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.

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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:

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.