Building study: Sleek über-Modernism distinguishes the US architect’s ﬁrst house in the UK
Glimpsed in a ﬂash, there is still a shock to be found in the new. Richard Meier’s ﬁrst house in the United Kingdom sits in a nook at the top of a narrow Oxfordshire valley. From between the high hedges on the valley ﬂoor it reads, in the sunlight, like a piece of silvery machine casing on some of the richest hillsides in the country
It is no less striking when the sky is overcast. From the same snatched view, as the car picks its way up the narrow farm track, overshadowed by greenery, it looks like a slab of marble. But this is just a ﬂash. One of the ways in which Meier was able to convince local planning to approve his sleek, über-Modernist country house was by designing a building that, despite its elevated position, was only ﬂeetingly visible from the tight, unpaved lane between old farm buildings on the valley ﬂoor, and was largely hidden from surrounding hills.
Meier doesn’t seem to be the remotest bit interested in the history of the English country house
There is something distinctly improbable about Richard Meier completing his ﬁrst house in the UK at the age of 82. His ostensible loyalty to the design principles and palette of early Modernism has often been at odds with architectural fashion, but never more so than today when, in rural England, tastes and planning culture urge architects towards a certain historicism, particularly in terms of material but also in terms of form. We want ruins artfully rescued. Admirably, Meier doesn’t seem to be the remotest bit interested in the history of the English country house. Any qualities the Oxfordshire residence shares with that typology are simply down to his being able to stretch out across an east-west plot cut into the top of a hill on the site of a sprawling-yet-mundane 1930s villa which looked like a massively inﬂated bungalow.
The pre-existing driveway winds up the west side of the hill and ends in a large courtyard. Or to be more accurate the road widens and then stops, because there are no historical tropes, no archways or gates to denote that one has entered the home; there is merely the space itself. To the left is a strip of recreation behind white walls: guest house, walled tennis court and, above the huge garage, a swimming pool, which due to the slope, can also be accessed at grade from a wooded ridge above. A bridge leads off it on to the ﬁrst ﬂoor of the house. This layering – recreation, road and house – is picked up inside the main house, which has a particularly narrow plan given what it contains. The interior and exterior are a series of thick bands in terraces across the hill.
One accesses the building at mid-point through a simple door, and passes immediately through a band of private rooms arranged east to west: recreation room, ofﬁce and gun room, which are all lined in wood. Then a long east-west corridor which creates the spine of the house, and then the more public, whiter parts of the building towards the stunning view from whence one has just arrived.
Though more elongated than Meier’s American houses, the grid still reigns supreme
Even though more elongated than Meier’s American houses, the grid still reigns supreme, both across plan but also across the section. A long basement (containing the client’s studio, a huge laundry room, an exercise room and a plant room) contains the guts of the house. Above is the ground public ﬂoor – living room, dining room and kitchen plus ofﬁce etc – and on top, the bedrooms.
This building is geometric, solid and tight as one might expect. Unlike the other four of the ﬁve Architects with whom he was grouped (and in turn grouped himself in the 1975 book ﬁve Architects), Meier never justiﬁed his drawing style with the theoretical twists of say, Eisenman, for whom new forms of perspective in architectural drawing would generate new form. Meier stuck to his guns, unlike Graves who jumped ship to join Venturi. In the rareﬁed climate of US academic debate, this had to a be quasi-philosophical position. In this climate, Meier didn’t simply continue in the tradition of Modernism; he restated it. There is a kind of double emphasising in his work.
Meier gets accused of being insincere in his appropriation of early-Modernist design strategies. It is all theatre, say his naysayers. In fact, if the Oxfordshire residence is anything to go by, Meier is very sincere. There is a certain formal relationship between the kitchen, dining room and living room, which sets it apart from West Coast Modernism. There is a ﬂavour of the East Coast Postmodernist love of the Classical progression of space. Richard Rogers wrote in a letter to South Oxford District Council in support of the project: ‘This house, like all of Richard’s best buildings, belongs to the Classical tradition in architecture.’ This is an overstatement to get beyond the planners but there is a whiff of truth to it.
And yet there is still an intimacy of scale to the kitchen and dining areas, given the potential for grandeur. But as the client says, ‘even a great house is still a house. Having one is like being married to a famous person. They do these amazing things which everyone sees but they are still that same bloody annoying person.’
There is certainly plenty of drama in Meier’s work, generally created through depth. In the master bedroom, the grand view to the south has purposefully been obscured by a ﬁreplace, as the client wished. Yet a slender panel to the side means the view can still be appreciated from the bed. If one turns and looks to the north of the building from the same position, the wooded hills can be glimpsed through another narrow window. In the basement, the client’s studio, which sits at the end of the building, has been juxtaposed with a lightwell dropped into the ground and a huge double-height window. Generally, Meier’s Oxfordshire residence is a lesson in how dark and impractical most big country houses are. (We should pity the poor souls who live in them.)
