A House for Essex

This essay, which includes material from an interview with Charles Holland of FAT Architects (Fashion Architecture Taste), was published in Issue 2 of independent art and architecture magazine T-R-E-M-O-R-S.

As a bejewelled and glittering ornament adorning the Essex countryside, the design for ‘A House for Essex’ appears to be quite a stylistic departure from previous commissions by architectural social enterprise, Living Architecture. The majority of their bespoke holiday homes have been designed purely to provide a positive experience of contemporary modern architecture: light, spacious and uncluttered show rooms, but built and decorated with comfort and the domestic routine in mind. In complete contrast with these clean cut, monochrome structures, the collaborative design for ‘A House for Essex’ by artists Grayson Perry and architectural practice FAT ( Fashion Architecture Taste) has a richly decorative style and a complex interactive programme.

You could see ‘A House for Essex’ as the beginning of a second wave of ( Living Architecture’s) houses. I think ours is a lot less clear as a sort of flag waver for modernist architecture, which is also because our architectural practice is less clearly that as well… I think they are interested in trying out different approaches both in terms of the style of the architecture, but also in playing more with the domestic programme.

‘A House for Essex’ moves beyond the more straight forward conversation about contemporary architecture framed by earlier Living Architecture buildings. As holiday homes, these houses created a relatively impersonal or ‘tasteful’ encounter with cutting edge design as curated by exemplary architects. Set sensitively within, and in response to, majestic rural settings across the UK, the houses allow their guests to experience what life in contemporary architecture could be like. However, ‘A House for Essex’ has a far more pervasive narrative providing a complex curated experience.

Communicated through decorative aesthetics both inside and out, the building explores its site-specificity as a house for Essex’ with great detail. Responding to the setting FAT and Perry have drawing from references to wayside or pilgrimage chapels as well as agricultural or industrial buildings, but adding with a rich decorative style: “(A House for Essex) seems to fit in the landscape a bit like a industrial barn, but a really rich and glamorous one. It has a metal roof, but its golden, and there are hand made tiles on the outside – glossy and bottle green coloured tiles- which are richly figurative.” The building’s eye-catching exterior deliberately draws attention to itself as a question in the landscape requiring exploration. This investigative reading of the building will continue on the interior where the internal building design and its decoration embody the essence of Essex through the the life-story of a fictional character called Julie. Created by Grayson Perry Julie is an ordinary Essex woman, to whom the house is a kind of memorial or shrine; a “chapel for Essex”.

This overt use of decoration is a key feature of FAT’s practice, often utilising elaborate, graphically stylised façades to imply an architectural narrative; a style which separates them from the majority of architectural practices. Like Perry they are “ very interested in decorative, symbolic and narrative elements” which makes them, as Holland suggests, “relatively unusual, in the world of architecture at least”, but also makes their collaboration with the artist all the more succinct:

We are probably one of the very few architects that might share common ground with an artist like Grayson…On a recent panel discussion discussing decoration and ornament, Grayson made the point that architects do tend to involve ornament a bit these days, but in a very ‘in quotes’ way; normally only one bit of decoration which is done in a very arms length manner. Our use of it is often much more all embracing.

Through a collaboration with Perry and Living Architecture, FAT are excited to have the opportunity “really explore what a decorative building is saying” and extend the decorative element to a more all-encompassing level . The narrative of the character Julie “has moved it beyond just purely decoration. It’s communicative.” Through Julie Grayson Perry will create the content of the building, her life becoming the subject of a series of artworks, which will decorate the interior.

Incorporating a personalised aesthetic into a richly stylised design, ‘A House for Essex’ begins to visually lend itself to a comparison with Outsider architecture. Holland agreed that “ (Outsider Architecture) would chime with Grayson’s thoughts quite a lot. He’s probably quite wary and suspicious of architects (laughs).” Perry’s work has consistently used the hand-made qualities of unofficial or Outsider art to question the boundary between ‘low and high culture’ from within everyday objects and activities. In translation to the collaborative project ‘A House for Essex’, “he didn’t want it to be a perfect architecture environment; he didn’t want it to be too straight, too sharp; all the things that architects tend to do generally, which is make things that are slick and sharp: things that operate in a contemporary idiom of fairly minimalist taste.”

