One for the young at heart

A retirement home need not mean dull, cramped and chintzy. Cheryl Markosky finds out how well Modernist living has worked for a couple firmly in possession of their bus passes
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The Independent Online

We envisage life for retirees in a roses-round-the-door world, with a smiling white-haired couple sitting on the verandah of their period cottage, glass of Fino sherry in hand. Presumably, the serene pair have just walked their beloved golden Labrador, played a round of golf at their local club and have now returned to their "dingly dell" abode to live happily ever after. So what happens if you subvert the expected narrative and place the pensioned-off very English duo in a low-slung, light and spacious single-storey contemporary home that would not look out of place on the west coast of America? You end up with Wildwood - an unusual approach to superannuated living in Branksome Park, in Poole, Dorset.

The house is a monument to parental pride. Owners Peter and Irene Horden (below) bravely risked letting their then 26-year-old trainee architect son Richard design and build a retirement home for them. "He was a student at the Architecture Association," says Mr Horden, "and it gave him a chance to design something."

The Hordens had sold their original Edwardian family home because it became too big for them when their children had departed. Richard used one-and-a-quarter acres of the original three-acre garden to create somewhere new for his parents to settle. A far cry from the chintzy, traditional look old folk are meant to aspire to, Wildwood launched Richard's successful career as a Modernist architect, heralding the new and eschewing pastiches of the past. It also provided an unusual home, but in a familiar setting, for his parents, which they have enjoyed for 29 years.

Built in 1973, the house was a fantastic first effort. It is registered in RIBA's Guide to Modern Architecture and was awarded a commendation by the same body in 1978. Peter says it is "a simple design that is fairly open-plan. We have no passages. At first we were very worried it meant going through one room to get to another and the design seemed to involve a lot of glass, but we love it".

Wildwood has had visitors from all over the world, who come to admire its simple exposed steel-frame construction and floor to ceiling glazing. Peter recalls a German journalist from Hauser magazine, who liked the house but was puzzled by its lack of a cellar. "They all have them on the Continent, don't they?" he asks.

With views over the garden and courtyard, Wildwood is built round a spacious central living room, with two sections either side. One area holds two bedrooms, each with large dressing rooms and bathrooms; while the other side houses the kitchen, breakfast room, utility room and two more study/guest bedrooms. There is planning permission for the new owners to connect the main building to the garage block via a glass passage and convert the garaging into two further bedrooms, a bathroom and storage space, with adjoining carport.

Richard Horden, now one of Britain's acclaimed modern architects, says Wildwood was "based on the California case study programme. Poole for me is Los Angeles. As kids, we led the California beach life in Poole, with barbecues, surfing and beach buggies. When I went to LA, I saw Modernist homes designed for wealthy film stars, photographers and writers. This image seemed to me very appropriate to a Poole lifestyle."

Architecturally, Richard believes the Californian idea of minimising the bulk of a building to enjoy the views translates easily to rural Britain. "With a more traditional high-pitched roof, you block out the trees and greenery." Luckily, Richard's parents are modern in their tastes, so they have been rewarded with a house that its architect describes as "more California than Chichester". He finds it amusing that some people think it odd for his parents to live in such a modern environment. "They are not traditionally English in that way. They do not draw the curtains and peep out. The house is very, very open and they like it that way."

As much as Richard adores the new and the open, equally he loathes the "latest dreadful Gothic mock-Tudor Tesco-style brown kitsch" found in Poole - and other British towns and cities - today. Instead, he applauds early modern architecture in his home town by architects like Oliver Hill. "I spend my life travelling between Europe and England, and for me, it is important to experience modern life and not just imitate the past." Richard says he picks up many interesting ideas on his travels, inspiring recent designs such as the Glasgow Wing Tower, the Queen's Stand at Epsom Racecourse, Bournemouth and Poole College's Study Gallery and, intriguingly, a portable ski-haus in the Alps.

John Jennings from Berkeleys, the agent selling Wildwood, says it is quite rare to find modern ideas coming to fruition in his area. "It has fantastic light, with the sun starting on the east face and sweeping right round the garden through the day." He thinks the property will appeal to someone from London wishing to use it as a second home, or to a buyer wanting to live there permanently. He admits it "probably is not quite big enough right now for some purchasers, but the grounds could warrant it as right for a young family. Richard is happy to meet with anyone and help them work out how best to extend it."

Wildwood is the first design Richard ever displayed to get his foot into the competitive architectural world. Who would he like to see inhabit his early dream home? "It needs someone who will restore it well," he answers decisively. "The town was threatening to list Wildwood, but it hasn't happened yet."

And where will Peter and Irene move to, after so many years of happiness in their inspirational contemporary house with its secluded and peaceful garden? They get to share the ample space in another of their son's renowned projects, a sensational house overlooking Poole harbour that has just won the accolade of building of the year. While many long-suffering maturing parents are packed off to rather grim damp retirement dwellings, you do have to envy them.

Wildwood is for sale at a guide price of £1.2m through Berkeleys, 01202 708383