Interiors: A brutally honest home

Designing a house for the widow of the renowned architectural theorist Reyner Banham was a daunting commission for Jonathan Ellis-Miller. Luckily, she wanted one just like his. Charles Darwent reports
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THE PROSPECT of having a client move in next door is the sort of thing that makes sensitive architects cry out in their sleep. For Jonathan Ellis-Miller, the dread was not so much to do with nocturnal complaints of blocked lavatories or accusing stares from leaking conservatories as that the client in question was Mary Banham.

There is nothing remotely nightmarish about Mrs Banham, an artist, 76- year-old great-grandmother and utterly good egg. The problem was with her late husband. Until his death 10 years ago, Reyner Banham had been the foremost architectural theorist in Britain, one of the most influential in the world. His books such as Theory and Design in the First Machine Age and The Concrete Atlantis had become the bibles of post-war British architectural thought, Banham himself a kind of New Brutalist god.

Having Reyner Banham's widow move in next door was the architectural equivalent of acquiring the Blessed Virgin Mary as a neighbour.

"The whole thing came about because she'd seen Neil Jackson's exhibition about steel houses at the RIBA," says Ellis-Miller, a 35-year-old architect whose own home in Prickwillow, near Ely, is a nod to the Californian steel- and-glass Case Study houses of the 1940s.

"I got this phone call from Mary asking whether she could come up to see my house. Well, not so much a request as a royal command. It's not uncommon for younger people to come and look at it, but the oldies don't generally queue up. Anyway, she came, looked around the house, sat in one of my Corb chairs and said, `Well, Jonathan, I'd like one just like it next door.' So I said, `Well, I'm afraid you can't have it.'"

"I think he was terrified at the idea of having me as a neighbour," laughs Mary Banham, the glint of distant battle in her eye. "He pointed out that the plot was owned by the council and promised that he'd find me something else instead. I couldn't help noticing that the plots he found were all rather far away. Anyway, he eventually rang up to say that the council had given permission. Then he said, rather pointedly I thought, `Now we can start designing your house.'" If Ellis-Miller had visions of Mary Banham trying to sneak in pantiles or carriage lamps, then he needn't have worried. Reyner Banham's line on private housing had been dogmatically (perhaps even scarily) modern.

Reasoning that "[If] your house contains such a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, inlets, outlets, services ... [that it can] stand up by itself, why have a house to hold it up?", Banham hit on a concept he christened the Un-house. Ellis-Miller's own Fenland home may not have been quite the inflatable, transparent plastic bubble of Banham's anti-architectural dreams, but - as far as Mary Banham was concerned - its simple steel frame and curtain glass walls were the next best thing.

"Heritage, bleurgh: I hate that word," says Mrs Banham. "It's just another term for cowardice. Peter (Reyner was her husband's nom de plume) and I were only interested in the future, in the avant-garde. We grew up during the Depression and then the War. The future had to be better or you'd cut your throat."

There was a practical reason for such a design as well: having returned from Barcelona at the age of 72 with an MA in printing and printmaking, Banham was determined to start on a new career as a painter. The primary function of her new steel house was as a studio.

Her acrylics are large and, as you might imagine, have a subject matter that is frequently architectural. One, a homage to the late Ron Herron of Archigram, is of a detail from the telescopic legs of Archigram's Walking City. ("People say `Archigram', but actually it was all Ron's design," harrumphs Banham, who also refers to Philip Johnson as "Philip" and Tom Wolfe as "Tom".)

This presented Ellis-Miller - whose own house had been built as a weekend retreat, "a pocket Shangri-La" - with a new set of problems. "My house was set low in an attempt to make it part of the horizontality of the Fen landscape," says Ellis-Miller. "The trouble with that is that it really relates more to the near and middle distance. Obviously, the situation is different when what you're building is a painter's studio."

"First of all," says Ellis-Miller, "the dimensions had to be bigger to take Mary's paintings. The room heights are 3 metres minimum, usually 3.3 metres, and that set up the volumes of the house. Then I had to raise the whole thing on a plinth to engage with the middle and long distance. When Mary first commissioned me, she said, `I have a feeling I'm going to be OK until I'm 80, so we'd better get on with it.' But I've always kept in my mind the thought that she might be confined to a wheelchair" - Banham lost a leg to cancer 40 years ago - "and the way that would change her viewpoint as a painter."

There was also a degree of enlightened self-interest in Ellis-Miller's decision. "I'd rung someone at the council and asked what would happen to our bit of the Fens if a spring tide coincided with a catastrophic breach of the sea defences at, say, King's Lynn," says Ellis-Miller. "They said the resultant flooding could go as deep as a metre. So I raised Mary's house by 1.2 metres and bought myself a canoe." What Banham got for her pounds 128,000 is a space that is both extraordinarily flexible and (despite Ellis-Miller's dogged belief that steel houses are "more for looking out of than looking at") really rather beautiful.

Effectively a single room with moving walls and a central service core for cooking, washing and storing canvases in, the house's clear-solid exterior plays all sorts of games with the liquid Fenland light. Banham, prone to the painterly effects of architecture, describes the outcome of these games as "marvellous".

True to her late husband's edicts on usefulness, Mary Banham's steel- and-glass box also works well. Given the sporadic nature of its use and the Siberian winters of nether Cambridgeshire, it can be heated from scratch in 20 minutes. This is due in part to the solar gains made from having double-glazed outer walls, and in part to the fact that the main solid area of these walls - enclosing what Banham, the anti-Granny, playfully refers to as "the snug" - is actually a bank of concrete-filled Braithewaite tanks which double as a vast, solar-powered night storage heater. When winter draws on, Banham can simply open the blue swinging partitions which hide the tanks' insides for greater warmth.

Curious to relate, these Braithewaite tanks also count as something in the nature of a local architectural reference. Looking around East Anglia, Ellis-Miller's eye was caught not by its crow-step gables or Jacobean chimney-stacks but by the tanks with which Alison and Peter Smithson - the first British New Brutalists and particular heroes of Reyner Banham - had topped off their famous late-Forties Hunstanton School. "The earliest reference I have in architecture is that school," says Ellis-Miller. "In East Anglian terms, it was something important. My parents used to say, `It's a special building', and they were just Joes. You might say that counts as backward-looking, but to me doffing your architectural cap to the Smithsons is fine."

In fact, of course, really nasty people might maintain that designing a structure that so studiously alludes to Mies van der Rohe's work for Dr Farnsworth or the Californian Case Study houses of the Eameses and Ellwoods - all of them now half a century old - begins to tack perilously close to flirting with Mary Banham's hated heritage.

Client and architect both disagree."Steel houses were extremely pioneering in the Forties and they still are," retorts Banham, hotly. "Everyone's rushing about in architecture these days shouting `New ideas! New ideas!'," chips in Jonathan Ellis-Miller. "But I'm a nicely-brought-up architect and the Modernist movement, as a 20th-century phenomenon, still seems pretty new to me. When people like Mies and Corb talked about things like form following function and truth to materials, they didn't really have the technology to follow through what they were saying.

"Modernism can only now really work for the first time because technology has finally caught up with the ideas of the people who created it," says Ellis-Miller. "I can see that even in the five years between my house and Mary's. The difference between the two of them in terms of environmental advances, and in the way they look because of those advances, really amazes me." Mary Banham nods in agreement. "My only disappointment is that I really wanted the house to power itself with photo-voltaic cells," she says, with the air of one not given to compromise. "Jonathan said it would be too expensive." 1