However, ‘A House for Essex’, whilst physically manifesting the highly personalised story of Julie’s life though a highly ornamental, narrative aesthetic, also has very clear formal concerns. The plans for building show a careful consideration of scale and symmetry, betraying a pleasingly simple structure, which supports the more complex visual cues. Through working together with the site Holland explained that the design “began to integrate itself with the site and the programme, and more architectural concerns, and in that way it became slightly simplified from what it could have been. It could have been a much more Hansel and Gretel. If you see some of Grayson’s and our early sketches they are much more like an illustration from the Brothers Grim: really wobbly, shaggy, animalistic thing on legs. I think we probably did want it to avoid being purely historical or fairy tale image, but to have some harder connotations too. … All in all, its probably been slightly more formalised whilst having a very dense level of decoration, inside and outside.”

The more formal needs have arisen from the requirement of the building to perform as a liveable space: “we’ve always tried to keep it moving between possible readings as opposed to becoming a sort of illustration from a mad-hatter’s tea party, which is lovely, but at the same time you need to think about how that kind of element integrates with people living in the building. For us as architects that is a very interesting question. The usability alongside it’s more symbolic qualities.”

It is this concern with usability which both ties ‘A House for Essex’ to previous Living Architecture projects and extends it into a different kind of experience. Indeed, the level of decoration and narrative makes for a “very immersive and full on” experience and is one of the reasons why it will house a comparatively small number of people to the other houses: “ Ours is smaller. Our brief was an evolution of the first set of briefs…its a more intense experience for a smaller number of people… it is an opportunity to live in an environment with a degree of intensity that you don’t normally find .”

However, as Holland argues that “the domestic routine is kind of fetishised” in all of the Living Architecture holiday homes. FAT and Perry have simply made this aspect of the programme far “more self-conscious” in ‘A House for Essex’. By drawing inspiration from relevant historical architectural examples such as Adolf Loos who created overlooked interior spaces and the fetishistic treatment of bathing in Le Courbusier’s Villa de Savoye “domestic life becomes a sort of subject matter for the building”. FAT have helped to translate Perry’s “ interest in daily rituals being celebrated and opened up into some kind of self-reflection” into a formal architectural environment where a bathtub can take on a “ceremonial position”. FAT and Perry have taken the curated experience of staying in a Living Architecture house and extended it by drawing explicit attention to what the building is ‘doing’ as both a ‘holiday home’ and an ‘experience’ by making it “almost theatrical.”

Where the ‘curated experience’ of the earlier Living Architecture houses focused heavily on the role of contemporary architecture, in modern life, ‘A House for Essex’, “It is less about ‘isn’t modernism great’ ( laughs) or ‘isn’t modern architecture great’ and more about asking, what is a house? What is the nature of a house in Essex, which is about Essex?”. It involves a far more reflective experience that provides many different answers to the question of the building’s purpose, nature or relationship to its surroundings: “It’s starting to ask some different and less obviously polemical questions. There are more subtle and richer questions about houses, the places they are in and the routines of domestic life.”

This intense and overtly self-aware experience of everyday routine is inherent to both the spatial organisation of the house and its interior decoration. With contrasting entrances at either end of the building, the ground floor moves between an unfolding concertina of smaller domestic spaces into more open formal spaces, from the private back space of the kitchen, through to the dining room and out into a double height living area connected to the more formal frontage, “ a bit like a church entrance.”. This large room will be the gallery like setting for the majority of Perry’s art works. The constant exchange of the gaze continues via the two bedroom balconies which look down into the living area, as well as from the bathroom, where the bather can inconspicuously watch visitors in the hallway whilst ensconced within the privacy of the bath tub.

This constant presence of a gaze – a heightened attention to the act of living in the space – is also created by the artistic content of the house. The display of Perry’s art work conflates the private, domestic space with the formal public space of an art gallery, in which a very different kind of behaviour is observed: one that is both self-consciously examining one’s own reaction to the space at the same time as curiously examining it’s content with a heightened attention to detail and meaning. Additionally, the guests are in many ways cast into the role of custodians of a public art work, which could mean that (with their permission) their private living space is half-open to being entered by the public.

From our point of view it would be lovely if you could go up and knock on the door and have a look round… You could be sitting there, having your evening meal and someone could come and have a look round, and the two don’t necessarily conflict with each other. There is a domestic bit that looks into the non-domestic bit , almost as if they are two slightly different programmes that have been joined together.

