Buy of the week: California dream in Sussex

East Grinstead may be an unlikely place to find West Coast modernism but Jonathan Christie checks out how this Sixties home has been stripped back to its former utopian glory
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The Independent Online

here's no denying the sensory rush of seeing a stark, modern building set against a rural backdrop, but what's it like living in one? The perception that country living means a thatched cottage overlooking the village green still predominates, so do these utopian, open-plan cubes deliver the alternative lifestyle they seem to promise? Andrew Spurgeon and Ann Kelly think they do and they've spent the last few years living in their Modernist ideal.

Space House appears to be only a stone's throw from some sun-drenched LA beach, but it's actually in East Grinstead, Sussex. Designed in 1963 by Peter Foggo and David Thomas, it was the prototype for a potential development of houses based on the Californian Case Study houses of the fifties. These American models for the future were intended to be affordable and their high ambitions attracted many of the leading architects of the day, including Mies van der Rohe.

However, when Andrew and Ann found Space House, it needed work; a lot of work. There was dark wood on the ceiling, the carpets were musty and there was a large, oval swimming pool in the back garden. The owner before them had done little work over the previous 25 years and what had been attempted was out of step with many of Foggo and Thomas's original intentions.

Undaunted, they teamed up with Lee/Fitzgerald, the architects, and tackled the project head on. The resulting restoration earned them an RIBA conservation award in 2004, with The Architects Journal noting that this "pioneering 1960s house" had been "gently reorganised and, dare one say it, improved". Not bad going for novice developers.

"It was a period piece when we bought it," says Andrew, "now it's a timeless home. Modern buildings were considered shocking when Space House was built, but now they're fashionable - certainly no longer perceived as cold and uncomfortable. We stayed in a country cottage recently and, as lovely as it was, it felt quite claustrophobic. The ceilings were too low and the windows were too high. This is a very pleasant house to live in."

As with many objects of beauty, the design of Space House is simple. The H-shaped layout contains the services (kitchen, utility, bathrooms) in the central, connecting section with the sleeping and living areas running down the two wings. A 360 degree hallway around the services core creates maximum circulation space, while symmetrical floor-to-ceiling glazing produces deep vistas that cut right through the house, pulling the front and back gardens inside.

"A lot of the work we did was to do with reduction and the taking away of unnecessary details," says Andrew, "so when people visit, there's very little to show them." But this stripped-back approach only accentuated the remaining original features that are, on closer inspection, beautifully finished. All the rooms are striking, but the biggest punch packed by this house is the reception room.

More than 45 ft long and book-ended by glazed walls, it's a dramatic, fluid space that Andrew and Ann have divided into living, dining and study areas. The restored western red cedar panelling contrasts its textures with the house's white steel frame and the original vertical ventilation louvres are a nifty period detail. All this is brought together by Andrew and Ann's refined eye for furnishings. Eames chairs mixed with pieces by Jasper Morrison and Living Divani set a simple, functional and coherent scheme. "It would be wrong to turn this into a kitsch museum piece or, even worse, to drag in a Laura Ashley chesterfield," muses Andrew. "It just wouldn't be right."

The sense of connection to the elements continues through to the kitchen and bedrooms and, as the garden is well established, it still feels very private. "There's such a light separation between us and the outside. We feel like we're living in the open, protected by this delicate envelope of cedar and glass. It allows us to all live together in the way we want... it's very flexible."

So why the move? "We enjoyed the process of restoring Space House and we discovered that it's an area where our talents and passions collide. We've got a great house here, and it has become part of the family but there's no more to do, so we're now looking for another project."

The concept of Space House has stood the test of time. Other Sixties buildings may have been more experimental, but this house seems quite humble in its desire to please the occupants and adapt to their needs.

The genius is in the contrast between its function and honesty and the pure beauty of it as an object. "It's a wonderful place to come home to," says Andrew. Could a house have any greater praise?

Get the spec

What is it? Unique modern single-storey house built in 1963.

Where is it? East Grinstead, in Sussex.

What do you get? reception room, kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, utility room, garage and outbuilding.

How big? 2,000sq ft internally. Grounds extend to one-third of an acre.

Any nifty touches? Luxaflex architectural blinds, electric under-floor heating and Hans Grohe fittings in the bathrooms.

How much? Offers over £750,000 to The Modern House, 08456 344068 or www.themodernhouse.net

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