Night and Day

By Dinan Hall.

This is a story about a good modern house. And because this is England, that means the story must start with the inevitable planning rejection. “It’s like the wart on the neck of an elderly vicar” was the variation-on-a-theme verdict of one planning committee member on James Gorst’s design for what was to be the lodge of a new country estate in West Sussex. Even though the planning officer had recommended the scheme for approval, it was turned down twice before it went through on appeal.

Ironically, had James Gorst been asked to design the building ten years previously, he would probably have devised a scheme that would have sailed through the planning process, because James is the most interesting of characters – either a turncoat or a convert, depending on your point of view. He studied architecture at Cambridge in the Seventies and for a time worked in a classical idiom, but in 1994 he “dropped out” of architecture for a year and, while considering a new career as a probation officer, had time to rethink his whole attitude. When he resumed his career as an architect he began to work in a more modern vein. “There’s little opportunity for personal expression with classicism – and all architects want their work to exhibit something of themselves. Very few things are totally original, but my feeling was that if a building had been done before, why do it again?”

When his clients, Richard Taylor and Rick Englert, first approached James, it was with a view to his designing two houses: the lodge house seen on these pages and the main house as well. The lodge was intended as “stopgap accommodation which could be rented out afterwards”. This was a dream commission. The site, not far from Petworth, is magnificent – 100 acres of rolling pastureland with oak trees and a lake. However, since he was saving the fireworks for the “main attraction”, his design for the lodge was deliberately self-effacing: “it was always going to be the B-movie,” James says ruefully, before acknowledging that ultimately this has worked in the building’s favour. “If I had thought it was going to be my only chance here, I would have probably tried to turn it into a kind of architectural Dante’s Inferno,” he laughs. Although his clients are very pleased with the result, it is undoubtedly more modern than they anticipated and they obviously got cold feet about going in the same direction with the main house.

Or perhaps they just couldn’t take any more metaphors. James Gorst is one of those architects who delivers not just a design but a philosophical treatise with it – and very seductive it is, too. “The idea of the house,” he explains, “was a metaphorical expression of our existence.” The “diurnal” ground floor is open and filled with daylight, with “the landscape as wallpaper”, while the
“nocturnal” upstairs represents stepping into the internal world of sleep – quiet, shuttered, with light coming from within. The windows on this floor were intended to be minimal slits, but James had to compromise in the main bedroom where his clients insisted on a large picture window to make the most of the view.

Before starting this commission, James Gorst went on holiday to Finland. There he was very struck by the way the Finns build houses against forest backdrops – “on the threshold of light and dark” and in palettes of “spectral silver and grey”. The site in Sussex enabled him to use the same kind of dramatic setting which reinforced his day/night analogy, with the Freudian view of dark woods as the id or subconscious – a place of dreams. In terms of architectural style, he was more interested in making references to agricultural buildings than domestic Sussex vernacular – to create what he describes as “a modern house triggering off memories of older buildings”.

The way the visitor approaches the house was as important to James as its place in the landscape. You drive past the front façade – there’s something potentially intimidating about such big expanses of glass, so your instinct is to find a less exposed way in – and turn in behind the garages in the adjacent barn. You then come through an archway, reminiscent as James says, of a courtyard of a Cambridge college, which frames the view of the dramatic split gable. As you enter the house itself through the open-plan kitchen/dining area, the building opens up above you, bisected by an oak staircase, with light pouring down from a skylight. Two spare bedrooms over the stairs benefit from this light, which creates magical effects throughout, softening the concrete and illuminating the unvarnished oak. With glazed walls, the rooms face each other (“a voyeur’s dream”, jokes James).

Concrete may not seem the most sympathetic material to use in a rural setting; indeed, budgetary considerations aside, limestone was the preferred choice. But in fact the concrete floors and pillars suit the raw character of the building perfectly. This was the local builders’ first foray into cast concrete and they certainly weren’t helped by the weather. Work began on site in autumn 2000 in almost constant rain, the builders knee-deep in mud – not the best circumstances for pouring concrete. “When it was going up, it was considered the most expensive car park in Sussex.” Happily, the finished house is beautifully crafted, reassuringly tactile and in perfect harmony with its surroundings – when it rains, the oak exterior turns almost black but dries to a silvery grey. Meanwhile up the hill the main house – a Robert Symthson-esque fantasty – is half-built. The planning committee loved it, of course.

House and Garden April 2003

Back to top