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The Manser celebrates a commitment to design

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Manser Medal essay by Ellis Woodman

Having once spent the larger part of a decade prevaricating over the refurbishment of my own one-bedroom flat, I know to my cost quite how complex and emotionally draining the design of domestic architecture can be. Recently a civil partnership required me to go through the whole process again and at rather larger scale. This time I recruited a friend, Dan Jones of Civic Architects, to design and supervise the project - a decision that has to rank as one of the better that I have made in my life. I am happy to report that Dan and I are still friends, despite the fact that he persuaded us - in the most gentle and unassuming manner - to perform some major surgery on an apartment that we had initially thought required little more than a lick of paint. Each day that we have lived here, it has remained eminently clear to me that he was not wrong. Gleaning our domestic requirements and translating them into a floor plan ultimately demanded a perspective and ruthlessness that only a skilled outsider was able to provide.

Of course there is a distinguished list of houses built by architects for their own use - projects like the Gehry or Goldfinger residences or, indeed, last year’s Manser Medal-winning Slip House by Carl Turner Architects - in which no external party played a role. However, more often than not success depends on an encounter between a strong and empathetic architect and a client with particular needs and a readiness to be surprised. It is a rare combination. While Mies’s Farnsworth House may rank as one of the defining works of 20th century architecture, the contract ended with Edith Farnsworth suing her architect for damages - ultimately unsuccessfully - on the grounds of malpractice. Conversely, a celebrated British artist once voiced to me her regret at exchanging the original architect of her house for one more accommodating of her demands. Now that she was living there she recognised that the challenge to her expectations presented by her initial choice of practice would have made for the better building.

The realisation of a great private house invariably requires an architect to employ superhuman powers of persuasion. Certainly some of the most memorable homes that I know - the Farnsworth House among them - are buildings that I could not begin to imagine living in myself. I remember once talking to the clients of a windowless concrete cave in central London and beginning to suspect that they had succumbed to the architectural equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. The building was a tour de force but, to my mind, a completely uninhabitable home. Ultimately, however, private house design is one sector where the usual critical standards are of little relevance. The only judgment that really matters is that of the clients themselves. It takes strength of character to offer oneself up as the willing victim of an architect’s imagination. The Manser Medal constitutes a celebration of that commitment.

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