PROPERTY: THE ESTATES WE'RE IN

Where do Queen Anne and Palladio meet? In an indoor Jacuzzi in the heart of the Home Counties, of course. With a dearth of country homes on the market, developers are tapping into a demand for classical porticoes and half-timbered gables by offering the new-build mansion
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The Independent Culture
THEY ARE THE newly-built homes for the nouveau-riche ascendants of the Nineties: the City bonus boys, the light- entertainment overlords, the musos, the footballers, the share-holder fat-cats. They carry a reassuring portfolio of "traditional" architectural touches: half-timbered gables, classical porticoes, Palladian wings, Queen Anne sash windows, patterned brickwork. The fact that these elements may be used indiscriminately and disproportionately is no problem, as long as they press the right status buttons. These are houses for today's upwardly-mobile heroes.

Over the last two or three years, there has been a mini-boom in these mansions. "There is currently a high demand for status-orientated property," confirms John Denney of Hamptons estate agents, who says that a prime source of these new houses has been the "replacement" process, as he calls it: "Over the last couple of years older houses in prime positions and grounds have been demolished to make way for new houses, particularly in the Surrey area." The houses that are being demolished are often Sixties-vintage bungalows of limited market value, and they are being replaced "one-for-one" with much more traditional style mansions.

And who is buying them? About 50:50 Brits and foreigners, is the Hamptons estimate. "There's new money coming out of London," says Denney, "and Europeans and South Africans tend to like new houses. There's a lot of money out there." John Brain of Hamptons International adds that new-built mansions have recently "come into their own. They are appealing to anyone who leads a busy life and who has a 'world job'." Furthermore, adds Denney, "the supply of good-quality older country houses isn't good". And besides, buyers often prefer new houses. "Football players might not understand the nuances of British architecture," as Trevor Abrahmsohn of Glentree Estates in north London puts it, "but they tell me that they like newly built houses because they're clean and convenient." He adds that the British buyers will usually take the smaller places. "English buyers tend to peter out at about pounds 3 to pounds 4m, whereas foreign buyers go from pounds 5 to pounds 20m." Impending global recession may deter some, but estate agents are quite sanguine, as is their wont. Talk it up and it won't go down.

Many of these new mansions are in the semi-surburbia - which should perhaps be known as the "mega-surburbia" - of the inner M25, spilling further into the Home Counties but hardly ever more than an hour from London and its transport hubs. The "rockbroker" belt of Weybridge and Virginia Water remains attractive: Essex, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Hamp-shire figure, though as Denney asserts, west is best. "Communications aren't so good to Essex and Kent." Smaller pockets orbit other metropolitan conurbations such as Manchester.

Just as early suburban developments were driven by the regional distribution of the ring-roads and railways, these new palaces are houses of the world: nodal by necessity, so that their frequent-flyer inhabitants can take off in a trice. "They relate to the technology of global distribution: railways, airports, motorways and the Channel Tunnel," says Sean Griffiths of the architectural group FAT and the University of Greenwich. And, as in the suburban 1920s, when millions chose Tudorbethan styling over the flat roofs favoured by the Modernists, these houses are developer-designed and marketed.

Most developers fall into the category that Abrahmsohn calls "the niche players", who create a handful or maybe just one luxury home at a time. Of the bigger companies, a few names emerge: Octagon, Berkeley and St George, Beauforte, Bryant, Pamlion. Even Barratt is tapping the market, currently offering eight homes in its exclusive Wentworth Gate development in Surrey's Virginia Water: whopping new-build piles that have up to seven bedrooms and six bathrooms and range from half a million-odd to more than pounds 800,000. Barratt has nailed its target VIP departure-lounge demographic early on: "Ideal for international business families, Euro-commuters and celebrities."

So what are the ingredients that appeal to these nabobs of the new-build mansions? John Brain's words are nothing less than estate-agent poetry: "They want plush, well-appointed, substantial houses built to high specifications in at least one acre of grounds. A multiplicity of bathrooms, centrally rising staircases, interlinking rooms evoking the grace of the 18th century. Traditional styling, but with modern comforts, low maintenance and heating costs. Undoubtedly, an impressive entrance; a drive which sweeps to a porticoed front door." The approach is all-important: these are people to whom the scrunch of Ferrari on gravel is the sweetest sound. "There is an element of conspicuous consumption," adds Brain, with only the faintest irony.

