ideas to the narrative.’

A House for Essex presents itself as a monumental whole

There is a sense that the exterior is more of a collaboration than the interior. From the outside A House for Essex presents itself as a monumental whole. Inside there is more of a separation, as art becomes decoration, occupying surfaces, whereas the composition of plan and volumes are the work of the architect. ‘It’s the most intense plan that we have ever done, in terms of what is packed into it and how it is composed,’ says Holland.

If Perry’s building is an homage to an Essex everywoman, FAT’s building is an homage to architectural history.  There are references to Adolf Loos in the colour palette and plan, to John Vanbrugh in the screen, to Ettore Sottsass in the decoration and to John Soane and Edward Lutyens in the natural lighting and throughout.

A House for Essex plays with notions of domesticity and belonging when in fact it has neither. It is the idea of a house, a vessel for the holidaymakers to play at being art in. ‘It’s an interesting question: how do you decorate a house that no one lives in? I always think that the tapestries are like a wedding photo blown up,’ says Holland. ‘The house comments on the idea of domesticity.  Which bits are formal, which bits are private? My favourite architects’ houses do that.’

A House for Essex is only half of FAT’s swan song. The other is A Clockwork Jerusalem, the exhibition FAT curated for the British Council at the  2014 Venice Biennale and which transferred to the Architectural Association earlier this year. Holland says that the building and exhibition together encapsulate a lot of what the practice was interested in and stood for. ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem shows us reappraising British Modernism. And here is our obsession with decoration, storytelling and being architects,’ he says, adding with a smirk: ‘If you think in terms of the decorated shed, this is the ultimate decorated shed.’

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.

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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.

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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

Roath Lock Studios, Cardiff, by FAT and Holder Mathias Architects

Roath Lock Studios, Cardiff by FAT (2011)

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