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Balancing Barn: a new idea of a country house

04.07.18

Too often, new houses built in the British countryside are pastiches, hybrids of Palladian/Classical/Tudor design. Balancing Barn, completed in 2010, became a part of the debate about what rural architecture could be.

When founded a decade ago, Living Architecture set out to be a pragmatic riposte to the inherent conservatism of domestic architecture in the UK, particularly in the great British countryside. 

Architectural critic Steve Rose explained at the time why 'modern' had become a byword for second-rate in popular views on the merits of different architectural periods. "Architecture builds on what it already knows. Construction methods become standardised, models and typologies are emulated, design techniques solidify into rules, and nobody gets hurt. But the drawback can be that nobody gets excited either."

Whereas it's perfectly common throughout Europe for normal families to aspire to build a 'modern' home, this is still quite rare in the UK. Too often, the limited few that do self-build end up with something that stylistically veers from timid to full-blown pastiche of past times.  

"As a nation, we cherish our heritage and conserve our historic structures, but we've also been stubbornly resistant to change. Modernist architecture has been around for over a century now, but in Britain, and particularly rural Britain, it often comes into collision with a more timeless notion of ‘the countryside’: a pre-industrial realm of picturesque landscapes, stately homes, fields, forests, and footpaths," observes Steve.

With its portfolio of houses, Living Architecture set out to confront exactly those conceptions. Who said modern architecture does not belong in rural Britain? And why do we build new country houses to look like historic ones? 

At its inception, the Living Architecture team were drawn to the bold vision of Dutch practice MVRDV, whose convention-challenging designs invoked a sense of fun and playfulness; two words particularly absent from the vernacular of contemporary design in rural settings. Opened in 2010, Balancing Barn proved the hypothesis that it is possible to produce aesthetically innovative, publicly accessible, commercially viable, modern architecture in the British countryside.

Principal architect Winy Maas says that, “For me, architecture is not just artistic in itself; it also wants to say something about society. It touches emotionally on societal issues in our world. I think that's what The Balancing Barn does. That's why, for me, it's an important project, even though it's just 160 square metres. It wants to say something more.”

Challenging ideas of what a house looks like - starting with the notion that it should be attached to the earth - Balancing Barn was the first manifestation of Living Architecture's vision of country houses that respond to their situation, excite the senses and push forward the idea of what a country house should - and could - look like.

Looking back over the last ten years, it feels as though the debate has influenced both clients and Local Authority Planners to broaden their horizons and help bring a more modern architectural aesthetic to the countryside. 

Balancing Barn: a new idea of a country houseBalancing Barn: a new idea of a country houseBalancing Barn: a new idea of a country house
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