In South Devon, between the resorts of Salcombe and Hallsands lies a landscape of rolling hills, wooded river valleys, patchwork fields and small villages of old stone houses. It is here Living Architecture invited one of the greatest architects in the world, Peter Zumthor, to create Secular Retreat. The house is due to be completed by the end of 2018, and is now available to book from March 2019.
In the Secular Retreat, the latest in the Living Architecture programme of building beautiful modern holiday homes, a thick slab of concrete hovers over a long, glass-sided corridor. Future visitors may not pay it much attention – they’ll be distracted by the lovely Devonian hills revealed and reflected by the glass – but it takes a lot to stop it toppling over: a lot of steel reinforcement, of its engineers’ mathematics, of arduous processes of construction and ultimately of money. It is a feat of building whose achievement is to make you look somewhere else.
If it would have been simpler and cheaper to insert a column or two, that would have undermined the “horizontality” essential to the house’s architect, Peter Zumthor. “Look at the landscape,” he says. “There’s horizontality all about,” and a column would indeed have jarred. Highly engineered nuance, effort in the service of the effortless, artful simplicity – all are essential to the effect of this work. It’s a gliding swan of a building, propelled unseen by furiously paddling feet.
This five-bedroom, single-storey house, 375 square metres in area, has been 10 years in the making (it has been under construction for four). Its site was acquired early in the life of Living Architecture, which the writer Alain de Botton set up in 2006 to enable people to enjoy the pleasures of contemporary architecture at relatively affordable prices. Zumthor (b1943), a famously meticulous son of a Swiss cabinet-maker, is not one to be rushed. He is demanding of his clients: “I don’t do buildings for a quick return,” he says, “that is not what I am offering in my shop.”
He goes beyond ordinary attention to detail. Zumthor interrogates construction methods, pummels them, stretches them, drives them like an exacting athletics coach to do what they didn’t know they could. And so the stone floor required a long-range discussion about the placing of every piece, between the quarry in Somerset and Zumthor’s office in Switzerland, which also required a two-year search to find a quarry with both the right kind of stone and a willingness to take part in the intricate design process. House-high panels of triple glazing had to be shipped to site from a preferred German manufacturer via narrow West Country lanes.
Such things can’t happen without individuals such as Living Architecture’s director, Mark Robinson, and the project’s building contractor Simon Cannon, who gave years of their lives to interpreting Zumthor’s wishes. “You need people like this,” he says, “people who are proud of it, who want to tell their grandchildren that they did it.” It’s a labour of love, by builders and client as well as architect. Living Architecture won’t divulge the cost, but it will be in the millions, and it is clearly their most expensive project.
The sublimity of the architecture comes by way of a certain roughness. Its character is set by pillars and walls of thick concrete mixed from local materials, shovelled and rammed by hand, the wobbly joints between one day’s work and the next left visible. It conveys the joy of mud, the primal pleasure of shaping stuff with your hands, albeit in rectangularised form. The building further suggests a quality often associated with seriousness in architecture, which is that the masonry structure is visible and naked, that what you see is what holds it up. It is a property of ancient temples (at least in their modern ruined state) and – to give examples that Zumthor himself likes – of the columned porticoes of Andrea Palladio’s Renaissance villas in the Veneto.
Such structures, he says, “have incredible presence; strong, material presence”. But then, having established mass, he plays off it. There is a lot of glass, and more often than not it is the material of the external walls. An inside-out quality arises: to pass from a bedroom to a corridor is to go through a rugged, castle-thick wall, yet between bed and horizon there is nothing but that immaculate German triple-glazing. The abundant transparency allows the interior to light up from all directions and at all times of day. The ensemble, loosely composed out of two bedroom blocks and a pillared living space, is light and heavy at once, its weight dissolving into collages of light, shadow, views and reflection.
Inside, it levitates, with a slope in the ground exploited such that you look from the living space into the midriff of surrounding trees – Monterrey pines imported from Canada in the 1940s to ring a house that previously stood on this site. The Flintstonian tendency of the concrete is countered by refined, Swiss-crafted tables of Zumthor’s design, where fruitwood tops are given edges of aeronautic sharpness. Armchairs in purple and ochre lend softness, colour and a hint of kitsch. Assonances occur, for example between the wavering lines in the concrete and those of clouds or hedgerows, or between the pillars and tree trunks seen through glass. Reddish timber floors in the bedrooms approximate the colour of the local earth.
What the architecture does, says the architect, is to frame and heighten the experience of the surroundings – the expansive, soft-edged terrain of a peninsula in south Devon, where the air gains luminosity from the proximity of the sea. “Sometimes the landscape needs a human addition to be really beautiful,” says Zumthor. It does not precisely offer oneness with nature – this is not a house where you fling open doors and windows and let the great outdoors blow through – but rather a rarefied, manmade nature that exists in parallel to the real thing.
The Secular Retreat is a work of conjoined opposites and subtle fictions, of light-heavy, local-foreign, natural-artificial and domestic-monumental. Its apparently monolithic quality is in fact contrived, as modern building regulations oblige architects to avoid something called a cold bridge, a worry not known to Palladio, which is the loss of heat through a piece of masonry that runs from inside to outside. An insulated break is now demanded. So those walls and roofs are in fact in two layers, with insulation between them, and some art is employed to make them look like solid single pieces, which art adds to the dreamlike, bubble-like quality of the interior.
All this might be thought a bit too much for a setting for rural mini-breaks. A bit too achingly precious too – an impression not diminished when an arriving journalist finds the architect posed contemplatively at a wooden table, with the haunting strains of John Dowland emanating from the sound system. But the building is its own justification. It is simply a miraculous piece of architecture, working on you through multiple scales and registers, its tendency to grandeur modulated by intimacy and invention.
For De Botton, architecture can conjure a sort of secularised faith, an alternative to religion for a self-described “gentle” atheist. This house is therefore more than a house, which is why it has its slightly portentous name. It is also the last in a series that has included A House for Essex by Grayson Perry and FAT, and other works in Suffolk, Norfolk, Powys and Kent. Living Architecture is now turning its attention away from houses, in part because there are now more ways than there were a decade ago to rent fine modern spaces. There has been talk of building a “temple to atheism”. It is hard, though, to imagine a space that would fit this particular bill better than the one just finished in Devon.
- Secular Retreat bookings are now open, starting from March 2019
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