PPS7 – the saviour of the new build country house

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

The nature of our country houses is one of evolution in design, form, and function.  As society has changed, so too have the requirements of the wealthy and, as their houses have been a direct expression of their wishes, these changes can be traced through the architectural record.  Much as we love the many beautiful houses we have already there will always be the desire to build anew, which will constantly reinvigorate this branch of architecture.  As always, some designs will not stand the test of time and will be replaced but the best houses of today will be appreciated by generations to come.  Estate agents often have sites with planning permission for sale and the most interesting come with a design already approved – and in an interesting trend, they are almost all classical, rejecting the avant-garde in favour of brick, stone and Palladian proportions.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)

Once Britain became a more domestically peaceful land under Elizabeth I, the form of our country houses changed from defensive, to one of show as exemplified by the Prodigy houses such as Longleat, Wollaton and Hardwick.  Gone was the need for walls, keeps and battlements and instead the requirements of the aristocracy became focused on courtly entertainments, sport and the display of one’s level of taste and education. This largely set the pattern which can still be seen today, with only the architectural choices as to style varying according to fashion and whim.

Yet it seems that for the wealthy who commission these houses, the overall exterior style has evolved as far as necessary because, despite the efforts of the last Labour government to promote the bold and radical as the only appropriate response, a majority of the houses designed and built today are in a form that your average 18th-century gentry would broadly recognise.  Although most construction in the countryside is largely forbidden, rules introduced by the Conservative government in 1997 – known as PPG7 section 3.21 – allowed for planners to approve houses where:

“An isolated new house in the countryside may … exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings.”

In 2004 the Labour government sought to drop this, ostensibly because they thought it a loophole, but many suspected an undercurrent of class warfare (an early day motion put down that year by the former Member for Denton and Reddish, Andrew Bennett, stated that “this House … further believes that if the countryside is to be preserved by not building ordinary houses, it is even more important that is should not be polluted with big houses for the arrogant, vulgar and rich.“).  After a strong backlash with MPs (well worth reading is Alan Howarth’s spirited defence of the country house) and architects leading the charge, the rules were amended to become PPS7 which largely retained the status quo giving owners the opportunity to continue the fine tradition of new country houses but with a distorting preference for houses which would reflect “the highest standards in contemporary architecture.“. In fact, the market proved that clients know what they want more than misguided politicians and civil servants.

In response to the proposed changes the RIBA put on an exhibition called ‘The New English Country House‘ which looked at houses commissioned between 1997-2004 under PPG7.  Of the 24 houses included, 15 were in a historical style and only 9 contemporary, with a majority of the former being seen through to completion.  Interestingly, of the houses listed, at least half (by my reckoning) are replacements for previously demolished  country houses perhaps providing an object lesson in the folly of their original loss.

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

The poster child for the new ‘modernist’ country house was the design produced by Ushida Finlay in response to the 2001 RIBA competition to build “the country estate of the future”.  The original Tudor Grafton Hall in Cheshire had been demolished in 1963 after becoming derelict but the 200-acres of parkland offered the ideal opportunity to create an excellent smaller country estate. Yet for the limited pool of those wishing to spend the estimated £20m to build this vision the design ticked none of their boxes. After 7 years of marketing by the estate agents, it was decided to commission a new design from one of our best Classicists, Robert Adam, whose new proposal was described as “an exceptionally outstanding design“. However, the opportunity to create this new house is still being marketed with Jackson-Stops for £5m – so the argument hasn’t been decisively won in this instance just yet.

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

In much the same way as those in previous centuries wished to express themselves through their architecture, so it is the case today.  Houses such as the proposed Alderbrook Park in Surrey for the billionaire Lakshmi Mittal are a radical re-interpretation of the country house but driven by the particular requirements of the client.  Also of particular note is  Ferne Park in Wiltshire for Lady Rothermere – easily one of the finest country houses to be completed in the last 100-years and very much the product of the client working in conjunction with her architect, the brilliant Quinlan Terry.  Speculative developments seem less likely to find buyers as they become more an expression of the ego of the architect rather than the reflecting the personality of the buyer. The prime example of this is the poorly designed Updown Court in Surrey, once the most expensive house for sale in the UK at £70m, which now faces being carved up into flats or becoming a hotel.

Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)
Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)

So what other architecturally attractive opportunities are out there? One quite close to London is Nyn Park, Hertfordshire to replace a house which burnt down in 1963 with a design by another icon of the Classicists, Julian Bicknell, who designed the brilliant Henbury Rotunda in Cheshire. The proposed plan bears no relation to the former house and shows the type of new design allowed under PPS7. Just to underline the level of wealth required for these projects, the estate is being marketed at £10m, built costs could easily be £1m-2m, and the buyer must lodge £3m with the local council as a Landscape Bond that they will fulfil their obligations with regards to restoration which will be returned in tranches as the work is completed.

The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)
The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)

Another house which has featured before in this blog is the impressive ‘The Ridge’ in Gloucestershire; another replacement for a lost house designed by Humphrey Repton and demolished in 1934.  Designed by Ross Sharpe (who also designed the Icomb Grange), this 33,000 sq.ft. design takes the form of the original house but adds an extra level of architectural flair.  As expected, this is £5m for the opportunity with build costs on top.  Interestingly, the Knight Frank website also says that alternative plans for a smaller 15,000 sq.ft. house have been drawn up, hoping to draw in a wider pool of potential owners.

The Parkwood Estate in Surrey, designed again by Robert Adam, has also been featured previously on this blog back in July 2010 as part of the discussion around justifiable replacement.

For some, a new build will never be a substitute for a historic country house but for those with specific requirements or where there is a shortage of suitable houses, then the option of creating from scratch will always be enticing.  It is also important that the tradition of country house building is allowed to continue as it is only through development that it is shown that these fine buildings can contribute to, and enhance, the much-loved countryside.  PPS7 provides an important legal support for the principle that architecture should be allowed to flourish where it is justified and supportable and should be defended against any narrow-minded interests who would deny our history and diminish the future.

———————————————————–

The websites of the leading country house architects show the broad range of fascinating projects they are involved with, and that, fingers crossed, will one day be built:

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]