words Kieran Long
Provence has little contemporary architecture of note. Immortalised in books in the 1990s as an expat’s paradise, the area has responded with a planning regime designed to preserve its lure for wealthy foreigners. Just as a desire to adhere to the forms and materials of Georgian London often produces beige brick monstrosities in that city, Provence’s desire to preserve a landscape dotted with vernacular farmhouses produces expensive houses with traditional terracotta roofs and garish render façades sprinkled with heritage-style arches and Doric columns. These are confections that are the result of a conservative planning regime in an area of high demand for one-off houses.
Patricia Miyamoto, the designer of the red house, on a hill above the côte d’azur, 20 minutes from the coast, describes the strict rules and regulations that define building in this region of the world. “In this part of France you can’t build anything with a flat roof, in an effort to avoid the horrible things that happened in places like Cannes. They want you to be able to look down from the plane and just see terracotta roofs,” she says. “There is a specific 30° pitch for the roof, and it has to be terracotta.” This is all to ensure that the traditional typology of the mas farmhouse is dominant, with its distinctive shallow-pitched, tiled roof and orientation along the terraces of the hilly terrain.
Miyamoto, 37, has had a nomadic career so far. Originally from Munich, she began life as a furniture restoration apprentice under a Bavarian countess, before studying architecture at the Parsons School of Design in New York. After this, she turned her hand to high-end retail design in New York for a variety of practices, before coming to the UK to work for Claudio Silvestrin, and then David Chipperfield. She started Patricia Miyamoto Architectural Design in London, before moving earlier this year to the quietly trendy city of Antwerp, Belgium. This house, for a German couple settled permanently in France, caused her to set up practice in Provence for a year.
The influences of Silvestrin and John Pawson are clearly visible, with the house’s minimal yet rich colour and material palette, and strong interest in proportion. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with Silvestrin’s Villa Neuendorf in Mallorca (1991, designed with Pawson), the essential example of Mediterranean minimalism with its adobe-coloured red-render walls. The colour is strikingly similar, if a slightly darker shade on the Provence house, and the attitude to the vernacular chimes with this early-1990s house. However, whereas Silvestrin describes his villa rather grandly as “standing like a medieval castle stronghold”, Miyamoto’s new house, which replaces an existing 1960s house previously on the site, is a facsimile of the form of the humble mas (a farmhouse building in the south of France), tuned to make it a more classical villa from its south elevation, while retaining a traditional-looking gable-end with long slot windows and deep reveals on the east. Miyamoto admits the influence but says: “When I worked for him I always thought the house was beautiful, but the colour was inspired more by the Malaparte house [completed in 1940, designed by Adalberto Libera on the island of Capri].”
Chipperfield’s influence is also clear, and there are comparisons to be made to his 2001 extension to the Knight House in Richmond, London. However, whereas Chipperfield uses the archetypal house form (with pitched roof and gable ends) as a mannered response to an existing context, Miyamoto’s formal tendencies are deeply suppressed by the vernacular form of the house. It is perhaps in the proportions of the windows, and in the long, low stone benches, that we see that the flair of Chipperfield’s Dolce & Gabbana shops has been tempered and made domestic.
The shade of burgundy that Miyamoto settled on for the exterior was one of the most difficult decisions of the design process. It took over six months of experiments to decide on the right shade, after trying whites and yellows. Miyamoto says: “We decided that red worked the best with the surroundings – the building sits in the middle of an olive grove, and red works well with this grey-green and the blue of the sky.” The walls are load-bearing and have good thermal mass, meaning the building is cool in the day, and releases the warmth in the walls at night, as does the traditional mas.
Internally the house had to accommodate the clients’ collection of contemporary art and modernist furniture, and Miyamoto’s aim was to make a light and spacious interior in the traditional envelope. The spaces have three-metre ceiling heights with high narrow windows, meaning the interiors are considerably brighter than those of the traditional mas. A local stone (pierre de Brouzet, an ivory-coloured limestone quarried in Provence) was used for the interior and exterior flooring, kitchen counters, bathrooms, and interior and exterior benches, and this forms a counterpoint to the bold burgundy of the exterior. The natural colour variations in the stone meant that it added richness to a very spare colour palette.
The plan of the 200sq m house was designed to allow for inhabitation by the couple themselves, and to allow visitors – children and grandchildren – to animate the spaces of the house for some weeks a year. Although the house is relatively isolated, sitting on an otherwise uninhabited site covering 100,000sq m of countryside, the terraces and the spectacular swimming pool are inviting, and the level changes allow the building to sit in sympathy with the landscape. Freestanding walls of various heights define these outdoor spaces without separating them.
Miyamoto has another house in Provence in progress at the moment, which promises to subvert the strict adherence to planning regulations. This house is oriented not in the traditional way, with its long side running along the side of the hill, but spills down the hill, dealing with the topography very differently to the way in which the Red House does. Miyamoto’s work remains diverse, however, and she is currently working on a children’s furniture range for Caramel. Her sensitivity to historical type and the simplicity of her forms should guarantee more success.