Magazine article The Spectator

Brave New World in Cheshire

Magazine article The Spectator

Brave New World in Cheshire

Article excerpt

IF you happen to have made a large pile of cash, and, like a 19th-century industrialist, want to set yourself up in style by creating a vast country house in a nice piece of parkland, what exactly would you choose to build? If the Royal Institute of British Architect's New Modern Country House competition is anything to go by, gloomy gothic piles and faux-classical hulks are out of the running. We've all gone organic now, and the winning design, it was announced with a great fanfare last week, `breaks with the tradition of dominating the landscape' and `reflects and positively embraces nature'. The creation of architects Ushida Findlay -- responsible for such gems as the deliciously named Soft and Hairy House in Japan -- it will eventually consist of 25,000 square feet of eco-friendly modernity, moulded into the undulating fields.

The huge new house will be built on the site of Grafton Hall in Cheshire, which was demolished in the 1950s, in 114 acres next to the Duke of Westminster's Eaton Hall estate. It will be only the third house -- and the first modern house -- to have been built under the exception John Gummer introduced to the strict rural planning laws when he was environment secretary. This allows country houses of outstanding architectural merit to be built in settings where they would not otherwise have been permitted.

The two new houses that have already qualified under Gummer's exception were designed by the classical architects Robert Adam and Quinlan Terry; just one has been built, by Terry in Essex. `Most places of this scale are historic or reproductions of historic buildings,' says Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay. `But people travel and have modern tastes, so maybe a more modern solution should be available to them.'

According to the estate agents Jackson-- Stops & Staff, who are already seeking a buyer for the new Grafton Hall, it is exactly the sort of bolthole a 21st-century industrialist or media magnate would want. Jackson-- Stops claim that a renewal of interest in country houses has been led by wealth generated by the creative industries, though presumably not dotcoms. The trendy new buyers loathe pastiche and want the best in contemporary design, allied with plenty of powerpoints and bathrooms. Some things never change, though: one thing the buyer of Grafton Hall will have is plenty of staff accommodation, for the army of gardeners, housekeepers, cooks and nannies it will need.

The finer points of its design are still shrouded in secrecy, partly because a buyer would be encouraged to adapt it, but it will be `an important contribution to the history of the English country house', says a spokesperson for Riba. And yours for 10 million or so, adds Crispin Harris of Jackson-Stops. `It's architecture as art, and I can think of plenty of people who would pay that amount for beauty and amenity in a troubled world.'

If you had that sort of money, is it what you would want? Not a town house in Eaton Square or 2,000 acres in Hampshire with a Queen Anne house in the middle? Until now, there has been little enthusiasm in Britain for contemporary houses, with their expansive windows and open-plan living spaces, even though the best are designed to blend into and enhance the surrounding landscape. They look fine in Scandinavia or California, so their detractors claim, but not in green and damp Britain. …

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