Rural Simplicity #2 – Hunsett Mill

Finally, I’ve found time for a few words about Hunsett Mill which won the Manser Medal for ‘Best New House’ at the RIBA Awards a few weeks back. But it’s not really my own words I’m focussing on; it’s something the jury said…

They described the house, with its de rigueur distorted multi-pitched roof, its taut, flush windows and black-charred timber cladding as ‘more akin to a piece of art than a piece of rural, domestic architecture’.

If you read my post on David Kohn’s Stable Acre (‘Rural Simplicity?‘) you will know why this remark caught my eye. It reminds us that this building is a one off, and therefore has little to tell us about how one might build larger groups of modern houses in a rural context – ‘normal’ homes, for ‘normal’ people, next to ‘normal’ villages.

In his intriguing and important book ‘How Buildings Learn’, Stewart Brand distinguishes between exotic and rarified ‘High Road’ buildings and their more workaday ‘Low Road’ counterparts. More memorably, and therefore more widely quoted, is Nicholas Pevsner’s distinction between Lincoln Cathedral (architecture) and a bike shed (merely a building).

Pevsner’s narrow definition of architecture is controversial, but I’m happy to set it on one side. In the rural landscape (and in most towns – remember Krier’s diagram), the ‘bike-sheds’ (houses, farm buildings) massively outnumber the ‘cathedrals’ (churches, work houses, schools perhaps). For me, its sheer ubiquity makes the humble house worthy of an architect’s (or if Pevsner insists) a building-designer’s attention.

The game that Acme Architects are playing with Hunsett Mill, it seems to me, is to take an apparently ‘normal’ object (a house) and ‘subvert’ it, by treating it in an exceptional and surprising way. This ‘distancing’ from the commonplace is a key feature of Modern Architecture according to Alan Powers. In his article on Tayler and Green (in his 1998 book on Norfolk’s un-sung Modern heroes – available here) he explains:

During the 1950s…the Sublime was the dominant aesthetic for modern architecture all over the world…Among the broader definitions of the Sublime is the inhospitable or un-homely…Tayler and Green’s refusal to indulge the un-homely would become their defining feature.

I’ll return to this theme later. In the meantime, don’t get me wrong: I do like Hunsett Mill, at least what I’ve seen in the published photos, and no doubt it is a worthy winner of the Manser Medal (which is specifically for the best ‘one-off’ house)…it’s just not what Ruralise is about.

More about Norfolk’s ‘high-road’ buildings here.
More about ‘special’ and ‘normal’ buildings here.

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