How Falkner had fun in Farnham

Harold Falkner's approach to architecture was a bit eccentric, but his highly original Farnham homes now command a premium, says Chris Partridge
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The Independent Online

Burles Lodge is a triumph of eccentricity over bureaucracy. It was designed by an elderly but rich architect who used it as a battleground for his personal war on planners, building inspectors and authorities generally. It was built by gypsies and vagrants that he could not supervise, who (legend says) dismantled the day's work overnight so they would have to do it again. So it is something of a triumph that Burles Lodge stands today, listed Grade II and hailed as the one of the last and most characteristic works of Harold Falkner, the man who did most to save the Georgian market town of Farnham from destruction in the 1930s.

Burles Lodge is a triumph of eccentricity over bureaucracy. It was designed by an elderly but rich architect who used it as a battleground for his personal war on planners, building inspectors and authorities generally. It was built by gypsies and vagrants that he could not supervise, who (legend says) dismantled the day's work overnight so they would have to do it again. So it is something of a triumph that Burles Lodge stands today, listed Grade II and hailed as the one of the last and most characteristic works of Harold Falkner, the man who did most to save the Georgian market town of Farnham from destruction in the 1930s.

Harold Falkner is Farnham's architect. He was born in the town in 1875, lived there all his life and built nothing outside the area. The appearance of the town today probably owes more to him than anyone else. As one of the founders of the Farnham Society in 1911, he was pivotal in ensuring that new buildings in the town were in an appropriate style, usually neo-Georgian but sometimes neo-Tudor. He designed many himself, the most prominent being the Town Hall, although this is disappointingly bland.

Falkner also built large houses for the upper-middle classes who commuted to London by train. One of his early commissions was The Chase at Churt, built just before the First World War. It is typically Edwardian, a bold, brash neo-Georgian design in red brick with tall sash windows, a big roof and dormer windows. The house has since been split up, and one wing is currently on the market with John D Wood (01252 737115) at £750,000.

Inside, the house has some magnificent rooms with plaster flowers in swags round the ceiling and panelling everywhere. The house has private gardens, and also shares 27 acres of pines and rhodedendrons with the other residents. After the War, Falkner's style became much more Arts and Crafts, often using leaded casement windows rather than sashes and white rendered walls rather than brick. Delvern House is a good example, for sale with John D Wood at £895,000.

But it is the group of houses that Falkner built at Dippenhall, to the north of the town, that have caught the imagination of today's architectural historians. In the 1920s Falkner bought an area of land to build on himself. This was to be his own project - he employed just three tradesman and brought in casual labourers as necessary. The site was well away from public roads - Falkner clearly wanted as little official interference as possible. Away from official interference and the tedious requirements of clients, Falkner went completely bonkers, building houses as he went along, using materials he picked up from demolition sites and builder's yards around the south.

He had always regarded the technical aspects of architecture - structural calculations, drainage and so on - as tedious and unnecessary, but now he simply gave his long-suffering foreman a sketch on a scrap of paper and a lecture on what he wanted. This freed Falkner to do the fun bits, mainly carving in wood and stone. The results are captivating. Most of the buildings are half-timbered, created from old barns, with tall chimney stacks. Few lines are straight. They are triumphs of informal, comfortable, unofficial English rose style.

At Burles Lodge, currently on the market with Lane Fox (01252 821102) at £1.2m, Falkner was at his craziest. The style is Georgian, but the layout is dominated by the hillside site. Falkner set the house so the front door opens into the garden, and the main rooms open onto a large terrace with views down the wooded valley. Oddly, however, the door to the terrace is much grander than the front door, being a genuine Georgian porch with classical columns brought in from an unidentified house. This has led to speculation that Falkner may have originally intended to install a sweep of stairs to make an imposing entrance.

Inside, the main rooms were designed to house some high-quality oak panelling and a wonderful plaster tondo, or circle of fruit and vines, that Falkner installed in a typically slap-dash way so that the edges where it was sawn out of its original ceiling are perfectly visible. Falkner boshed the front door too - it opens into a corridor, but it was only when it was installed that it was found to be clash with the wall behind. His characteristic response was to hack a niche into the wall to allow the door to swing freely.

Upstairs, the scale changes from the grand to the suffocating. The bedrooms seem to have been designed as an loft conversion where the roof was just too tight. The corridor is a crazy, plastered tunnel, and the bedrooms strange networks of oak beams. The staircase is extremely odd. Another recycled item, it sticks out of the side of the house in an overhanging projection as if it had been added as an afterthought.

The staircase was just one of the many items on the charge sheet when Falkner was prosecuted for building regulations violations in 1963. He was on his way to the Court of Appeal when he died, Burles Lodge suffered badly after Falkner's death, and was falling down when a local builder bought the place 20 or so years ago. He brought sanity to it, stabilising the structure, excavating the basement to form a usable space, and restoring the woodwork. Now it stands a tribute to its designer.

And Falkner's reputation is growing. The first proper study of his work was published recently by Sam Osmond, and all his buildings are now listed. Estate agents in Farnham even claim that Falkner houses command a premium, though this may be something to do with the fact that he was the first to develop many areas and managed to bag the best sites. There is even a tendency to claim Falkner as the architect for any house in the town built between 1910 and 1960, so buyers are advised to check in Sam Osmond's book before buying.

'Harold Falkner', by Sam Osmond is published by Phillimore, £25

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