The first thing I see, on turning into the drive, is the outline of a small and rather ordinary gable-roofed house, the only hint of its modernist credentials being the glint of aluminium tiles.
The Balancing Barn doesn't like to give itself away too early, lest, perhaps, visitors take fright at its outré design and flee to the nearest Travelodge. It's only as I draw closer and step out of the car that I comprehend its extraordinary dimensions and the feat of engineering that allows half of it to shoot out over a steep incline, like a train carriage in distress, with apparently nothing but thin air to prop it up.
The Balancing Barn, near the village of Darsham in Suffolk, marks a new dawn in the possibilities of the rented holiday home. Or that, at least, is the plan. The concept is the brainchild of the writer, philosopher and broadcaster Alain de Botton, dreamt up while he was writing his most recent book, The Architecture of Happiness, and it was subsequently developed through his non-profit organisation Living Architecture.
The idea is that everyone should have the chance to sit, eat and sleep in a building that aims a little higher than the average cutesy country cottage, and that they shouldn't have to pay a fortune for the privilege. In doing so, says De Botton, our souls will be nourished, our spirits lifted and we will develop a greater appreciation of contemporary architecture. As a starting point, he has commissioned five new houses, each designed by a leading European architect, the first and boldest of which I am to spend the next few days in.
As if that were not enough enrichment, I have also been given a reading list courtesy of the School of Life, the London-based social enterprise that offers ideas for better living. These literary "prescriptions", as they are called, form part of the School of Life's new bespoke reading retreats (an added extra at the Balancing Barn, though by no means compulsory), where the literature is designed to complement the environment.
A consultation with the bibliotherapist, Ella, takes place three weeks prior to my stay. She is full of interesting suggestions, mindful of my reading preferences and mercifully free of self-help-style babble. She asks me about my literary likes and dislikes, which genres have remained unexplored and what reading ruts I might be in. A fortnight later, a list arrives with an itinerary – more a series of suggestions – of what I should be reading and when during my stay. The titles will, it is hoped, broaden my literary horizon, give me a greater understanding of my surroundings and bring about more meaningful interaction with friends and family.
Back, though, to the barn. Designed by the Rotterdam-based architects MVRDV, this four-bedroom hunk of steel teeters on the edge of a Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve. You have to admire the trust for allowing De Botton and his Dutch chums to deposit what is essentially a large metal box in its leafy paradise.
According to the architectural blurb, the barn offers occupants "the sensation of being suspended above the natural surroundings", while the mirrored cladding on the exterior is designed to "reflect the light and melt into its surroundings". While the house undoubtedly allows guests to hover over the flora and fauna, the latter statement seems somewhat disingenuous. If the architects had wanted the building to melt into nature they surely wouldn't have dressed it up like a disco ball and had 15 metres of it hurtling out into the abyss.
But if the gimmickry of the exterior threatens to overwhelm its surroundings, it's a different story inside, where the eye is instinctively drawn outwards via vast floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the landscape and numerous skylights, some of which allow you to lie in the bath and watch the clouds scud past. Most startling is the thick glass panel in the floor at the far end that reminds you, just in case you've forgotten, that you are essentially dangling in space.
And how does it feel to be dangling in space? Pretty cool, actually, though perhaps the most surprising thing is how swiftly you get used to it and how within hours of your arrival the notion of being suspended in mid-air as you sip tea in the living room seems, well, perfectly normal.
There is, it should be pointed out, a small amount of movement in the building, though you become aware of it only in high winds or if, like me, you are silly enough to get your family to jump up and down at the far end of the living room in an ad hoc safety check. Otherwise, with its diagonal timber struts, heavy-duty flooring and overall sense of solidity, the Balancing Barn instils a merciful confidence that you will not plunge to your death.
Of course, it's easy to get carried away with the novelty of the design. Traditionally, the luxury holiday home isn't about cantilevers and cladding; it's about huge beds, squashy sofas and armchairs you can curl up in. It's about having a sense of warmth, comfort and convenience in a place that feels as if it could be home. And it's here that the Balancing Barn doesn't quite succeed.
One of the difficulties is its layout, most notably the long corridor that runs the length of the building and links the kitchen and living room. For the poor mug sent off to make the tea, it can be something of an expedition, like being dispatched to the restaurant car on a train. A more pressing problem is that De Botton's mission to educate guests in the ways of contemporary modernism is not confined to the exterior but also to the furniture and adornments within.
This is all well and good when admiring the beautiful, beech-panelled walls, or the spectacularly well-appointed kitchen, or the wall hangings referencing Gainsborough and Constable, two painters who lived and worked in the area. It's not so satisfactory when trying to settle down on an über-stylish, specially commissioned, Dutch-designed sofa that doesn't yield a millimetre when coming into contact with your backside. Or, indeed, the array of minimally upholstered, straight-backed chairs that invite you to sit almost anywhere but on them. They're certainly not for slouching, which ultimately is what most of us like to do on holiday (though the beds, for the record, are fine).
That said, reading is what I am here to do, in which case the academic ambience of the Balancing Barn isn't entirely inappropriate (though that doesn't stop me from hauling duvets and pillows into the living room to make the process more comfortable).
My reading takes in wintry haikus, American poetry, tales of the afterlife and metropolitan novels. Assorted exercises, some more daft than others, include reading aloud to my husband, interpreting and discussing particular passages and reimagining them with reference to our own experience. Conversational menus are provided, too, based on philosophical quotes and designed to elevate one's daily chatter above the banal. In our case, I'm afraid, they mostly elicited childish groans of "Do we have to?". (the glorious part is that, no, you don't have to at all.)
It is, perhaps, inevitable that De Botton's The Architecture of Happiness should appear on the list, though in fairness its themes are pertinent. The book discusses the emotional impact of buildings, how they can be infused with subconscious meaning, and finds him pontificating about the belief that "the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture's task to render vivid who we might ideally be". The psychological effects of our man-made surroundings have long preoccupied architectural theorists, from Pugin to Le Corbusier, and it's one that De Botton hopes guests at his new holiday dwellings will also consider.
It's a big ask, especially for those who rent his houses for the simple promise of escape and relaxation. On the other hand, who says being on holiday should preclude reflection and philosophical thought? Interestingly, De Botton has modelled his Living Architecture project on the Landmark Trust, which renovates Napoleonic towers, crumbling chapels and follies in fields so that visitors can stay in them. As holiday rentals, the buildings on offer clearly wouldn't have the same frisson without their respective histories. It's fair to say that, without their idiosyncratic design, De Botton's wouldn't either.
So, on the basis that we are "for better or worse, different people in different places", who am I at the Balancing Barn? Apparently someone who doesn't mind being hoisted five metres into the air for the duration of her holiday, but is less keen on walking a quarter of a mile to get a cup of tea. I've become a great fan of windows, especially in the middle of the floor, though I'm less enamoured of glitzy steel cladding. And I'll take my comfy old sofa over a designer Dutch one any day of the week.
How to get there
Living Architecture (living-architecture.co.uk) offers the Balancing Barn from £23 per person per night, based on eight sharing. A bibliotherapy session with the School of Life (theschoolof life.com) costs £70 in person, or £40 for a remote consultation (via phone or Skype). Books are billed separately.Reuse content