The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.

14 thoughts on “The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

  1. Dennis Hafer February 22, 2011 / 14:57

    Further to blogs on Rescue, Restoration , Rebuild or Future of Country Houses:

    Has anyone heard of a project I came across on the site
    called “Shawfield Park”? It is being rebuilt from the original Colen Campbell
    design. And does anyone know exactly where it is located – county, district
    or borough? Any additional info would be appreciated.

  2. Philip Lowe February 22, 2011 / 18:59

    There have been some good examples of modern country houses built recently; in particular Hengrave Hall in Cheshire.  However, credit should also be given those new owners who have invested £millions in the restoration of some of the most valuable historic houses throughout the country.  Without these individuals many houses would have been allowed to fall into a derelict state.

    • countryhouses February 22, 2011 / 19:14

      Hi Philip

      I agree – and Henbury Hall [which I think is the one you mean (sorry); Hengrave is in Suffolk] is one of my favourite new builds as a rare re-interpretation of the Villa Rotunda. What’s interesting is that Henbury is, of course, resolutely Palladian and therefore neatly falls into the category of continuing tradition. Where I find it less easy to like a new house is where it seems too alien – but that is just my subjective taste as to what I would like to see in the centre of a country estate.

      I do also heartily agree with your point about those who have had the patience, vision and sacks of cash to take on the many threatened houses. In almost all cases I will argue for the repair and restoration of any original building over demolition and rebuild – but only where the house is of some architectural merit (and I’m fairly generous as to what that might be). If only there were more government funds available to help the process along but I understand there will be precious little chance of that at the moment.


  3. Jeff Aldridge February 23, 2011 / 00:39

    I have always loved the photos of the original Eaton Hall . The replacement house is like a naked light bulb compared to a Tiffany lamp.

  4. Dale February 23, 2011 / 11:18

    Hi CH
    A well-researched piece which neatly sums up the tension of old vs new, changing fashions in architecture and the critics responses to them.

    Alderbrook Park seems to have used oast houses as the inspiration for the conical/pyramidal roof structures, or is it just me?

    I always thought that the Victorians deplored the use of neo-Classical design and the foursquare symmetry of it as, in Pugin’s case ‘heathen’, or at least unChristian, and others as more suited to urban landscapes, for town halls and the like. Their rejection of classicism for this building type resulted in the reinterpretation and reimagining of many other, more ‘British’ build styles, resulting in the eye-popping confections of Tudor gothic amongst others.

    Keep up the good work

    • countryhouses February 23, 2011 / 20:17

      Hi Dale

      Thanks. I think there were two distinct stylistic strands in the Victorian era which can be broadly split into Classical and the historical (including neo-gothic, Tudor Revival etc) and I don’t think one cancelled out the other. Beyond taste, as to which was chosen I suspect that religion may have played it’s part with the post-1829 emancipated Catholics expressing their new freedom through Pugin, Pugin-esque, or Pugin inspired historical architecture. This might be a little simplistic but it’s quite possible that those who weren’t Catholic or didn’t wish to be thought they might be, went for the more Classical styles. There were many good Classical country houses being built in the Victorian era – and the monarchy nailed it’s architectural colours to the mast with Osbourne House (built 1845 – 1851). Of course, it’s a little difficult now to find out the true motivations of the owners back then when they chose one style over the other – but perhaps someone will find enough material in enough family archives to come to some conclusions.


  5. ldm February 24, 2011 / 14:54

    Here are 2 photos of the latest version of Eaton Hall:

    The New Hall, Eaton, Chester

    Still not a success imho.

  6. ldm February 24, 2011 / 14:56

    And here’s what is to my mind the most attractive of the various Eaton Halls:

    Notice the tiny manor house to the right – that’s apparently the original one….before the Grosvenors ‘struck oil’ in Mayfair.

  7. Andrew February 26, 2011 / 14:00

    Dale, you are correct about the similarity of the proposed Alderbrook House’s pyramid chimneys to the old oast houses, although I must confess that my more cheeky side wondered if Adam or Mittal were inspired by Madonna’s 1980’s cone bras? In my view, a particular style of architecture will stand the test of time if its critics still respect and appreciate the style, even though it may not be their own taste. Instant dislike is a good indication of a short term fad. Adam’s design, while not being offensive, is not beautiful or inspiring, and is certainly not helped by the low quality drawing (there may be a better one in the application documents).
    I’m also curious why the Sunday Times 20 February article stated that Mittal paid £5.25m for 340 acres, when in 2007 it stated it was £10m for 380 acres?
    Another proposed replacement, for Chippenham Lodge (and its estate), beside Chippenham Park, has better quality images and is a slight improvement on the existing Lodge (photos).
    There is also a new classical £20m house and 222-acre estate to be created on the site of the old Nutbourne Brickworks near Hambledon in Surrey by Berkshire-based property company Millgate Homes, who bought it in 2000. However, the suggestion that this may be for Prince William is unlikely, as the proposed £20m cost is outside the Royal budget, even for a future King.

  8. James Canning February 26, 2011 / 23:50

    I think Mittal should have a chat with the Prince of Wales. The proposed house Mittal is considering is dreadful.

  9. Olivia Kirkbride January 8, 2013 / 13:04

    Interesting reading your comments about Nutbourne Brickworks. I know we are bit late in posting but we have recently completed a series of artists impressions of the proposed new house for the site that your readers might be interested in. It would be great to hear what you think.

    • ldm January 9, 2013 / 20:57

      I’m a complete amateur when it comes to architecture, but I thought I’d say that the design looks very attractive and interesting – it appears that all four fronts are intended to make a different architectural ‘statement’, which nonetheless all blend together well. I do think though that, the brick looks a little industrial, but then that may well not be how it will look in real life.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat January 10, 2013 / 10:35

      Hi Olivia – thanks for your comment. It’s so encouraging to see country houses being built on this scale and this is a very well-designed continuation of the tradition. The design of the entrance portico is superb and although I’m not a fan of high roofs, in this instance, the strong line of the chimneys and the wonderful lantern neatly counterbalance this as they draw the eye quickly over the roofline. I suppose the demands of modern owners to have a small leisure centre on hand have probably driven the requirement for the large building to the side which, to me, competes with the main house but lacks the finesse to do it well – for me the roof dominates. But quibbles aside, this is a fantastic house and I hope to read more about it one day.

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