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About turn

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Julian Marsh + Jerzy Grochowski have transformed a standard-issue 1960s house into an architectural manifesto, helped by the Arcadian setting of Rutland Water By Peter Fawcett. Photographs by Martine Hamilton Knight

A prevailing architectural philistinism in the East Midlands seemed a less than propitious context for this modest, but jewel-like, extension to a dwelling. Even less so was the point of departure for the architect: an ordinary, spec-built bungalow from the late 1960s, in brick with concrete- tiled roof and typically cellular plan. However, this somewhat depressing picture was alleviated by two crucial compensations: architecturally literate and ambitious clients and an idyllic site in the heart of rural Rutland.

Rutland Water, given Royal Assent in 1970, and for which Sylvia Crowe was landscape architect, is a 1400ha man-made reservoir formed in the valley of the River Gwash. It lies centrally to a ring of villages, originally a group of royal demesnes in which Oakham was the principal manor. Nether Hambleton is now submerged beneath the reservoir, but this project's location, Upper Hambleton, remains isolated on a two-mile-long peninsula deep into Rutland Water.

The original bungalow pre-dates the flooding of the valley, which explains why its major orientation is to the south, apparently ignoring the now- magnificent views to the north over Rutland Water, and indeed beyond, to Burley House, rebuilt in the early eighteenth century. The metropolitan clients wished to transform this unspeakably banal dwelling into a weekend retreat of real architectural distinction which would establish an appropriate response to its Arcadian setting.

While the end result is rich in architectural incident and embraces diverse architectural references, the fundamental strategic moves towards achieving such visual richness, while solving the apparently conflicting requirements of south light and northerly prospect, are remarkably simple and direct in their execution. First, much of the existing cellular plan remains remarkably intact; Marsh's strategy has been to retain the three existing bedrooms virtually in their original state, save for the ingenious inclusion of a shower room for the principal bedroom.

The interface between a garage (which has been retained) and the eastern gable to the bungalow, originally a draughty covered passage between front and rear gardens, now forms a new entrance hall with scullery beyond, and it is this simple strategic move which has allowed a celebration of the architectural promenade from the entrance at the south, through to the surprisingly modest 50m2 extension to the north, and the landscape beyond. Visitors are immediately aware of subtle relationships between spaces for living, cooking, and dining which flow seamlessly into one another. Spatially, this is the most impressive aspect of the re-ordered plan, a success reinforced by allowing the existing 'mundane' and purely functional spaces such as bedrooms and bathroom to remain intact but visually remote from this dramatic spatial sequence. Moreover, the spatial drama is heightened by diffused south-facing rooflights which allow south light to penetrate deep into the dining room extension to the north, but also highlight the central location of the kitchen, both functionally and symbolically, in a working plan.

Marsh has wisely resisted the temptation to disguise the existing building's less than august provenance, so that to the casual passer-by, the subtle interventions to the external fabric of the building may seem unremarkable; a mild-steel boundary fence evoking the tradition of the English country estate; refenestration to the living room, a new entrance and screen roofed with re-cycled roof tiles (displaced by the new rooflights), and a rather gratuitous pergola roof extension to the existing garage.

The sense of progression through the plan is amplified by subtle level changes. While in some contexts such devices may appear gratuitous, here they are incorporated for compelling functional reasons: the dining area, the climax to the 'promenade', is effectively five risers above site level, an elevation which maximises the benefits of the dramatic views over Rutland Water.

The promenade begins with the witty deployment of two suitably eye-shaped 'peepholes' set within the solid front door, their differing positions in turn exactly reflecting the owners' disparity in height; this is but a prelude to a series of small-scale light-hearted visual events throughout the dwelling. By the clever deployment of glazed screens, views of the landscape beyond to the north immediately present themselves, and are reinforced as the promenade unfolds. The entrance sits at site level with an oblique riser to the living area giving the illusion of a tapering entrance corridor, and evoking some of Lubetkin's house plans.

References to Lubetkin abound in the re-ordered living room: an existing purlin roof has allowed removal of ceiling joists and the dramatic insertion of a barrel-vaulted ceiling, a direct reference to the Penthouse, Highpoint Two, Highgate, 1938. The living room is further enriched by a full-height sliding screen which closes off the two openings to the entrance hall. The 'snug' is visually separated from the principal space by a single- riser level change, and by a delicate white-stained softwood column (to support the purlin), itself wrapped at its midriff by cord, and at its foot by a copper 'shoe', both devices redolent of Aalto.

Throughout, this complex spatial progression is clarified not only by appropriate level changes and carefully organised natural lighting, but also by limited application of primary colour to sub-spaces off principal rooms, or to reinforce the transitional role of openings between spaces. This careful orchestration of volume, space and colour is subject to infinite variation from the ever-changing play of daylight. Artificial lighting, largely by reflection or by highlighting specific objects, has been equally well considered.

The kitchen represents the functional 'core' of the plan, reflecting a contemporary orthodoxy among our middle classes, where entertaining guests and cooking for them are perceived as simultaneous activities. In this instance the primacy of the kitchen within the plan is heightened by rooflighting directly overhead and by its location as an 'interface' between living and dining areas.

Marsh's architectural heroes constitute a surprisingly eclectic pantheon. Lubetkin has already been alluded to; lessons from Stirling are reflected in the 'route'; and the architect's fascination with Kahn is revealed in the drama of natural lighting, and in the essential order imparted by a fully exposed timber frame to the 'new-build', most of which is devoted to the dining pavilion, a fitting climax to the internal route. References to Scarpa are evident in the obsessive detailing of external natural materials.

But, just as the living room accommodates surprising sub-texts to its primary volume, so is the structural order of the framed dining pavilion subject to similar intervention; a splayed wall incorporating an elliptical 'fish-eye' window may appear wilful on plan, but in the context of this unique site, it exactly frames a highly considered view of the lake and Burley Hall beyond. Peter Yates referred to a similar device in his Walker House of 1952 as, 'an eyeglass on the world'; this epithet could well apply at Hambleton.

As without an all-pervading backdrop of Rutland Water and its associated landscape this commission could never have materialised, its success must depend largely on how it responds to its unique physical context. Putting aside the south elevation of the building, (where, incidentally, the main living space is linked to the garden by glazed screen and associated timber deck), the north aspect invokes a range of devices to locate the building firmly within the landscape. To the committed Modernist these will be familiar: a low screen wall projects dramatically into the garden and defines an elevated paved terrace; steps down to garden level with recessed risers appear to 'hover', detached from the ground; other building elements, most notably the oblique screen wall with 'fish-eye' window and 'fish- scale' copper cladding are in turn visually separate from the terrace, so that the effect is of a series of disparate elements providing an effective transition between dwelling and garden.

Marsh has, in turn, designed a garden to the north, using large-scale geometrical elements fashioned from railway sleepers, in pursuit of a final transition between building and landscape. This is perhaps the least successful aspect of the scheme, a crude imposition at variance with the manifest sensitivity of the rest. Thankfully, Marsh's plan for lines of disused telegraph poles reaching into the landscape has been resisted by the owners.

Already, Julian Marsh has achieved national acclaim for buildings in Nottingham, most notably his own house. This similarly crafted example in Rutland is a distinguished addition to his oeuvre, its modest size consumed by a profound architectural purpose. But historically, domestic commissions have typically been the vehicle for such architectural 'manifestos'. Clearly, this dwelling at Hambleton is no exception, a position which thankfully distances Marsh far from the region's patently modest architectural ambition.

Peter Fawcett is professor of architecture and head of the Institute of Architecture at the University of Nottingham.

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