There is a long tradition of replacing country houses going back hundreds of years ever since the first non-fortified mansions were built in the early Tudor period. Since 1974 when the V&A exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ did so much to highlight the hundreds which had already been lost across the UK and particularly in England the presumption has rightly been against the demolition of country houses – a position which this blog very firmly supports. Yet to stop the replacement entirely could be seen as preventing the improvement of existing estates and seems to presume that no modern architect could match the skill of those who went before. The case of Parkwood House in Surrey could be a useful case study in showing that replacement can be ‘creative destruction’.
Since 1800, of the nearly 1,800 English country houses which have been lost, over 150 have been replaced by a new house. In the austere times of the post-WWII era, the new house was often smaller and easier to manage. However, before 1930, houses which were demolished were often replaced by much larger houses to reflect the newly established status of the modern captains of industry and finance or to mark an inheritance.
This process of renewal could strike again and again – I think the record is held by the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire which has had seven principal houses of varying sizes including the infamous Fonthill Abbey which replaced the superb Fonthill Splendens. James Wyatt’s Fonthill Abbey is widely regarded as one of the most interesting (if ultimately unsuccessful) houses ever built in the UK – yet its creation led to the destruction of the old house. Do we deny country house architects the ability to develop and improve just to preserve every older country house regardless of its merits? Is it worse to stagnate estates with unsuitable (or unsightly) houses or must new houses only be built where a house has already been lost or on greenfield sites?
Parkwood House in Surrey is unlisted – and probably rightly so. Built in the late nineteenth-century, it is, in the words of the architects of the new house “…an unremarkable and diluted essay in the ‘Old English’ or ‘Arts and Crafts’ style of the time” – but of course they would say that. However, looking at it architecturally, there does seem little to recommend it – a rambling house, pebble-dashed, with an unexciting entrance front with an only slightly more interesting garden front. The house is not connected with any noted architect, nor any particularly notable family (the only one of interest is the Australian 1st Baron Ballieu who was living there in the 1950s). The house then became the Rank Hovis conference and training centre with all that damage that entails during institutional conversion.
Planning permission was originally submitted in September 2007 and approved in November 2007 – a remarkably quick approval which might indicate that the planners had few qualms about the loss of the house. In fact it might be said that Parkwood is simply a big house a countryside setting – and ‘big’ does not automatically mean it is of merit. However, if the new house designed by the eminent Robert Adam Architects was not of such a high quality would the presumption fall on the side of retaining the old house? The new house is an elegant essay in the use of the Palladian vocabulary to create a design which obviously provides the space and comfort that someone who would live in such a house would demand but is also architecturally interesting. This is no mere cobbling together of a few weak ideas – this is a house which would rightly enter the list of good country houses in Surrey. Robert Adam Architects are one of the leading practices in the country working in the Classical style and have completed other similar projects such as this house in Surrey which also replaced an earlier country house or this house in Sussex.
So if we can be confident that the new house would be high quality replacement is it justified to demolish the existing house? In this case, as the earlier property is so unremarkable it would seem that the 91-acre estate would be better served through the keeping alive of the tradition of country house replacement – but this can only be justified where the original house is unlisted and of a poor design and the new house would be of the highest quality. Demanding the destruction of one house to provide another has a long tradition but is a very risky path and any such application must be open closely scrutinised to ensure that we are not simply throwing away architecturally interesting houses just to build hideous ‘McMansions‘ where bigger is automatically assumed to be better.
Credit: thanks to Andrew for flagging this up.
More details and images: ‘Parkwood Estate, Surrey‘ [Candy & Candy]
More work by Robert Adam Architects: Residential portfolio