How the Living Architecture project is transforming the English countryside for travelers, one Modernist rental home at a time.

By Michael Z. Wise
January 08, 2013
Credit: Courtesy of Living Architecture

A vacation rental in the English countryside brings to mind quaint thatched-roof cottages and stone manors—and that’s just the mind-set one Londoner wants to shake up.

Alain de Botton, whose writing probes the pursuit of contentment through architecture as well as philosophical ideas, is spearheading the construction of decidedly modern vacation houses. His Living Architecture initiative allows travelers to rent Modernist dwellings equipped with cutting-edge furnishings selected and, in many cases, designed by stellar architects.

The concept is tied to de Botton’s realization that most people never have the opportunity to personally inhabit prime architectural works. “We are, for better or for worse, different people in different places,” de Botton wrote in his 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness, in which he asserts that architecture is not simply a passive pleasure—rather “it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”

Travel abroad can certainly rattle our everyday suppositions, inspiring us to reassess our lives and ourselves. De Botton believes that this kind of self-discovery can be enhanced by coming into close contact with new forms of design and new landscapes. I wanted to see for myself, so I reserved a stay at one of Living Architecture’s homes, inviting three London friends to join me.

I got the sense we were in for something different when I received a note ahead of our visit requesting that shoes be removed before entering the house to avoid marking up the ash wood floors. “Do forgive our obsessiveness but try to treat the house with museum-like love,” it concluded. I was a bit put off at first, but once inside the house known as the Balancing Barn last winter, the under-floor heating system made it a pleasure to walk around in stockinged feet.

Sure enough, Balancing Barn was different from anything I’d inhabited before—and fabulously so. Designed by the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, this bold structure upends, quite literally, the architectural principles customarily found within its bucolic setting in the village of Thorington, some three hours northwest of London.

The name Balancing Barn derives from its elongated form dangling at the edge of a hill in an idyllic nature reserve. Upon opening the front door, my friends and I found a sprawling kitchen/dining room filled with the latest appliances by the high-end German firm Miele. It adjoined a long corridor lined with wood-encased beams set at odd angles and running past four bedrooms, each with its own skylit bathroom, and ending at a high-ceilinged living room with huge plate-glass windows. Much of the living room floor was made of clear glass, revealing that the house’s other end cantilevers vertiginously above the lush, green landscape.

Constructed to exacting standards, the interior contains heavy wood doors and soundproofed wood-paneled walls. Much of the furniture was specially designed for the house by the design firm Studio Makkink & Bey, and includes a stylish and colorful array of pieces by contemporary Dutch designers like Hella Jongerius and Christien Meindertsma as well as classics by Gerrit Rietveld, Jean Prouvé, and Charles and Ray Eames.

The house is just as well furnished for the mind. Dozens of books—a far cry from pulp best-sellers often left behind in vacation homes—line the living room shelves. Take your pick among de Botton’s complete oeuvre, essays by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott and critic John Ruskin, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and architectural writings by Le Corbusier and Nikolaus Pevsner.

Or let de Botton himself point the way. He prepared a 10-page pamphlet labeled Conversation Menu for houseguests, stating, “We built the house in part in the hope that it would be a place to reconnect at the deepest level with friends and family,” and including suggested topics of discussion at mealtime.

My friends—a painter, a novelist, and a former diplomat—and I had no lack of things to talk about, and over three days we never got around to those menu/cue cards. We cooked using utensils designed by David Mellor and savored the picture-perfect views of nature. We also took walks in the surrounding countryside and visited a museum in the former home of composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears in the nearby town of Aldeburgh, where they founded an annual music festival.

One morning, we drove 20 minutes to tour another Living Architecture project, known as The Dune House and set on the North Sea coast in Thorpeness. Norwegian firm JVA designed it with steeply pitched roofs and panoramic views of the beach. The Shingle House, covered in tarred black shingles, is located in Kent, south of London, while British architects Michael and Patty Hopkins are behind a fourth rental home, The Long House, that features a timbered roof reinforced by steel cables in Norfolk, northwest of the capital. Another designed out of concrete and glass by Pritzker Prize–winning Peter Zumthor is due to open in 2013 among the rolling hills of Devon.

To learn more about the rationale behind Living Architecture, I also visited de Botton in his own home. The author, who rails against the “retro kitsch” that he sees in most new home construction in Britain, hopes the program will help “cure” Britons of what he feels is their antipathy to Modernist architecture. De Botton, who has written nine books and is the son of a wealthy international financier, certainly practices what he preaches.

At the bottom of a row of late-19th-century red brick town houses in north London, de Botton has built himself and his family a clean-lined cube of limestone, steel, and glass drawn up by the British architect James Gorst. It’s an impressive, award-winning exemplar of Modernist aesthetics—which most Britons encounter only in less than exhilarating airports, offices, and hospitals. But it’s also private.

There are few Modernist homes that can be visited in Britain, de Botton told me. “This country continues to have real difficulties with Modernism conceptually,” he says, adding that he wanted to effect change through the Living Architecture project, which taps into—and slightly subverts—the British custom of weekend and weeklong rentals of homes managed by the National Trust and the nonprofit Landmark Trust.

Living Architecture plans to add a new house every year. So far, all are in the countryside except for a small portable domestic structure perched atop Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. The fanciful, boatlike structure will remain there for the remainder of 2012 (it’s fully booked for the entire year). Granted, such designs aren’t the most functional, but these are vacation homes, after all, transporting and fleeting.

“What we like about Peter Zumthor or John Pawson is that you might not necessarily want that in your own house,” says de Botton. “It’s kind of unlivable day to day. But it’s a kind of experiment in living, and there are lessons that you can pull out. It’s not going to change the world, but it’s maybe going to inch the debate along.”