Our office trip to The Homewood: Achieving quality in the modern world

Posted on May 24th 2016


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At the edges of Esher Common in Surrey there is a country villa designed by the architect Patrick Gwynne in 1938, The Homewood. Patrick was just 24 years old when his parents entrusted their family funds to his design hand; the brief was a replacement for their family’s aging Victorian home and his solution was a functional rectilinear white villa in the modernist style of the era. Inspired by modernist examples Gwynne had seen on his travels across Europeit is no challenge to see design parallels between The Homewood and famous modernist Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye completed just 7 years before. Both boast strikingly modern sharp reinforced concrete walls, rendered and painted bright white. Both embrace the age of the motorcar, using columns to float the house over covered car-ports leading to modest entrances which subdivide the house. Both are a testament to the functional subdivision of spaces, dividing the plan into work, sleep and living zones. There are bedrooms with en suites and open plan living rooms whose walls being non-structural, allow vast lines of unbroken windows and unlimited light.

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What The Homewood offers which (perhaps) surpasses Vila Savoye is its symbiosis with the expansive 8 acre garden. Gwynne sets up a view from the first floor principal living room which is quite literally entrancing. Your eye meanders amongst the deliberate layering of Japanese Maples, and as intended one is unable to distinguish between private garden and the surrounding woods.

Gwynne was a talented architect, especially for his age. His adoption of early modernism is exhaustive, from the simplicity of the plan to the fine detailing, nothing is superfluous and nothing is without reason. Coffee tables have small pull-out trays to ensure the main surface remains unblemished and electric cables are concealed discreetly within the furniture legs.IMG_9525

When Gwynne was designing the Homewood, the rest of the UK was being covered in a blanket of near identical three-bed semis. Almost 80 years on the proportion of truly modern homes to traditionally planned dwellings appears to be unchanged. But is this a problem? Have we forgotten the design ethos made so long ago by inspired modernists, or have we moved on from Modernism… is the clean white box now passé, and is it needed?

It’s a difficult question. Modernism seems confined to a few experimental examples in the UK, the successful schemes often overshadowed by horror stories of post-war social housing. In London we don’t have Modernism anymore, we have ‘modern’ clad facades and open plan living which is frequently a bi-product of high density development rather than a design ethos. The Victorian Semi-detached home is a favourite amongst home-buyers, but in search of space, light, clean lines and efficiency of plan the status quo immediately bolt on a modernist glass extension to the back. It all seems rather muddled.IMG_9528

Is it possible that walking around this 80 year old house feels more successful, maybe even more complete than a home built today? I would argue this is often the case, but one doesn’t have to build in a modern style to produce a quality design. Equally 8 acres of land and an enormous budget do not have to be the recipe for success. There are simple things we can learn from the early modernists to give us guidance and more satisfaction in our built work.

Gwynne’s design is relatively modest in its material palette, yet it feels palatial because it’s spatial design is exceptional. The house is well laid out. One almost glides from space to space. Discovering the garden view from first floor is a theatrical moment given provenance by the room and the furniture that you see it from. The rooms are proportionally sized for their function. The bedrooms for example are not generous because they are only used for sleeping, whilst the lounge spaciously reflects the family’s love for parties and dancing.

Luxury at The Homewood is accomplished by taking the time to develop the plan to a functional form and strive for spatial and architectural cohesion. Simple alignments of materials, deliberate sight lines and accuracy in the execution of the built in furniture create a harmony and a holistic design piece. The main staircase is elegant but simple in plan, like the whole house it has no awkward details that ‘never quite worked’, it was designed well and as such built well.IMG_9523

Gwynne’s ambition was clear from the outset and as a result the finished product feels complete. I believe it is this feeling of completion that is so inherently satisfying and in turn can be used as a pillar of good quality architecture. It is therefore not the modern juxtaposition of 30s modernist architecture that is so successful, but the desire to strive for quality of design and in turn, quality of life.

All these attributes are inexpensive design tools that can be applied with ease to any project, and should be. Too often material factors drive the design process and the simpler architectural decisions are overlooked. The end result can lead to missed opportunities, poor alignment of materials, leftover corners, the setting out may be compromised or even abortive work may be required.IMG_9524

If budget is a restraint, a simple, well executed, beautifully complete scheme will always be more satisfying than ‘smoke and mirrors’. The journey of the user from the front door to the garden is an opportunity to stage the architecture, showcase the design and to provide a symbiosis between material and form. If this fails at the detail, the architecture becomes nothing more than a parody.

The beauty of this design ethos is that it can be applied to any style of architecture. Provided one gives time for design there is no reason why that style should not be executed with perfection.

Peter Williamson

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