A country house with 'wabi sabi' wins design prize

Ian Herbert,North
Wednesday 13 February 2002 01:00

A Japanese firm of architects has won a Royal Institute of British Architects award for its forward-thinking designs for a British stately home.

Amid much scepticism in the architectural establishment, the Japanese firm, Ushida Findlay, carried off the prize with a design that "positively embraces nature" and will "break with the tradition of dominating the landscape". The house will be built at a cost of £10m on the site of the former Grafton Hall, in 114 acres next to the Duke of Westminster's Eaton Hall estate near Chester.

Out goes 18th-century neo-Classic pretension and in comes the Japanese concept of wabi sabi (rough translation: "youth calmed by age") which connects and is compatible with the countryside. Much attention is paid to light, air, acoustics, health, and positive integration with the ecology and community, using local materials.

The Riba competition has been established during the biggest boom in country house building for more than a century – fuelled by a little-known planning guidance note introduced in 1997 by John Gummer when he was Environment Secretary. It ended a virtual 50-year ban on grand houses in unspoilt farmland by allowing one-off projects that are "truly outstanding in terms of architecture and landscaping". After the loss of 600 country houses since the war, there is a strong demand for such homes.

But the winning designers insist that dominating the landscape has become passé. Kathryn Findlay, of Ushida Findlay, said: "We are giving the inhabitant a sense of living in this great landscape, this 'field'. The boundary between inside and outside is as indiscernible as possible, beyond the confines of the enclosure against the elements which we are creating."

Robert Adam, the Classical architect who is designing 20 country houses, said buyers with £6m to spend did not want to "hide away" when choosing the look of their country homes. "The point of a having a country house is being prominent in the landscape. People don't spend lots of money to hide their house in a hole in the ground."

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