Last week was spent in the Life House, an ultra-modern, minimalist dwelling tucked into a hillside in mid-Wales.
Its positioning amidst south-facing rough-grazing was delicately done, and its single storey profile and dark colour represented landscape integration and unobtrusiveness cleverly achieved.
The interior was essentially a study in darkness and light. To achieve this, the architect, John Pawson, used a range of devices such as beige and black bricks, and huge picture windows contrasting with top-lit glazing at critical points. One such point was in the roof of the otherwise dark, unlit, semi-sub-terranean ‘thinking’ room. That room, with its glazed, black-brick slabs one to each side, curiously came over as a cross between a morgue and a space for preparing sacrificial offerings; I spent much time in it, but instead of ever-deeper thoughts became increasingly irritated by the incorrectly translated quote from Pascal inscribed on a stone laid in its floor.
The top-lit ‘thinking room’ with its inscribed floor-stone, viewed from the corridor.
This ‘cell’ lay at the end of a dark, black-bricked corridor with top-lit alcove:
View from the ‘cell’, with one of its benches on the right, along the ‘dark corridor’ towards the light at the start of the ‘light corridor’ to the left
Opening off this ‘dark corridor’ are two bedrooms. That on the left doubles as a reading room, with a small but challenging library:
The bedroom on the right is also a common bathing facility with a titanic bath affording any bather views to the surrounding hills (and vice versa, including passing sheep):
At right angles to this ‘dark’ corridor was a ‘light’ corridor, with beige bricks, windows, a glass exit (at the far end in this view) to two outdoor ‘thinking benches’, and two appended rooms separated by a large and beautifully lit entrance lobby.
The end room was the third bedroom, this time doubling as the music room – not a musical instrument in sight but containing machines of increasing complexity to play recorded music. We left it unused.
On the inner side of the entrance was the largest room of all, tripling as kitchen, dining area and sitting room with an ‘entertainment centre’ which we failed to master:
Though it could be argued that the whole house is ‘art’, or at least conceived and executed artistically – the quality of work and ‘finish’ throughout are very high, – the only art mobilier is on the wall overlooking the dining area:
I have to confess that I thought the work was a Richard Long at first sight but ‘Near and Far Hill Skylines’ is in fact by Long’s contemporary and fellow student Hamish Fulton. He stayed in the Life House while walking the art-walk which inspired the six images here.
Living in Life House for a week was certainly an interesting experience. It was physically demanding in the sense that we always seemed to be walking to and between its many spaces, and technically challenging (for oldies anyway) with its many high-tech features. The function-specific nature of all the spaces left me feeling that it was a dictatorial house which was trying all the time to make me do what it wanted, not least in order to persuade me of the domestic virtues of contemporary, modernist architecture. I kept thinking of Jacques Tati’s ‘Mon Oncle’ as I pressed yet another button and forgot to ‘OK’ it.
The technology (for heating, lighting, water-supply, cooking, washing, entertainment, but not communication – see below) suggested to me that, whatever difficulties or otherwise residents’ might experience in using it, something was always bound to be not working; and that fundamentally the whole was, in the long term, unsustainable. Ironically, given all this high-tech which nevertheless did not run to a telephonic land-line, when we did have a minor emergency – burning toast set off the fire-alarm! – I had to run out on to the hillside, in the rain, in search of a signal for my iPhone to find out what to do. The sheep looked on unmoved.
A view from the kitchen area of the ‘elemental’ landscape outside on a frosty, misty morning
Philosophically, too, there seemed to be a fundamental clash between, on the one hand, the ‘elementalism’ of living in such a ‘wild’ place that I was supposed to experience through the catalyst of the house and, on the other, the sophisticated high-tech dependency which living in Life House involved. Though I came to appreciate and respect what the architect and the owners, ‘Living Architecture’, were attempting, I would not choose Life House as my home. Perhaps I was not meant to.
One function in it that was not allowed for was painting, but I went off-piste and painted in the reading room. That may well inspire a later post.