Can Alain de Botton make modern architecture more desirable?

Emily Jenkinson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:37
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton

Developers can usually count on Prince Charles to write a stinging letter of indictment should they dare to consider a modern build. But, while the Prince might lead the charge when it comes to rampant traditionalism, Britain more generally is still "terrified of the new." That's according to writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton, who this week launches Living Architecture, a social enterprise that puts up houses designed by some of the world's finest architects and rents them out for holidays throughout the year.

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But why are we so stuck in the past? Are we inherently old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy? You've got to remember, says Alain, that, "Britain was the world's first industrial country and the rapid change this brought about gave the nation a powerful feeling of nostalgia. The present has often seemed unbearably frightening, something to be escaped from rather than mastered and embraced." Living Architecture, he hopes, will start to change this perception, letting people have a taste of modern living, which, if it doesn't send them running, may give them the confidence to try in their own homes.

The idea for the Living Architecture enterprise was conceived of by Alain on the back of a notepad following the publication of his book, The Architecture of Happiness, which criticised our nostalgia and low expectations of architecture, arguing that buildings should act as a reminder of our full potential. It said a lot about the draughty sash windows, creaky radiators and crumbling exteriors of so many British homes – monuments to our perception that this potential was reached some time ago – and got a healthy amount of attention as a result.

On the back of it, says Alain, "I was invited to a stream of conferences about the future of architecture. But one night, returning from one such conference in Bristol, I had a dark moment of the soul. I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that - a few exceptions aside - books don't change anything. I realised that if I cared so much about architecture, writing was just a coward's way out; the real challenge was to build."

And building he is. Plans are so far in place for five houses to be built across the UK. One of them, The Balancing Barn, by the Dutch firm MVRDV, hangs precariously off the edge of a hill in Suffolk. Another, The Dune House, in Thorpeness, by the Norwegian architects JVA, has four steel roofs, each of which houses a bedroom and a bathroom. A third, The Shingle House, by the young Scottish practice NORD, is a stark black box in the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station. A fourth, The Secular Retreat, by the legendary Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is a secular mini-monastery which aims to bring an ecclesiastical calm and solemnity to the Devon countryside. The fifth, The Long House, designed by two of the great modernists of British architecture, Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins, will sit on the prairie-like expanses of the Norfolk landscape and feature a traditionally crafted flint wall, a vast timber roof reinforced with steel cabling and a large medieval hall.

Says Alain, "The idea has been to avoid the obvious and to place houses in locations one hadn't necessarily ever thought of holidaying in, and to design rooms different from those that people know from their own homes. We also want to keep things accessible. Prices start at twenty pounds per person per night and the buildings themselves, while always comfortable, are far from grand."

Living Architecture is now taking bookings for The Balancing Barn and The Shingle House for holidays starting from October 2010 and for The Dune House for holidays starting from January 2011, The Long House will be ready for spring 2011 and The Secular Retreat will be complete by winter 2011. And there are more of these to come.

"We want to add one house a year into the future, so as to create a constant feeling of surprise," says Alain. "Each time, we want to push the boundaries of architecture a little more. We want to build a tower on the Isle of Sheppey, a house for a modern hermit in the East Anglian fenlands, a low-cost eco house outside Aberdeen and a conjoined building for a divorced family in the Yorkshire moors."

For Britain, still firmly in love with old-fashioned houses, be they mock Tudor or mock Georgian, these temples of modernity will be something of novelty to stay in, and, Alain hopes, a way of showing people that modern architecture doesn't have to mean "post-war tower blocks or bland air-conditioned offices."

Those keen to find out more about the enterprise are invited to attend a talk at The Royal College of Physicians on Wednesday 30 June during The London Festival of Architecture in which Alain will discuss Living Architecture and the five houses with a panel of the architects involved. "By staying in a Living Architecture house," he says, "we're hoping to convince even the most die hard traditionalists to give modern architecture a try. An invitation is in the post to Prince Charles."

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for furniture and interior design website

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