The Balancing Barn in Suffolk is the new holiday home. Light and airy with enormous windows, cutting-edge Dutch furniture and a glass floor above a plunging 45-degree grass slope, it defies the stereotype chintzy cottage in the country and replaces it with this dramatic design built by Living Architecture.
'We wanted to allow people to experience what it is like to live in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice'
From a distance, at the end of its 300-metre driveway the frontage is deceiving, as though it could be a small house, the only query being the rather shiny, metal-clad walls. But as visitors get closer it becomes clear that this is anything but ordinary. Its long, stainless-steel side elevations stretch out across the hillside and then up into the sky, perching seemingly perilously in thin air.
The Balancing Barn is meant to shock, in the nicest possible way. It is the first of Living Architecture's new holiday homes available to rent, in the process promoting world-class modern architecture in rural Britain.
"We wanted to allow people to experience what it is like to live, eat and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice," says Alain de Botton, social commentator and co-founder of Living Architecture. "The few modern houses that exist [in Britain] are almost all in private hands and cannot be visited. We're hoping to help change the debate about architecture in the UK - and to open people's eyes to some of the great benefits of well-designed contemporary houses."
He further explains: "We definitely thought that it's no use having a great exterior and then third-rate interiors. From the first, we asked our architects and designers to think of the house as a whole. We don't like the idea that somehow architecture (the outside) is the real thing and the inside is an add-on. For us, it's holistic."
Knife-edge design evolved during supper
This philosophy has been taken to heart in the Balancing Barn by the Dutch architects MVRDV and the designers of the interior, Studio Makkink & Bey.
According to architect Winy Maas, the knife-edge, balancing design evolved during a supper with de Botton and his wife Charlotte, as he balanced his knife on the table; at least that is the story he tells. Stories play a key role in the design philosophies of both MVRDV and Studio Makkink & Bey.
Jurgen Bey, a very influential designer, until recently senior tutor in design products at the RCA and now director of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, is best known for his "Tree-trunk Bench" for Droog and his "Light Shade Shade" for Moooi. "Our design process is to create a story for the project. It is an ideal, from which we then work backwards, according to the budget," Bey explains. The narrative in the Balancing Barn for both the architects and interior designers centres on an appreciation of the surrounding landscape."We give a vision of the outside landscape and bring the beauty of outside in," says Bey.
The brief was to create a holiday house that felt like a real home, despite being a new rental property. It had to be a comfortable environment; not too empty for two guests nor too crowded for eight. The Studio's approach was to trace "the transition from earth to sky", explains Bey.
Visitors walk from the earth-bound entrance into the wood-clad interior. Starting in the kitchen/dining area, they proceed through the house along a long corridor, off which are four bedrooms, to the living room which seems to be floating in the sky.
The recurring motif is the wall-hanging in each room, based on either Constable or Gainsborough paintings of surrounding Suffolk. The imagery in each gradually evolves from the figurative into pixellated squares of colour. The hanging in each room forms the basis of its individual colour scheme. In the brown-themed kitchen, a Constable horse and cart seems to have walked into the Barn.
In the first bedroom, the fencing in the Constable painting, (typical of fencing in the surrounding countryside) serves as inspiration for the wooden furniture and beds, by Studio Makkink & Bey.
In the living room, Gainsborough's Blue Boy provides the blue theme for the room, with the pixellated pattern of the hanging echoed in the different coloured individual rectangles of the carpet that can be picked up and rearranged around, or (for those with vertigo) over the glass floor.
The furniture is mostly Dutch and uses a mix-and-match approach that is echoed in the kitchenware. There are six matching crockery sets and two individual ones, so that two guests on their own can eat entirely off the special ones, or, if there are eight visitors, each can have an element from the unique pieces in their place settings.
Showcasing the best of Dutch design
This creation of the feeling of the handmade or the one-off by using mass-manufacture is a very Dutch design approach. "We wanted to showcase the best of Dutch design, so that there was an overall Dutch feel to the house," explains de Botton.
"Living Architecture wanted a barn that was comfortable and convenient but would nevertheless send out signals to its users that everything had been thought through; it wasn't there by accident, because someone had given it to us, or we'd seen it at a tempting discount in a shop. We wanted an interior that was thought-through from teaspoon to lightfitting, from tap to doorstopper. We would hope that some of the lessons from these houses can be applied to real life, too; that's very much the philosophy of Living Architecture."
In other words a holiday home can also be a crash course in contemporary design.
To book: the Balancing Barn is between Walberswick and Aldeburgh, and sleeps up to eight. Prices start from £725 for a four-day break, (equivalent to £23 a person per night). Book online at living-architecture.co.uk.