Grayson Perry, engineer Jane Wernick, neighbour Kate Kincaid, Living Architecture’s Mark Robinson and architect Charles Holland give their views on the House for Essex
When Living Architecture offered me the opportunity to collaborate with FAT it was a golden chance to realise a long-held ambition to build a secular chapel. Charles Holland and I batted ideas back and forth until a bonkers yet dignified design emerged glistening.
The building is a fiction in which you can live
The resulting building is a total art work, a fiction in which you can live, a digital-age shrine and homage to Charles’ and my home county. I hope the people who stay in the House for Essex find it playful yet monumental, cosy and maybe slightly disturbing. It is a three-dimensional musing on religion, local history, feminism, happiness and death.
Working on a building with FAT and Grayson Perry was bound to be fun
I’ve really appreciated working on the Living Architecture projects. Each house is unique, but (creative director) Alain de Botton and his wife, Charlotte Neser, provide a consistency of purpose; and with Mark Robinson we have the most knowledgeable and useful project manager that I have come across. Working on a building with FAT and Grayson Perry was bound to be fun.
For us the challenges were perhaps rather mundane: how to form the curved dormer windows at ever-decreasing scale; how to attach the unusually large finials and chimneys (up to 2.5m high); or how to hang a motorbike from the ceiling. None of it was rocket science; we just needed to think it through and draw the details, taking into account the layers of finishes. And we needed to make sure that the contractor understood what the fixings were really going to be attached to.
The reinforced concrete base of the building supports blockwork walls and a concrete first floor. In the end it seemed simplest to make the roof using a series of vertical and pitched steel frames that support a curved plywood surface. Timber rafters span between the ridge beams and the steel dormer frames. All the roof connections needed to be designed for wind uplift. There were lots of little pieces.
Visiting the completed building, I was struck by how solid and homely it felt. The intense colours and patterns somehow flatten out the scale differences when you’re inside. And the chapel has the most wonderful acoustics, if you feel like bursting into song. On a murky day, it’s a place to hunker down. On a sunny day, it’s a jewel box.
Jane Wernick, director, Jane Wernick Associates
When my brother sold this amazing site to Living Architecture we knew something out of the ordinary would be built next door. A derelict cottage on the site had been empty for 10 years and had nothing to endear it apart from its stunning location. Mark Robinson from Living Architecture came to tell us about the plans. He made it clear that this building would be outstanding for many reasons, not least as it would attract a great deal of interest from the public, media and art world. My husband and I embraced the whole idea. I was delighted to know it would be a holiday let; after all, if I didn’t like the new neighbours, they would be gone at the end of the week.
Rose Builders were fantastic and made sure their activities did not impinge on our routines. My only disappointment was that the work took place under plastic sheets. Being under wraps, the building created a lot of intrigue among the villagers and walkers who use the footpath which runs down the side of the property.
The sun on the brass-coloured roof is incredible
When the sheeting was removed it was a real ‘tah-dah’ moment. The sun on the brass-coloured roof is incredible, shining like a beacon. At either end of the day it takes on a magical, rose-tinted hue. The wall tiles blend in with the green surroundings and the house nestles into the landscape, tucked behind an existing hedge, appearing to all intents and purposes as an innocuous little place when you approach it down the un-made lane. There’s no doubt it is a ‘Marmite’ building: love it or hate it, no one sits on the fence. I think the village is rather proud of this extraordinary house. Some will always resent it. The comment I hear most often is: ‘How on earth did they get planning permission for that, when my dormer window (or such like) was refused?’
While I hate the stream of people coming to see it, especially when they ignore the signs and drive too fast down our narrow and hitherto quiet lane, I do feel privileged to know it so well. It will be around long after we are all gone.
Julie is proving to be an ideal neighbour. She provokes a lot of gossip, but never gossips about me!
In 2010 Living Architecture invited FAT and Grayson Perry to collaborate on a new house in Essex. We conceived it might be the perfect creative match but, until they were in the same room with pencils in hand, that was yet to be seen.
It was created without getting bogged down in the question of art or architecture
It worked; and credit goes to both Grayson and Charles Holland in finding a working relationship which put aside their professional agendas and concentrated on how a building could be designed and built without getting bogged down in the question of whether it be art or architecture.
From our perspective, the design process and agreement on the overall form of the building came about relatively quickly. The challenge was how to integrate the building design and all the practicalities of creating a habitable space with the making of the art, and for it not to be seen as one discipline outweighing the other.
The result is a building which performs this balancing act seamlessly, from the decorative hand-made exterior tiles, which become the building bricks of the structure, accentuating the rhythm of the house’s diminishing volumes, to the golden roof, with its oversized dormer windows leading the eye up to the roof sculptures and landscape beyond.
It is rare to find a collaboration where the ‘hand’ of each very individual creator is not immediately apparent. With A House for Essex FAT and Grayson Perry have shown how this can be realised in the creation of a unique building with a holistic identity.
Mark Robinson, director, Living Architecture
A House For Essex is situated on the edge of a small village overlooking the Stour estuary at the north-eastern tip of Essex. It has views across the estuary towards Suffolk and towards the North Sea ports of Harwich and Felixstowe.
The site is important in relation to the idea of pilgrimage. It is at the end of the road, literally at the point that Black Boy Lane turns into a footpath that leads down to the river’s edge. The house lies at one end of a journey from Essex’s London fringe to its agricultural north.
The house celebrates a fictional Essex woman, Julie Cope. Her life is a way to explore the character of Essex through artworks displayed within the house and that form an integral part of its fabric. There is a symbiotic relationship between aspects of her life and the spatial layout of the house.
The house was conceived as a landmark
The form draws on influences as diverse as Norwegian Stave churches, the wooden architecture of Russia, Hindu temples and Tibetan shrines, as well as wayside and pilgrimage chapels. It was conceived as a landmark, visible from the river and surrounding fields and terminating the view as you walk down the lane.
It comprises four archetypal ‘house shapes’ that increase in scale as it descends the hill, like a Russian doll. It has two distinct entrances, one for the house and one for the ‘chapel’. From the south it appears relatively small and domestic in scale. From the north it is grander and more formal. Internally it grows in scale as you travel through it.
Mirrors, hidden doors and screens are employed to heighten the drama of the interior. The living room is highly theatrical, orientated around a complex, layered ‘rood screen’ that articulates the transition from house to ‘chapel’ and frames a statue of Julie and doors that open into it from the house, like the face of a cuckoo-clock.
Both internally and externally the house employs decoration, ornament and explicit figuration to tell its story and to give its spaces an intense emotional charge. It represents a fitting finale to FAT’s career-long re-examination of the communicative potential for architecture and our commitment to the relationship of art and architecture.
Charles Holland, FAT