Whithurst Park cottage

Among the most beautiful of English reinterpretations of the barn aesthetic is James Gorst’s Whithurst Park Cottage in the county of West Sussex. Set to one side of extensive parkland, with forestry directly behind it, the house was commissioned as a contemporary guest lodge by clients planning to build a new and much larger country home perched on a hillside some distance away. Gorst wanted to create a building that would have a life and strength of its own, but also be unobtrusive in relation to this unbuilt big brother. The look of a barn seemed the perfect solution, assuming a natural presence in this rural location surround by farmland.

“It’s a modern barn and refers to barns yet takes the tradition forward,” says Gorst. “I didn’t want to suburbanize or domesticate the meadows and I didn’t want it to look too much like a house at all, or to have anything in the way of formal gardens. I wanted to play up the agricultural side of it and I also wanted an archetypal form, which the barn was. These things help you start the narrative of the building.”

Gorst had recently visited Finland and noted how the Finns often site country houses on the thresholds of woods and fields, rather than out in the open. Attracted by the idea of contrasting openness to one side of the building with seclusion to the other, he decided to position the cottage on a spot close beside the trees, with few windows to the rear and its façade looking out across the unspoilt meadow lands.

“The forest is the unknown and sheltering force while the meadow is openness and light,” says Gorst. “It’s as if the house is hovering between these two worlds and you don’t quite know which one it belongs to. I was interested in that as a theme for the house, which carried through to the architecture in the way it is completely glazed at ground-floor level and the ground floor is where you are in the day with the landscape as your wallpaper. But then the bedrooms upstairs have very few windows and I wanted that to be a much more introspective space that you retire to. That’s why the centre of the roof is cracked open to let light drop into the centre of the building and then go in through internal glazed screens in the stairwell to the bedrooms.”
The banks of glazing at low level, as well as the steeply pitched zinc-copper-titanium alloy roof, give a feeling of modernity that is juxtaposed with the very traditional, vernacular flavour of the oak frontage that stretches across the rest of the exterior. The oak paneling was chosen partly to tie in with the barn flavour, and partly because the local area is rich in oak and so it was felt to be a natural choice. But it was also chosen because the wood will slowly turn grey, creating a harmony of colour in the palette of materials – a spectrum of greys and silver formed by the zinc, the oak and the concrete used as flooring and as a border to the house, as well as for supports. The architectural form of the cottage is echoed by a neighbouring garage that becomes a “child” or echo of the main building.

Inside, the house is full of surprises. The materials used – oak, concrete and glass – link neatly with the exterior but spatially the house breaks away from the convention. The ground floor is more or less open plan (underfloor heating was installed to simplify the interior space further), with the central stairwell dividing kitchen and dining area to one side of the house from the living area to the other, while a suite of utility rooms is tucked away at the back. The stairwell itself rises dramatically all the way up to the cracked roof and integral glazing two floors above, creating a triple-height space right at the heart of the building. Internal windows bring light to two of the bedrooms on the first floor and those hidden away within a further, more modest third level that is at the very top of the house.

“One of the things that I have always been interested in doing is trying to have a sense of constant spatial change and variety when you go through a building,” Gorst says. “And when you look at Whithurst from the outside it’s a very primary form, so you are not really prepared for the volumetric intricacy and richness inside. You are trying to confound people’s expectations of what an interior space might be within the skin of the building. When you set up a repetitive gridded structure, which Whithurst has, what’s interesting is then denying that structure and subverting it, otherwise you can end up with very dull architecture. Instead of the building being three windows wide on the front elevation, the central section is surprisingly blanked off (with an inset exterior dining area). Then when you go around the back of the house there is a lean-to holding the utility rooms. Because the structure is so strong aesthetically you can play with it and push things out.”

The house forms a very strong relationship with the surrounding landscape, partly through the choice of materials and also by incorporating the sheet glazing on the ground floor. There was also a deliberate decision to make one single plane from the interior floor to the exterior concrete collar to the meadow. Opening up the large sliding glass doors allows you to step between the two at will, but even when they are closed the landscape seems to flood inside the barn and the eye is constantly drawn outward. This high level of transparency also creates a proportional illusion, suggesting that the dimensions of the space might be larger than they are.

Barns: Living in Converted and Reinvented Spaces Mark Luscombe-Whyte.

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