The theatricality of living in the space – of staying within a curated, and therefore purposeful, domestic experience – is thrown open to a wider audience. This is an intriguing extension, or addition to, Living Architectures earlier programme, which also aims to open up the accessibility of contemporary architecture to the public through an intimate encounter. The houses eye catching, unexpected exterior is also employed to draw in the public. As Holland pointed out “the way that the house is dealt with as an object in the landscape is important”. Formal aspects such as “ the stepping up of scale” create an intentional “ambiguity” as does the architectural references used that inspired this intriguing structure: “We looked a lot at Russian, Norwegian and Finnish chapels. They use incredible timber stave chapels in the landscape, which often involve a number of sheds that sort of get bigger and aggregate around each other. They are both quite rich and quite primitive at the same time.” At the same time “we were interested in referencing buildings that you might find there that are not the buildings that architects usually gravitate to” such as industrial or agricultural buildings, often equally mysterious in the landscape. Its glamorous and slightly mysterious form invites investigation from a wider audience and drawing them into its narrative.

In many ways it is built to be an attraction, a modern twist on the tourism of historic houses and buildings. This brings us back to the house as for Essex, or more specifically a ‘chapel for Essex’ to which people can make a pilgrimage. This element of the design made “choosing the site very important”. Positioned at a confluence of routes, the house can be as easily journeyed to as come across by accident, scintillant in the landscape.

It is accessible by train, car, and by boat as it is on an estuary . It is also very close to Harwich which is an Essex ferry ports So you could get there from Europe by boat. You could even land your boat on the river below the house. And you can walk there. Its on an ancient rambler’s way caller the Essex way, which is an 8- mile walk from Epping to Harwich. The idea of it being on a confluence of routes, relates very specifically to an idea of pilgrimage; that on day three of their walk someone would discover this strange building in the Essex country side.

In drawing from a heritage of historic buildings it seems even more appropriate that ‘A House for Essex’ should have a stronger personal narrative than the more ‘open’ holiday homes previously commissioned by Living Architecture. In being for Essex, it also has to be representative of Essex. Yet, the site and the building are both indicative of the many shades of understanding Essex as a place and it has been carefully chosen to be “a nice mix of things, which you would and wouldn’t associate with Essex.” Neither the stereotype of ‘the only way is Essex’ not deep in picturesque Constable country the setting is “ a bit agricultural, its near to an industrial port, its near to beautiful bits of landscape, but its kind of not spectacular in itself. It’s a rich, but not easily pigeon-holed kind of place.”

In employing the narrative of Julie, the idea of pilgrimage, and the relationship to a tradition of historic landmarks, the way that the design for ‘A House for Essex’ explores it’s site specificity is overtly self aware. FAT and Perry are very self-consciously examining the activity of designing a house for Living Architecture, questioning what the purpose of such a building might be and what it’s design communicates to those that observe it. This focus on the inhabitant and viewer’s interpretation of the building leads to the paradoxical scenario in which the FAT/Perry design is in many ways more open that the earlier buildings that don’t have such an overt narrative. The earlier holiday homes are complete within themselves for people to appreciate, whereas ‘A House for Essex’ requires an inquisitive audience. Therefore despite all the detailed information provided through decoration, there is a consistent ambiguity to the exact purpose of the building, as different uses, narratives and types of space are fused.

Holland explained that this openness to interpretation, the attention given to the reading of a building by it’s viewers or users, is a key element of FAT’s practice:

Hopefully it references different things, which is important in our work in general: that it makes multiple references without ever really being tied down to one particular thing, whereas I think its quite a common tactic of modern architecture in that kind of setting to use an abstracted vernacular: a classic pitched roof object, but with no express gutters, like a monopoly house type thing. It’s a slightly overly familiar tactic of architects working in a rural setting. We wanted to avoid that, but we also wanted it to sit within its landscape in a way that was sensitive to its setting.

Constantly self-referential and expansive, ‘A House for Essex’, unfurls, incorporates and builds upon each aspect of the Living Architecture project in relation to this particular commission: as a piece of architecture in the landscape, as a holiday home, as an art gallery, as a fiction, as a destination, as a curated experience. It’s detailed decoration and carefully constructed narrative emulate this intricate inter-connection of ideas.

Such use of detail serves to add layers of complexity as opposed to prescription. Despite an intense personality, ‘A House for Essex’ is not limited to one narrative or one programme of interaction. These things make it neither purely Outsider Architecture, nor a recognisable symbol of the architectural canon. Both of these are decided in themselves; what they are and what they represent. The abstraction of much contemporary architecture aims at an openness, a communality of taste, but conversely, often only presents one story to be read one way. In their use of decoration, seen in the extreme in ‘A House for Essex’, FAT and Perry have created a detailed plot, which is open to be read and re-read as you wish.

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