When it came to creating their own striking family house, Susie and Ulrich Gerhartz only had to look next door to find some inspiration. The result is a story of two generations building unique, modern houses side by side on the same picturesque site in Henley. Susie Gerhartz drew on the experience of growing up in the home next door, which was built for her parents by the distinguished English Modernist architect Patrick Gwynne. Completed in 1960, it was christened Past Field and is now a listed building.
Past Field, a low-slung, timber-clad, mid-century house, deftly placed on the sloping hillside site, provided a point of departure for Susie and Uli's own contemporary new home, named Long View after the mesmerising vista across woodland and undulating countryside. This, too, is a single storey home, stepping down the hillside. But despite holding echoes of the Gywnne house next door, it stands as a powerful, bespoke achievement in its own right, carefully tailored to the needs of Susie and Uli and their six-year-old daughter Lucy.
"We wanted the house to be a companion piece to next door, but unique in its own way," says Susie, "so that they complemented one another. I was born and brought up in my parents' home and their house and the gardens have been a very important part of my life. After my parents gifted us this land to build a house, we realised that if we didn't take the opportunity we'd still be in a little terraced house in London in 10 years time.
"Also, when you have a child your outlook does change and we wanted to be able to give Lucy as well as us the opportunity to live somewhere like this. For me, living in a modern house has always been very normal and now it's the same for all of us."
When Susie's parents built their house with Gwynne, they had a budget of just 5,000. Susie's father, a GP working in Henley and now retired, was offered a six-acre plot of land by a patient of his to build a home, and bought up the generous and secluded plot, flanked by a row of ancient cedar trees to the rear. Dr Salmon and his wife knew Patrick Gwynne (Susie's mother was a professional
singer and was accompanied by Gwynne's partner). Given the slim budget, they never thought Gwynne would take on the job but after seeing the site he accepted and built Past Field on a shoestring but with great skill and an innovative eye.
Forty years later, Susie's parents gifted her and Uli who is Director of Concert and Artists' Services for Steinway pianos in the UK, working closely with pianists such as Murray Perahia an acre alongside to build their own house. They initially turned to Gwynne, then in his eighties, who was excited by the new project but sadly died in its early stages. After delays in sorting out a mass of bureaucracy tied to the gift of the land, Susie and Uli decided upon John Allan and his practice Avanti Architects. Avanti Architects knew Gwynne and his work well, having restored Gwynne's own home, Homewood in Esher, which is now owned by The National Trust. Together they began working on a carefully planned design honed to the family's requirements. There needed to be a largely open-plan living space, opening up to the gardens and the view, a workshop for Uli and flexible bedroom spaces for Susie and Uli as well as Lucy. There also had to be plenty of built-in storage and of course a synergy with Past Field next door.
"There is an intended relationship between the two buildings which is not about copying but is literally and figuratively something like the relationship between a parent and child," says John Allan. "In this case there's another level, as you also have these three generations living side by side. Both houses are very tailored to their circumstances and Long View is very responsive to Susie and Uli's needs but also at the same time very flexible, because that was one of their requirements.
"Many of the rooms are capable of being used in different ways and there is this degree of flexibility running through the house. It is a house that can change and adapt with the seasons, as well as Susie and Uli's needs, and in the summer walls and doors can be opened up and you get this very permeable relationship between inside and outside, which is also a characteristic of the Gwynne house."
Having been gifted the land in 2000, bureaucracy and the planning process delayed the build until January last year a real test of patience and endurance for the whole family. But as soon as construction began the whole process turned a corner and became more of a pleasure. Through Uli's family, a German construction company was recommended which diligently dispatched teams of builders and skilled subcontractors over to Henley and completed the four bedroomed house in just eight months, while also managing to carefully respect the trees and a Victorian rockery edging on to the site.
"The actual build was a complete pleasure and really exciting," says Susie Gerhartz. "We had a really easy and fun build and these most brilliant contractors. They would start at seven in the morning and work until it got dark. Everyone who came over was so skilled in what they were doing and for Uli, who is a craftsman himself and so precise in what he does, quality and detail were so important. He would have gone absolutely spare if we had a load of bodgers working on the house."
Built on a pinwheel design, the house has three spokes, with one dedicated to the main living spaces and another to the master suite, both facing down the hillside. A third spoke steps up the hill, with shifting floor levelsand roof line, holding the other bedrooms and at the rear Uli's piano workshop. The main living space is largely open plan, containing lounge, kitchen and dining area but the kitchen and dining zone can be separated off by a series of vast sliding doors. At the same time, there is easy access out on to a terrace for summer dining.
There are lots of bespoke elements designed by Avanti, including many storage elements and a timber desk in the lounge that helps separate off a raised dais which holds a Steinway. The piano is top lit with natural light from a curving skylight with a roof pattern echoing a raised piano lid. Lucy's room has three points of entry to give her an easy run of the house, while Uli and Susie's suite is cleverly designed so that in the early morning when Uli gets up for work he can close off the dressing room and bathroom behind him and exit through another door direct into the hallway without disturbing Susie.
There are also constant echoes of and references to Past Field next door, including the low slung nature of the house, the terracing, the timber cladding and also the use of coloured mosaic on exterior walls. Yet each home clearly has its own identity and character.
"I feel we have done something rather special here," says Susie of Long View, which was granted a Riba regional award. "It is quite unique to have two houses like this side by side. This place does have a very strong pull for me. Despite spending 20 years in London, Uli says I have never left home. I have always gravitated back here and that's because it's such a wonderful place to be." Avanti Architects: www.avantiarchitects.co.uk, 020-7278 3060