Living Architecture 05.08.11

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Part holiday home, part missionary outpost, the Balancing Barn perches on a ridge in Suffolk like the cliffhanger finale of The Italian Job re-enacted with an extra-long Gulfstream trailer.

Hidden behind a screen of trees in the tiny village of Thorington, this is Dutch super-practice MVRDV's first building in the UK – and the first part of author Alain de Botton's grand experiment with the nation's architectural tastes.

Its missionary role is as the first building completed by Living Architecture, a company set up by De Botton to challenge the reactionary attitude of the British public towards modern architecture. "After being properly introduced to the true range of architecture, the prospective buyers of a red-brick Neo-Tudor house might look beyond their original wish," De Botton wrote hopefully at the conclusion of his best-selling 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness. "A few might even surprise themselves by registering an interest in a raw concrete box, to whose virtues they had, through a journey of aesthetic education, been led to feel newly sensitive." A nice sentiment in a book full of nice sentiments, it could be dismissed as wishful thinking from an architectural dilettante. But the author has followed through – he has turned the message of the book into a string of holiday homes. Each is designed to challenge preconceptions about modern architecture and, with luck, win over sceptical Brits in the course of a weekend break. The avowed aim of Living Architecture is to preach, says De Botton: "In the land of Prince Charles, a certain attempt to 'convert' has to be there."

The Balancing Barn, then, is a double advert: for the Living Architecture project as a whole, and for contemporary modernism itself. Most guests will no doubt have that attention-grabbing, gravity-defying image of the teetering building already fixed in their minds by the time they arrive in Suffolk. Fortunately, the building still makes a strong first impression. As we come up the driveway on a grey, rainy day in September, the headlights of the car are reflected back by the stainless steel-clad end wall of the house. It's a simple bit of theatre, but pitched perfectly at visitors who will mostly be arriving in the evening and expecting something special at the end of the drive.

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"We want that 'wow' reaction," says Mark Robinson, director of Living Architecture, who showed icon around the Balancing Barn and the company's other Suffolk project, Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects' still unfinished Dune House at Thorpeness. Previously, Robinson was project manager for the Serpentine Gallery's summer pavilion programme, and as such has a career rooted in commissioning small but high-profile projects from architects who have not previously worked in the UK. But Living Architecture is an attempt to get away from pavilion culture – to get people used to the idea of architecture as something to be inhabited, rather than experienced on a trip to a museum or gallery. "We're not trying to shock people," says Robinson. "We'd like people to come here and say 'yeah, I could do this', or take away ideas."

So the "journey of aesthetic education" prescribed by De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness begins here. A visitor arrives expecting to be both wowed and seduced – just what is it that makes this home so different, so appealing? From the driveway, the front door opens into a comfortable kitchen and dining room. Dutch designer Jurgen Bey was put in charge of the interiors, choosing furniture and decorating the ash-lined walls with pixellated versions of paintings by Suffolk artists Constable and Gainsborough. But what really dramatises the internal spaces is MVRDV's steel frame – heavy-duty diagonal bracing that marks every room in the house, a nod to Suffolk's wood-framed medieval barns and a show of strength pointing to the structural treat waiting at the far end. A long corridor runs along one side of the house, linking up the four smallish bedrooms and pointing to the showpiece – the living room.

The Balancing Barn perches half-on, half-off a steep ridge that bisects its site. The living room juts out into space, with a glass floor so visitors can look down on the garden and the swing that will ultimately hang from the far end. This, says MVRDV director Winy Maas, is a zone where the guests can be "unstable", float over the grass, live and philosophise (balanced by the "stable" groundside kitchen). Bey has turned this room into a showroom for Dutch design, with furniture by himself, Hella Jongerius, Wieki Somers, Gerrit Rietveld and others. It's simultaneously spectacular and comfortable, and educational: guests arriving at Living Architecture houses will get a welcome pack telling them about their home's design and designers; the shelves are stocked with improving books on philosophy, art history and architecture. There's much by De Botton, of course, as well as a training-wheels architecture library from Vitruvius and Le Corbusier to Marshall Berman and Kenneth Frampton. The bookshelf is a reminder of the unusual nature of this project. Given De Botton's range of interests as a writer – he has written books on travel, work, Marcel Proust, airports and other subjects – one wonders what prompted him to go this extra distance to promote his views on architecture. "I'm more and more aware of what books can't do," he says, "and have hence turned my attention in part to practical projects. I'm liking the doing rather than the thinking part. Architecture is my huge passion, I'm absurdly sensitive to spaces and overjoyed by good ones."

With its cantilevered whimsy, its swing and Bey's colourful furnishings, the Balancing Barn is certainly a joyful place. Like the glass floor in the living room, it might be enough to tempt people out of their aesthetic comfort zone, challenging without outraging. This zaniness is a risk – while it exemplifies the possibilities and adventure of modernism, it could also serve to associate modern architecture with stunts and expensive playfulness. But risks are hugely welcome in British housebuilding and Living Architecture guests seeking a more ascetic brand of modernism could head to Peter Zumthor's Secular Retreat in Devon or NORD's Shingle House on the fashionable wastes of Dungeness. And the idea of tempting people out of their holiday cottages and Landmark Trust properties and into a project that's not unlike the California Case Study Houses of the 1950s is hugely appealing. Four of the five houses – the straggler being Zumthor – are now taking bookings, and according to Robinson summer 2011 is already filled at both the Barn and the Dune House. Once the first five are completed, the aim is to add one a year to the collection, advancing beyond the south and venturing into the cities.

The biggest challenge is to reach the right audience – potential converts to modern architecture. Robinson is encouraged by JVA's Dune House, taking shape not far from the Barn. It's a work in progress when icon visits, with its interiors being installed and still minus the landscaping that will bury it up to its waist in sand, making the upper storey appear to float above the dunes. But it's a lot more public than the Barn, on a well-used coast path, and Robinson says the reaction from passers-by has been "90 percent positive" with some going on to make a booking. "We don't want to be exclusive to the creative industries," he says. "That's a risk we take."

 

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Living Architecture

 

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William Wiles

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Living Architecture is an attempt to get away from pavilion culture - to get people used to the idea of architecture as something to be inhabited, rather than experienced on a trip to a museum or gallery

01.09.09 In-Between 01

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