He does depth of ﬁeld very well too. From the gallery above the living room, one can gaze down at 45° into the sitting space inside and then into the valley below; a kind of giddying visual foreshortening that mixes interior and exterior through vertigo. It is similar to the approach at Meier’s Smith House, which sits on a rocky promontory in Connecticut. (Meier’s American homes look like the penthouses of skyscrapers with the hills providing all the elevation). Meier’s Douglas House meanwhile is situated on an isolated site that slopes down to Lake Michigan. So steep is the grade of the lakeside that the house appears to have been – as the architect himself puts it – ‘notched into the site, a machined object perched in a natural world’.
To the rear, the house blends into the woodland brilliantly; the courtyard, garage and pool create a wonderful series of platforms into the natural world. But the front of this Oxfodshire residence doesn’t possess this frisson with the natural surroundings, partly because at a distance great parts of it are hidden by them. Yet when you do come across it, the southern façade, which gives the view to the valley, presents a ﬁerce blank wall on to the world. It is strangely, almost impressively deﬁant; a fact not softened by the horizontal louvres – a Meier signature – across the second and third bedrooms.
Previously his domestic houses have tended to create drama simply by rising three or four storeys above small plots, often on wooded or rocky slopes above stretches of water. The Oxfordshire residence is not constrained in this way; nor was the client interested in the building proclaiming itself. It is thus a superbly detailed and tenaciously rationalist take on what Damon Albarn called the ‘very big house in the country’. It looks rather forbidding from afar but inside is clearly a building of astonishing ease and comfort, born of a determined rationalism.
Start on site Mid 2013
Completion March 2016
Gross internal floor area 954m2
Form of contract Traditional
Construction cost Conﬁdential
Architect Richard Meier & Partners Architects
Executive architect Berman Guedes Stretton
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E, lighting design and sustainability consultant CBG Consultants
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Client representative CD Morris & Associates
Landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith
Renewable energy specialist ISO Energy
Planning consultant Terence O’Rourke
Consultancy project manager Kevin B. Baker (Richard Meier & Partners Architects)
Building inspector Butler & Young
Main contractor Sizebreed Construction
CAD software used MicroStation
Annual CO2 emissions Estimated 12kg/m2
The site is notable not only for the expansive views and landscape, but also the richness of the spatial experience which begins before entering the property and was the primary inspiration for the design – the relationships of openness, compression, light and shadow all evinced by the area surrounding the site.
The structure and orientation of the house symbolise a direct response to the make-up of the site. The solidity of the back of the house effectively mirrors the density of the woodlands, while the lucidity of the glass in front embraces the openness of the landscape beyond.
Similarly, the layering of program, walls and columns that dictate the interior layout are designed to complement the light and views speciﬁc to every vantage point, creating breathtaking common spaces.
The major materials are structural concrete, white exterior render, glass & aluminum curtain wall, stone pavers and interior hickory flooring.
The house has been carefully designed based on the human scale, the purity of the aesthetic, peerless construction methods and materials and carries the rich tradition of a country house: a family home which honours the woodlands, drawing the occupants into an effortless relationship with the natural world, while creating space for comfortable living.
CBG was chosen to provide both M&E and sustainability advice for what we believed would be a very special Richard Meier design. We were not disappointed and, after the ﬁrst workshop in their New York ofﬁce, it was apparent that the design would contain not only the highest building quality and ﬁnishes but also demanded an innovative and holistic approach to energy and environment.
We took the view that passive design principles should be used ﬁrst, using the fabric of the building itself to reduce energy loads and provide a comfortable internal environment. With the high level of natural light in the building, we undertook detailed thermal modelling analysis to check the risk of overheating and showed that summer conditions could be moderated effectively by the building’s thermal mass combined with passive cooling techniques.
The client’s interest in cutting-edge technology led to an exciting opportunity to develop an integrated energy solution for the site, comprising ground source heat pumps, solar hot water and photovoltaics and heat recovery ventilation. Our challenge was getting these systems to work together to meet energy demands in the most efﬁcient way, while ensuring that their presence did not detract from the aesthetics.
The quality of the ﬁnish demanded that building services should be practically invisible, and we enjoyed the challenge of ﬁnding the right products and integrating these seamlessly with the architectural vision, while ensuring functionality and maintenance was not compromised.
Chris Swinburn, principal engineer, CBG Consultants
The house’s primary structure comprises reinforced structural concrete for cantilevered roof slabs, floors and walls, and circular steel columns. Concrete was chosen for the allowable extensive spans, its longevity, and its thermal mass.
Special exterior lime render coated with white pigmented mineral paint over rigid foam-glass insulation provided seamless, crisp, pure white solid surfaces. Horizontal and vertical louvres animate the daylight and shadow cast on the façade throughout the day. Glass and white aluminum curtain wall, double height in some instances, provides expansive openings for daylight and views.
Flangeless linear ceiling slots provide visually minimal air diffuser, and radiant floors provide a concealed heating and cooling system from the geothermal ﬁeld. Hand-troweled interior plaster walls (a continuation inward of the exterior surfaces), white polyester-coated frameless doors and millwork and hickory timber flooring provide a clean yet warm interior.
The house has been carefully designed, all details were rigorous but visually minimal and precise.
Kevin B Baker, project architect, Richard Meier & Partners Architects