How to build heritage

“More even than the great work of architects,” says Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, “I loved buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist’s pride and the Philistine’s vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.” Waugh sets up a contrast between a particularly English idea of the historic house as an almost accidental accumulation of comfort and patina, a thing more grown than conceived in which architecture is inevitably imperfectly realised, tainted by ego and ambition, by vulgarity and ostentation, and only time can heal its hubris.

The rambling, faded glamour of the stately home remains the physical manifestation of an ingrained social hierarchy which, despite the involvement of the greatest architects of every age, disdains the notion of individual genius, of creativity, of the ambition to express dynastic ambition through the construction of a family seat. Most of us do not inherit a stately pile. If we wish to express ourselves through the building of a new house, we must rely on an architect to provide something that will be robust and flexible enough to accommodate change, the vicissitudes of life and unpredictable patterns of lives lived in the future. But do clients and architects today think in terms of that future, of their houses becoming a part of our future heritage?

The very idea of heritage is, of course, modernist. It indicates a consciousness of our place outside – or beyond – history, as super-historic rather than as a seamless part of it. The relentless neophilism of contemporary design, the obsession with innovation and originality, makes for a very curious situation. For instance, in the midst of a severe energy crisis our buildings are built to last only a generation or so. Something has gone wrong with our idea of architecture.

For the past four centuries, the architecture of the house – whether it was a palace, a country retreat or an urban terrace – drove the architecture of the era. It was the ultimate expression of architectural form, an embodiment of culture and aspiration.

All houses want to look like stately homes. But with the rise of modernism in the 20th century, domestic design lost its role in the vanguard. Contemporary architecture is driven more by the sculptural gesturalism of the self-consciously “iconic”, the art gallery, the opera house, the skyscraper. The home has become merely a sideline on which young architects cut their teeth. Ironically, it is Britain, arguably the culture with the most intimate associations with the architecture of home as an expression of the individual and the family line – which has suffered the most; and it is an Anglo-Saxon malaise – the US has fared little better. Meanwhile, much of South America, Switzerland, Portugal and Japan have seen a number of striking dwellings built, structures that are often both radical and relating in profound ways to local tradition. These differences are intriguing.

In Japan, for instance, there is little reverence for built fabric. Space is everything, fabric is less important, so old houses are demolished to make way for new, and even the most ancient houses are only simulacra of old buildings, their wood and paper walls having been replaced dozens of times over their lives.

In Portugal, an architecture has grown not from the grand traditions of the aristocracy but from the white-walled vernacular – the everyday buildings – so the wealthy now build houses inspired by the austere agricultural buildings of a harsh landscape. In Switzerland, the traditions of Alpine lodges and urbane modernism have combined to create probably the finest contemporary language of architecture, in which modernism is never at odds with tradition but builds on it.

Architecture exists in a different layer of time, it is designed for the future, using the knowledge of the past but firmly in the present. That communication between the context, the contemporary and the temporal is richly evident in one of the few fine proposals for a new English country house – Mines Park in Cambridgeshire for Henry d’Abo. Designed by architects 6a, it is an extraordinary structure, a massive timber-framed house, its panels filled with hempcrete – the organic muesli version of concrete. The structure evokes memories of the traditional timber-framed houses of the British medieval landscape, its volume haunted by the scale of the grand barns as big and beautiful as churches, yet also draws on tropes and traditions from contemporary art and observation – the haunting photography of Idris Kahn or the hyper-objective cataloguing of industrial architecture of German photographers Bernd and Hille Becher which its architect acknowledges as influences.

6a founder Tom Emerson told me: “The real meaning of ‘heritage’ is from the French for ‘inherit’, to pass on, and when you look at the word in that light it doesn’t carry the same cultural baggage as does what it has come to represent.” The notion of “heritage” has, as Emerson suggests, come to mean a rosy version of the past. But it can mean something else. “Most clients do want something that will last,” he says, “and most good architects build to last, to ensure their work endures – that’s not hubris but just an interest in making things well, that will last.”

Mines Park, on the market through Savills at £5m, illustrates another particular view of building for the future. Many, if not all country houses are now built as holiday homes or homes to retire to. The clients’ connection with the landscape can be tenuous, locals and neighbours often resentful of any ostentatious display of wealth or architectural ambition (which is one reason such houses rarely get planning permission). Mr d’Abo, though, is a farmer; his relationship to the earth could hardly be more ingrained. Is his attitude to building a house any different because of this? “The two things that excite me about the house,” he says, “are the way it fits in with the working landscape, the parkland and the trees which are a harvestable crop, and the idea of creating something that will only improve with age. As I’ve farmed the land I’ve changed the landscape – and the house follows on from that. The frame is of oak, which ages brilliantly, turning from brown to a silvery colour. Finally, the house is designed with proportions inside that will be timeless, beyond passing fashion, spaces which can be easily rearranged, cut up or opened out again.”

This is one of the keys to a building becoming heritage – usefulness. Houses need to be able to adapt, they need to be flexible enough to accommodate change.

Tom Kundig, architect of a series of exquisite houses in the US landscape, says: “The less you become determinant about the nature of the building, the more flexibility you have, the more likely it is to last, to become part of the future. The most flexible building is an old warehouse: its inherent simplicity allows it to be changed and morphed in time. The trick is to solve the functional, cultural and poetic needs of a client but always with an eye to a simple solution which will be open to change – a client may be confident of their needs but they inevitably change.”

Ben Pentreath, a London architect whose solid, traditional houses could hardly be more different to Kundig’s open, airy West Coast modernism, agrees entirely. “My office is in an 18th-century terrace which could easily be adapted back to being a townhouse,” he says, “and it’ll almost certainly still be here in another 300 years.” But is his self-effacing, vernacular-leaning work a critique of overtly contemporary houses? Does he believe a house is more likely to become heritage if it looks old?

“Contemporary architects,” he says, “are largely interested in continual innovation but in terms of an architecture which is enduring, innovation isn’t very interesting. Everything has been tried. That desire to innovate, that a building should be of its time, is very much a modernist way of thinking. It is a complete waste of time trying to make an architecture which is of its time because by its very nature it all is – so I try not to worry about it and just build nice houses.”

There are traditional houses and there are self-consciously innovative houses, trying very hard to become a work of original genius. Both claim to be the ideal way to create a piece of heritage by either being explicitly of their time, or explicitly of all time.

Tom Emerson, though, sees the real interest in the gap in between the two. “All our work is about continuity as a means of contextualising,” he says, “but there is a tension between abstraction and familiarity which makes it easier to subvert an idea and make it original and striking.” Which is exactly what he’s done with the slightly, almost unsettlingly familiar – if altogether striking – form of Mines Park.

Is there an effort to make it an eternal building rooted in a culture of landscape and vernacular – even though it is so resolutely modern? “It’s the wider culture which in time will decide what it will incorporate into heritage. You can’t second guess what values will be in the future and architects would be better employed refining their work rather than trying to ensure their own legacy.”

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