The Country House Ideal – Recent Work by ADAM Architecture

by | Architecture, Books

There’s no stopping the rise of the traditional English country house now!

Evelyn Waugh was not far off the mark when he referred to the English country house as ‘our chief national artistic achievement’. Similarly the architectural historian Christopher Hussey argued the country house was “England’s most characteristic visible contribution to the richness of European civilisation.” Hussey believed that even in the modern age the country house remained an essential part of the fabric of the nation. Was he right? Absolutely. Waugh, Hussey and countless others since have clearly been vindicated by the statistics, as people have flocked in huge numbers to historic country houses – many of which now operate as heritage sites. Heritage – now a £12.4 billion a year industry – is therefore one of the chief drivers of UK tourism, making it larger than the advertising, film or car industries. In great part this is the product of the ingenious post-war rebranding of the UK as one of the world’s cultural capitals, impressively cornering both popular culture and heritage markets simultaneously.

The current popularity of historic styles is also reflected in the story of ADAM Architecture, now one of the most successful traditional architectural practices in the world today. The many and varied country houses produced by ADAM Architecture – both in the UK and abroad – are among the most admired of the practice’s works. These houses may be based on traditional precedents, but they are not uncompromising period reproductions insensitive to contemporary lifestyles. These are modern houses with modern layouts and modern technologies. Nor do they mimic the vast sprawling power houses that you normally associate with the English country house, but are more in the (Roman) villa tradition of manageably sized dwellings.

The English country house and traditional architectural styles are now experiencing such an extraordinary renaissance, assisted also by the roaring international success of Downton Abbey and the like, that it is easy to forget that the first half of the 20th century had experienced the significant loss of many important historic country houses. It is also easy to forget that traditional design had for decades been marginalised by a resurgent Modernist agenda. Ideologically motivated Modernists had hijacked the RIBA, and both in the UK and in the USA traditional architectural styles were excluded from universities, and traditional practices were very much on the defensive. Robert Adam, founder of ADAM Architecture, has pioneered – and continues to tirelessly defend – the promotion of the traditional movement in the face of a determined opposition. Though the situation today is not completely free of institutional prejudice against traditional styles, the shedding by the newly tamed Modernists of their doctrinaire ideology in favour of a Post-Modern architectural theory, has allowed for a slightly more tolerant and pluralistic architectural practice. Behold the rise and rise of the traditional English country house!

Former Country Life Editor, Clive Aslet expounds the British perspective in Jeremy Musson’s new book, ‘The Country House Ideal – Recent Work by ADAM Architecture.’

The Country House Ideal: A British Perspective

Who would have thought it? Those of us who were present in 1988 at the Building Centre in central London for the Real Architecture exhibition, showcasing the works – then rather modest – of a group of Classical architects, including Robert Adam, could hardly have predicted the current volume. It is witness to the astounding growth of a practice and the triumph of an architectural approach. Thirty years ago, many architects argued that modernism was the style of the day and age. It is now obvious that, for country houses, this simply is not the case. Most clients in search of a purpose-designed home prefer a more humane type of architecture, one that evokes memories of buildings that they admire, and is easier to live with. The public has spoken.

The Country House Ideal Recent Work by ADAM Architecture rural romantics

The double-heigh staircase-cum-entrance hall.
A house designed by Hugh Petter at Avenel, Scotland.

It is not only the quantity of work illustrated in these pages that impresses the reader, but also the variety. The chapter headings ‘Anglo-Classical’, ‘Rural Romantics’, ‘Palladian’ and ‘Neoclassical’ give only a flavour of the stylistic range. Part of the reason for this is that ADAM Architecture comprises four architects: Robert Adam, Hugh Petter, Nigel Anderson and George Saumarez Smith. Each has his own architectural personality. Petter likens the offering to that of Savile Row: you go to the tailor with whom you feel most comfortable. Equally, none of these architects is enslaved to a dogma. Even to call ADAM Architecture a Classical practice is misleading. It is that, but more besides.

While the firm is based in the cathedral city of Winchester, Hampshire, there is also a London office. It is no coincidence that this occupies the same Georgian building as the Art Workers’ Guild. The Guild, founded in 1882, was one of the defining institutions of the Arts and Crafts movement. Adam, Petter and Saumarez Smith are all Brothers of the Guild, and the last two have served as Chairman of the Trustees. An Arts and Crafts emphasis on superlative building skills is at the core of ADAM Architecture. The merest glance at the houses in this book shows a dedication to the finest craftsmanship in the building trades. It is noteworthy that the technical director, Paul Hanvey, whose role it is to ensure that each detail of a building works perfectly, is – as Jeremy Musson explains – ‘embedded’ in the design team.

The architects who flourished during that highpoint of British domestic architecture at the turn of the twentieth century often roamed from the vernacular revival, inspired by the cottages and farmhouses of the Home Counties, to the red-brick, red-blooded Classicism of the English Renaissance. Both were regarded as national styles. That they take their place side by side in these pages suggests a continuity with two golden ages of house design – that of Edwin Lutyens and, before him, that of Christopher Wren. Nigel Anderson is specially attracted to plans of the ‘butterfly’ type, with canted sides, which were developed in the Arts and Crafts period. They allow the maximum number of rooms to enjoy both sunlight and views.

