words Justin McGuirk
Only a wall keeps the village of St Lawrence on land and not in the sea. This wall traces the edges of the Blackwater Estuary, as it does the rest of the Essex coastline, defending for the time being a floodplain that, with rising sea levels, will one day have to be coloured in blue on the map. On the dry side the wall slopes off into a row of gardens, one of which belongs to the Salt House.
The Salt House manages to be an architectural anomaly in a town full of them. Across the street is a row of lopsided A-frame houses with tinted windows that look like they were teleported from the 1970s. Until the Salt House arrived, they were the only arguable avatars of modernity in a community made up of houses and bungalows that are pebble dashed, clad with crazy paving or embossed with stucco pheasants.
Amid this quaintly eccentric jumble, the Salt House tries to renew a sense of a local vernacular. The house sits on the edge of a row of Victorian cottages built by the oyster fishermen who made their living from the estuary’s bed. With clapboards and hipped roofs, these cottages are the town’s only authentic architectural heritage and some of the very few homes to acknowledge the waterfront among a collection of houses that look like they could belong to the suburbs of any small town in England.
“I thought, let’s see what happens when we start manipulating a really traditional roof shape,” says the Salt House’s architect, Alison Brooks. The hipped roof seems to have provided all the impetus for the building, which has been extrapolated down from it as one almost continuous timber form, culminating on either side in long decks. Brooks’ statement is quite revealing about the intuitive design of the house, which is a series of angled planes that seem to feel their way outwards and downwards from roof to terrace.
As you approach the house, the roof disappears, giving it the rectilinear alignment of a classic piece of modernism. In some sense the Salt House is a very un-British house. This is not simply because Brooks, though based in London, is Canadian. By type it belongs more to an American tradition of modernist seaside homes that Britain has never really had. Its decking in particular – made of the same timber used for boardwalks in American seaside towns – feels transatlantic. But then the house also has an invisible Dutch influence, resting on concrete stilts that raise it above the potentially submergible land.
These concrete legs are the house’s key design feature as, with the help of the stepped decking, they raise the ground floor nearly a metre above ground level. Brooks says the house has been designed to accommodate “200-year flooding scenarios”. Flood levels are predicted to rise by an estimated 40cm in the next 50 years, but since the estuary area is at particular risk, the house had to be built to survive an 80cm rise.
Brooks likes to think that the house could be a prototype for building in the Lea Valley and the Thames Gateway, where the government is planning to build 200,000 homes in spite of the dangers of future flooding. The Salt House can even be raised higher by extending the concrete legs. This seems a more feasible solution than others that have been proposed for the Lea Valley, which have included houses with a sacrificial first floor, so that presumably there would be whole communities with nothing happening at street level. Brooks’ solution at least has a viable precedent. “In the Netherlands they’re always jacking up buildings and moving them around,” she says.
Alison Brooks came to London in 1981 and started working for Ron Arad, with whom she designed the foyer of the Tel Aviv Opera House and London’s Belgo restaurants. Founding her own practice in 1996, she went on to design the award-winning VXO House in Hampstead, which demonstrated that she had something dynamic and original to say about the contemporary house.
The Salt House is less bold, but then it is very self-consciously trying to find a middle ground between a traditional house type and a contemporary form. Brooks is part of a generation of architects trying to reinterpret the legacy of modernism and find a place for it that it has never really had in this country in domestic architecture. The only building type that modernism failed to colonise here was the individual house. And there is certainly no tradition in Britain, as there is in America, of young architects building their reputations on beach houses or second homes.
The Salt House is so called because of its resemblance to the irregular salt crystals produced in nearby Maldon. “If you take a piece of Maldon salt it’s basically a distorted pyramid shape,” explains Brooks. “But we didn’t start out with a piece of salt and design the house to look like it.” The building’s geometry is the result of angling the windows to provide 360û views that give it the quality of an eyrie. But at the back of the house the way the facade has been peeled away from the windows creates a covered balcony that also buffers the house against coastal winds.
This sense of a crystalline structure is equally evident inside the house, where the walls are kinked at oblique angles. In the middle of the open-plan ground-floor level is a staircase that gives the impression of having been folded down from the ceiling. The view up that staircase to a skylight is the house’s key moment, and provides an obvious sense of how the geometry of the interior has been derived from the underside of the hipped roof.
But the only reason why those oyster cottages have hipped roofs is because they were arranged around a central chimney. This house, which is a retired accountant’s bolthole, has central heating and so the hearth has been marginalised against one wall, making the de facto atrium the heart of the house. The atrium signals a shift from a homely vernacular to an architecture of the spectacle.
The atrium also opens the house to another aspect of the landscape. “This house is a lot about the sky,” says Brooks on a day so grey that the line between water and sky has dissolved. “You always get a sense of what’s happening – or not happening – in the sky. The roof is like another facade that should have windows in it.”
With its inverted funnel of a roof, the house has an upward-looking sensibility, but also an outward-looking aspect in general. It is extremely open. In fact, it is, as Brooks herself describes it, “a house with two fronts”. One faces the garden, the sea wall and the idyllic picture of masts gently tilting in the estuary; the other, the eclectic architectural life of the village. The house doesn’t quite fit in this village – but then neither do any of the other houses.