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Living Architecture is opening minds and changing taste

One of the most significant investments in contemporary architecture in the last 15 years has been made by Alain de Botton, the writer and public intellectual who established his reputation young by writing a novel, Essays in Love, published in 1993 just after he had finished studying for his MPhil in Philosophy at King’s College, London. This was followed by How Proust Can Change Your Life in 1997, another bestseller.

In 2006, de Botton published The Architecture of Happiness, a book which explores the nature of the relationship between architecture and our moral and psychological wellbeing.

Very unusually for an author, as a result of giving talks about what architecture could and should be, he decided to put his ideas into practice and, presumably helped by the fact that his father Gilbert de Botton had left him some portion of his accumulated fortune, he established an organisation, Living Architecture, to enable people to experience the pleasures of modern architecture, if only for a weekend. It is a modern version of the Landmark Trust.

The first of living architecture’s projects was called The Balancing Barn, an idiosyncratic, shiny, barn-like building designed by Dutch architects, MVRDV, which, as its name implies, projects precipitously over a field in rural north Suffolk, allowing one to look down from the sitting room to the field below.

It enables visitors to stay in a building where everything is ultra-modern — furniture, cookers, light fittings, it is all the latest high-tech gadgetry, a hymn to the modern, demonstrating that, if well designed, modern things can be as satisfying as old.

Not long afterwards, Dune House opened close to the beach in Thorpeness, north of Aldeburgh, again in Suffolk (maybe the Suffolk planners were more open to de Botton’s project), designed by Norwegian architects Jarmund/Vigsnæs in conjunction with Mole Architects of Cambridge. This is a touch more conciliatory to its surroundings, with a tall, wood-clad, pitched roof floating on top of an all-glass ground floor.

A third house, The Shingle House, opened in Dungeness in November 2010, designed by Scottish architects, NORD (Northern Office for Research and Design). This is the most straightforward of the projects, since Dungeness was already full of experimental huts and sheds, including Prospect Cottage, where Derek Jarman had created his shingle garden in the late 1980s.

When living architecture began, it attracted a lot of attention in its attempt to convert the British middle classes from their love of old houses and Cotswold cottages to a more bracing interest in the contemporary.

But there has been unexpectedly little coverage of its two most recent and more obviously programmatic projects, possibly because they are both remote and expensive to rent, although not by the standard of new London hotels (there was more than enough coverage of Grayson Perry’s playfully idiosyncratic “A House for Essex” which opened in 2015).

I recently stayed in Life House, a project by John Pawson, the well-known minimalist who specialises in updating monasteries. It opened in 2016. Living Architecture found a beautiful site on a remote hillside in deepest Radnorshire.

The idea was to replicate the experience of Henry David Thoreau retreating into the woods at Walden to experience what it was like living with himself, although, as the guidebook points out, Llanbister is a great deal more remote than Concord, Massachusetts.

The house (below) is designed as a set of dark brick sheds constructed alongside two long corridors at right angles to one another. The entrance corridor is made of light, Danish, hand-made bricks. Then at right angles, one finds the corridor of darkness, which leads past two guest bedrooms to a meditative, if not confessional, space where one can sit, or preferably lie, to contemplate one’s fate, inspired by a quotation from Pascal carved in slate: “all men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”.

Each of the bedrooms has a subsidiary function: the first encourages one to lie in a bath looking out of the window contemplating nature; a second has a specially-bound selection of great works of literature; the third has a sound system more elaborate than anything I have ever encountered. We were encouraged to lie and listen not to Bach partitas, but Leonard Cohen.

It is easy to be cynical about aspects of Living Architecture’s project. There are moments in the Life House when it seems absurdly over-ambitious, too metropolitan, lacking any real engagement with the local environment — an idealisation of nature in the abstract instead of an experience of mud, dirt and stone.

Alain de Botton has now left Living Architecture and is unwilling, perhaps unable, to comment on the lessons he learned from the project, though it would be fascinating to know what he feels worked and what didn’t.

He was possibly frustrated by having to contend with bone-headed local authorities and a lack of official acknowledgement for investing his substantial fortune in a public, semi-philanthropic project to demonstrate that contemporary architecture can be enjoyable, interesting and playful — as well as just a machine for living in.

I am not convinced he has converted the British to a Swiss belief in the virtues of the modern. But at least he has tried and more than 10,000 people a year can experience the pleasures, as well as some of the vices, of the most sophisticated contemporary architectural design.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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