Overlooking the wide Stour estuary in North Essex, set in a swathe of vivid green fields, a small, glinting gingerbread house has appeared, as if Hansel and Gretel had just touched down. Called A House for Essex, it was designed by the London-based FAT Architecture practice with Britain’s best-loved cross-dresser, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry, as a holiday rental for the Living Architecture company, the idea of Alain de Botton.
Philosopher and author De Botton talked to Essex-born Perry about a house in Essex based on Essex, and then asked award-winning FAT, which has a record of unusual buildings, to work on it.
The house’s extraordinary appearance was collaborative from the start. “We all sat down,” explains Charles Holland of FAT, “and had the idea of a chapel you could live in, with references to wooden Russian architecture, too. Because of Grayson, we had the idea of a ‘pottery’ building, with the inside designed around artworks he is making for it. So Grayson went off and started on some tiles for the outside.”
IMAGE GALLERY: A HOUSE FOR ESSEX
Gallery: Grayson Perry's A House for Essex
Gallery: Grayson Perry's A House for Essex
Intelligent design: behind the red doors is a;double-height living room up to the eaves.
(Left) Image: Dave Benett
A doll's house: the long cross-section reveals the double-height living room.
A captivating refuge: in its isolated and beautiful setting, the house belongs to an ancient tradition of wayfaring chapels, designed to shelter and comfort travellers.
Russian inspiration: architect Charles Holland of FAT did this early sketch for the house, based on Russian wooden architecture.
Impressive facade: 2,000 tiles were handmade for the outside of the house by Shaws of Darwen, while the aluminium roof sculptures were made by Millimetre in Brighton.
Hansel & Gretel house: every part of the house, including the roof, is intended by Grayson Perry to tell the life story of an imaginary occupant named Julie. The walls are covered with ceramic tiles designed by Perry and the roof is made of shining copper-alloy.
Turner Prize-winning influence: the collaboration between Grayson Perry and FAT architects is a triumph of daring and fun design.
Cookie-cutter: FAT's bold designs have also been used for the BBC in Wales at its Roath Lock Studios. A long building is faced with a dramatic clip-on facade.
Roath Lock Studios: this cartoon cut-out design is typical of FAT's approach.
Perry wanted the house, which he likens to a jewel box, to tell a story, as if it belongs to an imaginary woman called Julie. The décor inside will relate to Julie’s life and include tapestries and ceramic tiles by him. Two thousand tiles were handmade for the outside of the house by Shaws of Darwen in Lancashire, which is known for making Butler sinks, while the aluminium roof sculptures were made by Millimetre, in Brighton.
In its isolated and beautiful setting the house also belongs to an ancient tradition of wayfaring chapels, which were designed to shelter and comfort exhausted travellers. Just unveiled, the result is fantastic. Its shimmering gold, steeply pitched copper-alloy roofs are graduated in size and make the house look as though, if you pushed it in at each end, it could collapse into itself like an accordian.
Beneath the roofs, with their curved gable windows, the walls are clad in Perry’s glossy, green-and-white, equilateral-triangle ceramic tiles, all bearing moulded motifs. Topping everything off, the golden roofline flaunts four outsize finial-sculptures, including what appears to be a painted egg, a naked pregnant woman and a weather vane that looks like a ship’s compass, all in aluminium.
Daring design stakes
It’s a house designed by the Lego generation - a kind of folly. But it’s still a real house, with two bedrooms and a kitchen and bathroom, and, when the inside is finished, it will sleep four. Once you walk in through the red double doors at one end, there is an impressive double-height living room going right up to the steeply pitched eves.
From some time next year, once the inside is completed - a date has yet to be announced - anyone will be able to apply to rent A House for Essex for short stays via Living Architecture. Since 2012, the not-for-profit organisation has been working with architects to design striking holiday rentals, to let people experience what it is like to live inside a world-class building.
A House for Essex will be its sixth property. Two more are in the pipeline for next year: the Life House in Wales and the Secular Retreat in Devon. In the daring design stakes, the whole Living Architecture concept is a sort of spin on the Serpentine Pavilion, the temporary structure by a different leading architect every summer, commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. But in the case of the Living Architecture houses, it is the inhabitants who are temporary, rather than the building.
Echoes of the Serpentine are no surprise, as Living Architecture’s director, Mark Robinson, project-managed the pavilions from 2000-2006. Designers commissioned so far have included John Pawson, currently working on the new Design Museum in Kensington High Street, and Peter Zumthor, architect of the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion.
In 2012, the capital got its first Living Architecture property. Called A Room for London, the boat cabin-shaped one-bedroom installation is perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, as if flung up by a very high tide. It was designed by architect David Kohn and artist Fiona Banner, and tickets for its first six months’ rentals sold out in minutes.
Stampede for tickets
The Essex house is a flamboyant swansong for FAT architects - Sam Jacobs, Sean Griffiths and Charles Holland - who are going their separate ways after more than 20 years. FAT is known for iconoclastic, highly decorated architecture using distinctively unusual forms. The style has been called “cookie-cutter” because of its cartoon cut-out shapes. Its Roath Lock Studios for the BBC in Wales, where Doctor Who is filmed, are a perfect example. The long, shed-like building is faced with a fantastic, baroque, 1ft 7in-thick clip-on façade. With its sharply drawn form, A House for Essex is just as incredible, and equally captivating.
Buildings like these let your imagination roam a little. But if you want a chance to live inside Grayson Perry’s head, tickets are likely to go very fast.
- Visit living-architecture.co.uk to find out more and sign up for a newsletter. Holidays cost from £720 for a four-night break for eight people.