The additions to Langton House by George Saumarez Smith have brought to the whole ensemble a degree of interest and elegance that exceeds that of the original arrangement.

Image: Langton House near Alresford in Hampshire

Kilmeston Manor The Country House Ideal Recent Work by ADAM Architecture

Top-lit and inspired by the brilliant floating ceilings of Sir John Soane, recent work by George Saumarez Smith at Kilmeston Manor in Hampshire.

Most of the houses in this book are of the type that Sir Lawrence Weaver characterized, in a series of early twentieth- century books, as the small country house. They are by no means small by ordinary standards; but they are not the rambling monsters beloved of the Edwardian plutocracy, with ballrooms that could also serve for theatricals and courtyards of rooms for filling oil lamps and brushing hunting clothes. The new country houses are generally compact, in what George Saumarez Smith describes as ‘the villa tradition’. Palladian models work well for modern life, providing a series of rooms of different shape and size that can be used as the client needs at the moment. As Saumarez Smith says, ‘Palladio’s houses were not used all the year round: the owners turned up with their belongings and occupied them as they saw best at the moment.’ Their adaptability prefigures the needs of an age in which clients answer emails in whichever room they happen to be, and televisions are just as likely to be found in a bathroom or kitchen as in a sitting room.

Another comparison, observes Hugh Petter, is with the plantation houses of the American South, which were planned more simply than British country houses; not having attached service wings or attic bedrooms, their rooms were more intensively used. But historical parallels will take us only so far in examining the buildings in this book. despite the accusations of pastiche that are still thrown about by unobservant critics, the houses designed by this practice are unlike those of any other period of architecture. They could have been built at no other time than our own.

A generation ago, Classicism and tradition were, for some architects, a place of mental refuge to which they retreated in an attempt to keep modernity at bay. To some Classicists, they may still be. This, however, was never the case with Robert Adam. His younger partners, entering practice at a time when the stylistic battles of the past had been won, never felt the need to adopt the extremist position of a previous architectural generation. There is no attempt to imitate the country houses built at earlier periods of history. Houses that are broadly Georgian in feeling do not always have sash windows; casement windows are easier to triple-glaze. The Classical language is as flexible as that of English in the computer age.

The house, seen from above, fits beautifully into the sloping landscape setting.

Image: Eastridge in Hampshire, designed by Nigel Anderson

Wudston House Wiltshire The Country House Ideal Recent Work by ADAM Architecture

The main staircase rises in one dramatic flight to the first floor. Wudston House in Wiltshire.

Some expectations of the twenty-first-century client would have been familiar to William Chambers or James Wyatt. Somebody who goes to the trouble and expense of commissioning a new country house will want the first sight of it to impress. It will need a strong façade and an imposing entrance hall. There will then probably be a number of reception rooms of formal mien. The shape and relationship of these spaces are tried and tested. But when we get to the area in which the family spends most of its time – the kitchen/living room and perhaps associated suite – historical precedent runs out. The kitchen is now likely to command the best view on the ground floor. Attached to it could be a dining room, a small sitting room, a conservatory; there may be a further kitchen for caterers. Inevitably, new requirements generate new architectural forms. They also demand a lot of new thought.

Upstairs, bathrooms and wet rooms have arrogated to themselves an importance not seen since the onyx and alabaster bathrooms of the Art Deco era. master bedroom suites may contain two bathrooms, two bedrooms and a sitting room: these are homes to be occupied and enjoyed by their owners, rather than Elizabethan-style power houses for the domination of the countryside or centres of Victorian paternalism, where the tenants could be feted in the great hall. (There is a comparison with the resort houses built on the edges of big American cities in the early twentieth century and later, where sport and relaxation were the priority.) These days, staff are not relegated to the barrack-like rooms re-created for television’s Downton Abbey; comfortable, semi-independent quarters have to be provided for owners wanting to attract a good couple.

One of the benefits of the traditional house is that its construction provides high thermal mass, making it inherently energy-efficient – unlike glass, which, as Adam notes, is the ‘default position of modernism’. Traditional appearance does not in any way preclude the gizmos of the latest domestic technology – although it is noticeable that the desire for touch-screen systems, whereby six or seven different lighting circuits in a room can be controlled from an iPad or iPhone, has waned, as clients come to feel they bring an unnecessary degree of complexity into daily life. On the other hand, light switches that do not need to be wired to the lights that they operate offer practical benefits, particularly to owners of listed buildings (those that are protected by law on account of their historical or architectural interest). Perhaps this reflects a trend among the people – thoughtful, imaginative and successful – who commission new country houses. Philosophers throughout the ages have noticed that simplicity promotes happiness. The same might be said of tradition.

Penny Lane Farm has a robust, vernacular flavour, immediately reminiscent of the bold massing and playful outline of designs by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Image: Penny Lane Farm near Stockbridge in Hampshire, designed by Robert Adam

THE COUNTRY HOUSE IDEAL: Recent Work by ADAM Architecture

by Jeremy Musson, published by MERRELL Publishers, RRP £40

Main Image: Manor Farm in Little Rollright, Oxfordshire.
Photography by Paul Barker, supplied courtesy of Merrell Publishers

To order The Country House Ideal: Recent Work by ADAM Architecture at insider price, please visit GDC Interiors Journal Book Collection on Amazon


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