Electric gates are "increasingly popular". Simple grounds are favoured, probably contract-gardened: "Staff are a factor, but not necessarily residential." Heli-pads are possible. "It has to have add-ons like a swimming pool - extra points for an indoor pool - and a tennis court," says Denney. Lastly, the house should stand four-square in the centre of its land.

Stylistically, it could be argued that in these mansions the British nouveau-riche style has matured and acquired an almost international outlook. Osbert Lancaster's notes for the style he dubbed Stockbrokers' Tudor, written decades ago, put its finger on the stylistic melange perennially favoured by new money: "18th-century four-posters, Regency samplers and Victorian chintzes all came to be regard as Tudor by adoption - at least in estate agency circles." Such elements have coalesced in the Nineties mansions in similar hybridised fashion: mock-Tudor meets Southfork neo-classicism, with a touch of American Ranch and Marbella Hacienda. Other influences have been the Country-and-Western stars' homes, seen on driveway tours of Nashville and renowned as Kentucky Fried Georgian, and the movie- star homes of Hollywood that always present a central staircase.

The end results are the "gracious" homes so beloved of Hello! "The essence of these houses is to feed aspiration to the condition of the aristocracy," says Paul Davies of South Bank University's course in popular architecture, citing the Duke and Duchess of York's low-slung Eighties ranch in Berkshire in particular as aiding and abetting their rise in popularity. They are the mansions of the Eighties and Nineties new wealth explosion, built in various styles: from Queen Anne's Rangers and Lottery Lutyens to B&Q Baroque.

"There is something to be said about using familiar elements," says Griffiths, who believes developers work at a level of popular culture, giving people what they want, not what architects think they should want. Indeed, he positively enjoys the robust style of popular taste. "That they are so utterly offensive to architects borders on subversion. They say something about the cultural aspirations of the mass market."

British buyers of these homes are often from working-class backgrounds, also significant, adds Griffiths. "They are not educated in mainstream 'good' taste and this is their aspirational style: it is where they see themselves going, and that message of success is aimed back at the audience of people from where they come." Good taste and refined design are a middle- class construct, and are exclusively intended for a smaller audience.

And yet, says Paul Davies, author of Leisureland and senior lecturer in architecture at South Bank University, it may be a mistake to ascribe the classic symptoms of vulgarity to the buyers of these mansions. "Nouveau houses will certainly not have coach lamps." Nor crazy paving or gnomes.

It is common in the world of architecture to bemoan the lack of patronage for new residential homes, and it is certainly a shame that more new homes are not built by our feted architects. But as Griffiths says, "I think it would somehow be wrong if name architects were to build these houses." These mansions represent a different stream in society. Could it be, however, that there is starting to be a taste convergence? Could nouveau-riche style as we know it be "in danger of being lost," as Davies puts it? As the Conranisation of society continues, High Vulgar taste may disappear under an avalanche of beech flooring, Habitat appointments and pistachio Arne Jacobsen Ant chairs. "I suspect that footballers will soon start to display more educated taste," says Davies, who predicts that the future lies in what he calls "Calvin Klein Modernism". Or, as already happens among the new rich, "they are on a learning curve and the next thing they will buy is a genuine old rectory."

Abrahmsohn, whose firm Glentree Estates area looks after a part of north London which covers some of the most expensive property in the world points out that the houses are often lived in part-time, and therefore their inhabitants aspire to a "quasi-hotel" existence there. There have always been nouveau riche entrepreneurs that want to make their wealth apparent with fancy cars, big pillars, bold porticos, but even within that rubric there are mutations of taste. "In the early Seventies they wanted to replicate a Mediterranean existence: ornate baths, Italianate furniture, heavily chandeliered roomsets. Bentleys were too understated for this crowd."

Now they are more Anglicised and want new-build palaces with British architectural flourishes: kind of an architectural version of fashion's Style Anglais where Burberry macs, brogues and V-necks translate directly into beamed gable ends, mock-stable wings and leaded window-panes. And as such, the new Developer Statelies of the Nineties could be said to be the bastard offspring of Chatsworth, Speke Hall and Blenheim. So give us 100 years, and we will all love them.

! For Octagon Homes at Prospect Place and Camp End Road, St George's Hill contact Octagon on 0181 481 7500; for Bryant Country Homes at Lytton Park phone Hamptons sales centre on 01932 867 168

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