Not so many years ago, the country house was widely seen as a preserve of traditional architectural values - new buildings commissioned by country house owners, whether of aristocratic or more parvenu origins, could generally be relied on to be firmly, and often dimly, historicist in style.
On occasions, intelligent and literate traditionalist work was the result - the stables complex at Ascot, designed by Demetri Porphyrios for Galen Weston, was a good example. But there was generally little chance of the Prince of Wales being shocked, should he decide to call by for the weekend. And little evidence that the country house any longer had a creative cultural role, beyond catering for heritage-obsessed tourists.
As Munkenbeck + Marshall, and its client Johnny Bute, recently demonstrated at Mount Stuart in Scotland (AJ 4.10.01), innovative new design has a place in the renaissance of the country house. For Madeleine Bessborough, founder of the New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury, the issue of style never arose. Lady Bessborough has been a major figure on the contemporary art scene since the late 1950s, when she launched a gallery on London's Sloane Street. Driven out of London by redevelopment, she opened the New Art Centre (NAC) at Roche Court in 1993. The house is a fine Regency structure (completed in 1805 to designs by C H Tatham), impressively porticoed but not dauntingly large. It remains a private family home: the art is in the open-air, a changing display of sculpture by all the big names - from Moore and Hepworth to Whiteread and Woodrow.
Some come here to buy - this is as much a commercial operation as any gallery on Cork Street. But anyone can come simply to look - if you have not been, a visit is strongly recommended. There is no admission charge, no cafe, no shop - just the art and the landscape.
Munkenbeck + Marshall's acclaimed gallery at Roche Court was completed in 1999 - it forms a link between the house and an elegant early 19th-century conservatory.
Structurally ingenious, exquisitely detailed and beautifully built, it is one of the best new buildings seen in Wiltshire for decades and is used to display smaller sculptures and works on paper.
The recently completed artist's house, the second building at Roche Court by Munkenbeck + Marshall, is, says Madeleine Bessborough, 'on one level, a really beautiful modern house, which you could live in, which, unlike most private houses, anyone can come and see. At the same time, it's a place to show art in a domestic context'.
The initial inspiration, says partner-incharge Steve Marshall, was Kettle's Yard, the famous Cambridge institution established by Jim Ede (1895-1990) in the 1950s as a 'beautiful house full of beautiful things'; it was later extended by Leslie Martin and others, and is now one of the most beguiling small art museums in the world. The artist's house, the client insisted, must be domestic in scale and fully habitable - you should be able to take a bath or make a meal there. It could be a place where Richard Long, for example, might stay while setting up a new work in the sculpture park. Equally, the building should form an attractive showcase for works of art - 'I don't see anything wrong with putting art in the bathroom, ' says Madeleine Bessborough. 'Art has to be part of real life.'
The site was a gap, occupied by nothing more than a decrepit single-storey shed, in the stable yard, alongside the main house, where several members of the NAC staff have homes - the brief included extending and improving one of these units as well as rationalising the yard itself. The strategy was that the house would form part of a new visitor route around the centre, with a connection to the walled garden where lettercutting and other small works are shown.
(The first concession to 'visitor facilities' - a WC - was also included in the brief. ) At the rear of the house, the earth bank was boldly cut away to create a grassy amphitheatre where people can sit and perhaps listen to music or talks on fine summer days.
There had to be a sense of continuity between all the buildings around the courtyard, with their mix of materials, brick, flint and render, with slate roofs, reflected in the new work - the artist's house has a lowpitched roof, covered in slates recycled from Salisbury Cathedral. As with the gallery, the contractor for the project was locally-based Mark Price - his concern for quality of workmanship and detail was fundamental to the success of the scheme, says Marshall.
The proportions of the house are as classical as those of Corbusier's Villa Savoye, with the principle living spaces on a firstfloor piano nobile, as it were, and sleeping and bathroom accommodation below.
The bathroom fittings include a modern reinterpretation of the classic Victorian 'thunderbox' and a monumental handbasin made of Chilmark stone. While the adjacent residential extension is done as an unselfconscious copy of the existing building, the artist's house has a more formal modern dignity. The great first-floor living room, with its dramatically coved ceiling and fullheight frameless glazing, is the heart of the house. The use of timber boarding for flooring, and the full-height timber doors - an echo of those in the earlier gallery - provide warmth and texture in what is essentially a monochrome space.
The opening event at the house was a striking, and highly architectural, installation by Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell which added strong elements of colour to the interiors. More typically, they will contain sculpture and drawings - though there is no guarantee that these will be polite and recessive works.
Marshall's commission extended beyond the architectural setting to the entire fit-out of the house. His freestanding furniture (including a bed) has the right balance of sturdiness and delicacy - specially made locally, its cost represented a remarkable bargain compared with items of this quality available on the market. The kitchen - which cannot be seriously intended to be used very often - is neatly contained within a series of cupboards, again very well crafted.
Madeleine Bessborough is, of course, exaggerating when she says: 'I want it to look lived in.' Imagine a Francis Bacon daubing his colours all over the scrubbed boards. The idea of the building as a house is something of a conceit, since domestic and gallery use are virtually incompatible. Nor will this ever become a Kettle's Yard - the point about the latter was that Jim Ede and his family, to the amazement of many visitors, actually lived there. Yet, as Steve Marshall points out, the house is 'very straightforward and economical, with a simple structure, using ordinary materials'. He compares it to the residential spaces which the practice is designing, for example, at Gainsborough Studios in north London. The point is, of course, that in rural England, modern design is still seen by housing developers as unsaleable, though the artist's house, minus some of the more extravagant trimmings, could be the prototype for a new generation of village houses.
Structure The structure is based on simple blockwork cavity walls with returns to give stability. There is no vertical steel frame and additional stability is provided by the adjacent stable buildings and residential extension.
The roof structure was originally envisaged as glue laminated with a trimmed central opening for the skylight, but the omission of internal walls and increased central opening led to a structural steel pyramid. The hips of this pyramid are formed from 152 x 52 x 23 uc sections with the ring beam formed from 150 x 75 x 18 uc. Floors are formed in meshreinforced concrete at ground level and timber joists at the first-floor level.
Within this simple volume, a series of large opening and cantilevered shelves are formed. Custom lintels allow for structural glass. The external cantilevered shelves are designed to support large pieces of sculpture. Concern was expressed that the render envisaged for the external finish to the building would crack due to possible movement. The solution was to form a series of gallows brackets sitting on the strip foundation to the main enclosure walls. The vertical elements of the brackets are tied to the ground-floor slab to avoid rotation.
The front shelf supports the frameless glass cube for showing sculpture behind glass. The cube is formed from 19mm frameless annealed glass supported on one edge. The top surface cantilevers out from the main wall and is supported on a series of polished perspex cubes.