words Justin McGuirk
The shingle beach at Dungeness is a ghost town of battered shacks and boats. For a dozen miles the beach has given Kent a straight edge, but here it curls round the headland and slips past the mountainous nuclear power station that broods over the marshes. Before this dogleg is a bungalow sheathed in black rubber.
With its pitched roof and chimney it cuts a perfect house-shaped silhouette out of the scenery. Next to it, its opposite in every sense, is a 1950s Airstream caravan, one aluminium curve from beginning to end.
“I’ve always had a slightly spooky feeling here – that house, for instance, is full of worms,” says the architect of the rubber house, Simon Conder, pointing to the bait and tackle shop across the road. It takes a rugged type to make a home in this exposed and slightly post-apocalyptic spot, or an eye for unusual beauty – the filmmaker Derek Jarman’s cottage is a few hundred yards away. The couple that owns the rubber house concede that Dungeness is not everyone’s idea of the rural idyll, but it reminded them of one of their favourite places, the California desert. “There are very few places in England where the horizon is that open and that far away,” says one of the owners, and whereas in London she is dogged by lung problems, here she can breathe.
The rubber house is a modest project but one that, nevertheless, has preoccupied Simon Conder Associates for the past three years. To hear Conder talk about it you can tell he enjoyed working within the squatter aesthetic of Dungeness, where the archetype is the tarred bungalow and the ramshackle fishing shed. He is disdainful of the way the area’s new arrivals have tried to tart up the local vernacular – what he calls the “Elle Deco holiday home scenario” embodied by a “sub-John Pawson coastguard cottage” nearby. To Conder, Dungeness is frontier country, a place of architectural lawlessness. Until recently, when it was designated a conservation area, it was outside the system. “Once you start to try and have rules the whole idea of Dungeness falls apart,” says Conder.
The rubber house started as a tiny fisherman’s cottage. It had been dressed up with steel pantiles and other accessories that even the local planner was happy to see Conder strip away. All that remained were four flimsy timber walls that, hidden in the new structure, delineate what is now the living room. The exterior of the house is a shell of matt-black rubber so smooth that it looks as though it has been vacuum-wrapped. Open the near-invisible door, however, and you find that the entryway is a rickety fisherman’s shack. Daubed with splotches of ancient paint, it is the raw and messy counterfoil to the inscrutable surface and it clearly satisfied Conder’s yen for authenticity. “When we first got this it smelled of fish very badly,” he says, “which was why we wanted to keep it.”
The shed is joined to the rest of the house by an abrupt glass corridor that opens into an altogether more refined interior. Floors, walls and ceilings are all of the same light-coloured plywood, which mirrors the even texture of the rubber shell. This wholesale use of undisguised ply is unconventional but the budget was so tight that Conder picked most of his materials off the bottom of the catalogue lists. You sense that such constraints only make the project more rewarding to him. He made his name in 1997 with an award-winning workshop – “just a shed really” – he designed for the textile designer Georgina von Etzdorf in Wiltshire, where the interior was lined with rougher ply than this. At the rubber house he was again forced to relinquish obsessive detailing and let humble materials speak for themselves.
The rooms are not large but the interior feels improbably open. Standing in the rear of the house you can look straight out to sea through a long folding window – “one of the few things we spent money on” – and through side windows you can see up or down the coast. “Sometimes it’s almost as if the house isn’t here and you’re just standing on Dungeness beach,” says Conder. Even in the bath the horizon is with you, visible through a window that runs along the edge of the tub. There’s no real privacy but Conder is designing a freestanding storage shed for the couple that will block views from the road. “I always knew they had stuff,” says Conder – walls of books, a baby grand piano, even, on a side table, a cake modelled after their Wally Byam-designed caravan. All of this was accommodated by keeping the interior as simple as possible while avoiding cool minimalism. As Conder puts it, “We are not ‘wow’ architects.”
Black rubber, of course, sounds like a “wow” material. It does turn the house into something of a mysterious object, but not an attention seeking or fetishistic object. It couldn’t have been more practical. The idea came from the sheathing felt used on local homes under countless coats of blistering tar. Commonly used to line roofs or ponds, the rubber sheeting is tough, watertight, breathable – “fantastically high performance” – and it absorbs the sun’s heat, which is swept out of the house in summer by the sea breeze. The sheets were cut to shape in the workshop and then laid over the house using vulcanised, or welded, joints. Laying it was a constant battle against the wind, and Conder points out a few barely noticeable imperfections, but these are all in keeping with what he feels a Dungeness home should be: “It didn’t seem right for it to be perfect.”
The Dungeness house has been a difficult project to sustain and the practice has lost money seeing it through to completion. Thanks to the “leisurely” local builders it dragged on a year longer than it was supposed to – a year longer than there were fees to pay for. But, like Conder’s last financial disaster, the Etzdorf studio, the rubber house is an award-winner and it has already picked up the American Institute of Architects’ award for design excellence in the UK.
Meanwhile Conder is at work on three other houses in Devon, Cornwall and St Albans. The practice has also just won a social housing project in South London and in some ways Conder, who started his career in the public sector, feels more comfortable there than designing rich peoples’ homes. “Working on private houses is very traumatic because everything is so important to people,” he says. “In social housing everyone goes home at five o’clock.”
Near the water’s edge a pair of diggers is shifting shingle down the beach. Near them a giant wooden T, like something out of a Texas oilfield, is all that remains of wartime radar experiments. This is a favourite spot for shooting car ads and boy band videos. Nowadays, to the owners’ annoyance, visitors to Jarman’s garden wander up the road to gawp at the black house. Conder may not be a “wow” architect but he knows how to mystify people.