Interiors: All pain no gain

Holiday homes needn't be quaint cottages closed off from the outdoors by tiny windows. Emma Marshall visits a house which two decades after its construction is still a rare example of what modernity can offer
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The Independent Culture
THE AREA around Truro is an absurdly beautiful part of the Cornish coast. Even on a damp October day the leaves of late autumn blush gold through the white mist sliding from the sea. It is here, on the banks of the River Fal's estuary, up a muddy track off a twisted coastal B-road, that Pillwood stands.

Built in 1975, the two-storey, steel and glass holiday house on a wooded slope overlooking the river was the joint creation of its owners, architects Su Rogers and John Miller (of John Miller and Partners, established in 1960 and best known for work on the Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery). The house stands testament to its then radical design. It won a RIBA regional award in the year it was built, and its style has dated little. True, the retro leanings of contemporary design have elevated Pillwood into the realm of fashion once more, but its modest form, where nature is the dominant aesthetic, will always be more than just a fad.

Su has holidayed in the area since her childhood and it was in the late Sixties that her father bought the land where Pillwood now stands. "When my father died, my mother gave the land to me and my two brothers. Fortunately neither of them needed it, since one lives in Australia while the other already owns a house on the Fal." Su and John completed Pillwood when the youngest of their five children was six and the eldest 15. Three of the children are from Su's marriage to Richard Rogers and two from John's previous marriage. "The original concept for Pillwood was for it to link the two families," explains John, and Su adds that it was her father's idea to use the land to "cement things".

Pillwood is small and seems an integral part of the surrounding rock, sea, sky and forest. Its design, unsurprisingly, is born from a direct response to the landscape. "An ex-miner lived on this land originally," says John. "The man had two obsessions in life. The first was worrying over lack of water and the second was demolition. He blew up half the cliff - hence the shape of the site. I was very affected by two things: the line of the tall oaks forms a triangle of space and the house responds to that; and the ship's graveyard a little bit further down the creek. I saw these masts of industrial ships rising through the leaves and they seemed to signal my design. I was lucky in that I was given a free hand."

Su's explanation is more direct: "We wanted the house to reflect the garden, so that the slope of the roof, for example, mirrored the slope of the land. And the colours are very important." The light rubber floor reflects sand, the green tubular columns are reminiscent of forest and the blue blinds look to the sky. These symbols, along with glass panels for the walls, doors and roof, mark the strong connection between exterior and interior.

"When we first designed the house we were very definite about what wanted," explains Su. "We wanted the house to be as flexible as possible, upside down with the living-room above the bedrooms, and we wanted it to relate to the gar- den." There are no internal doors, just sliding panels that allow for the choice between one large studio or three separate bedrooms. Although these effectively form the ground floor, the sloping site means that in a sense every level is at ground level - the idea being that every room is only a step away from the ever- dominant outdoors.

"The house was never intended to be used as a permanent home," explains Su. "I hate the idea of totally leaving London. We use it during the summer and for winter weekends and sometimes stay there for Christmas. My family uses it a lot, but now that all the grandchildren are growing up we shall have to do something about the sheds." These are slotted below the terrace into the hill. "There are bunk beds in them, but they are getting damper and damper."

Overall the house is relatively easy to maintain: "Looking after it is easy, partly because the Cornish climate is so kind. It's only been painted once in 25 years." And the blinds which "deteriorate and get dirty" have been replaced a couple of times.

Surprisingly, the cleaning of copious amounts of glass is not problematic. "On a really blustery day, the rain tends to sweep the debris off the sloping roof. And once a year we have contract cleaners - who usually work on commercial premises - to clean the windows inside and out."

In a building so close to the elements getting the temperature right is a tentative operation. The house is fitted with underfloor heating and a woodburning stove which, Su says, makes all the difference in the winter months. On warm days, the blinds control heat from the sun streaming through the glazing, while the vented wall panels to the front of the house allow air to circulate. "They can be opened quite effectively and when the kitchen door is opened a sea breeze flows through the house. In terms of economy I'm not sure you could say the house is cheaper to run than an old one might be, but the fact that the house is used mainly in the summer months means that maintenance is fairly low."

Two spiral staircases link the galleried living area to the bedrooms and bathroom below. The first runs up the front of the house, while the second twists in a white-walled tunnel connecting the kitchen with the main bedroom. At first, the purpose of this duplication seems unclear. But the rear tunnel allows Su and John to sleep in privacy, while guests are free to use the rest of the home quite freely.

Certainly, the barriers of privacy are loosely drawn. "You wouldn't stay here with people unless you knew them very well," Su admits. One friend recalls long summers of her youth spent there: "It's so beautiful. You spent all day on the boat or at the beach and you'd come back in the evening and dump your beach clobber on the lawn and go inside to shower and Su would be preparing the most amazing supper of lobsters and home-made mayonnaise. There were always loads of people - sleeping in the bunk beds in the sheds beside the house or down in the boat house on the opposite side of the creek."

Good contemporary design usually comes at some sort of cost in terms of practicality. Not here: even the kitchen, despite its small size, is a pleasure to work in: "How could it not be when you have that view?" Su does, however, concede to one discomfort: "I think the main trouble with only having a thin skin between inside and out is that there is no barrier between us and the elements. A boot room would have been good - the house is difficult when the weather is bad and you have soggy children and dogs." And apparently, huge amounts of glass are less than beneficial to the feathered world. "Birds do tend to collide with the walls," says Su. "A thud wakes you up in the morning and you go outside to find a tiny body."

Undeniably, Pillwood's greatest achievement is successfully merging interior and exterior space. And the importance of the outside is heightened by a noticeable lack of the usual homely trappings - there is no sofa, no television, little storage and no bath. And while the furniture is impressively classic, with Aalto dining table, Corre chairs and Le Corbusier beds, it is nevertheless strictly functional.

Had Pillwood been designed as a permanent residence, then its greatest asset would perhaps have been its biggest fault. A house that hinges so dramatically on the outdoors would, in this country, be depressing at best and at worst impossible: our climate is too poor. But the criteria for holiday retreats are inevitably different, and to be made so acutely aware of the passing seasons will always offer an enriching antidote to cloistered city living. !