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Timeless materials and houses out of time


'The material of a thousand uses' - how Bakelite's timeless quality found a place in two Living Architecture houses.

Which materials are appropriate for contemporary architecture? In the case of Living Architecture, the answer has often been 'equally modern'; consider the shimmering steel cladding of the Balancing Barn. Yet an obscure early form of plastic has also won a place in two of our buildings.

In 1907, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland invented polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, best known as Bakelite. This was the first entirely synthetic plastic; lightweight, durable and heat resistant. Like many of the 'new' plastics, Bakelite was marvelled at for its adaptability, and manufacturers lost no time in experimenting with a multitude of different uses and shapes.

For consumers, products in this ultra-modern material came with a glamorously high-end, luxurious association. Jewellery boxes suitable for transatlantic cruises, desk lamps for 'modern homes with electricity', radios for smart apartments and telephones for the truly cosmopolitan. As the material of choice for a new age of affordable yet aesthetically pleasing consumer goods, Bakelite was synonymous with the democratising of so-called good taste. 

No longer a mainstay of contemporary design, but still evocative of a certain kind of old-fashioned sophistication, Bakelite makes a cameo appearance at A House for Essex (AHFE), as well as in A Room for London (now closed). AHFE architect Charles Holland reflects on the careful decision to choose Bakelite as one of the materials for 'The Taj Mahal on the River Stour.'

"Throughout the house, the smallest details are intended to be evocative but also to leave something to the imagination. So we wanted to avoid using any materials that are too obviously contemporary. Rather, we sought to evoke a sense that the house had evolved over time and that some elements might be older than others. The light switches are very particular: white, circular and Bakelite, the kind that might have in the past, been fitted in rows onto a timber plate."

Coincidentally, architect David Kohn used the same detailing for the now-closed A Room for London, another building with storytelling at its heart. Whereas A House for Essex is a shrine to the life of the fictional Julie Cope, the Room takes the form of a boat called the Roi des Belges, named after the vessel in which Joseph Conrad sailed up the river Congo, in the journey that would inspire his book Heart of Darkness

It is revealing that both these Living Architecture projects explore narrative and storytelling as influences on contemporary domestic design. Perhaps here, it is more the rich associations of materials that is important, rather than their contemporaneity. Bakelite, an old-fashioned material, suggests layers of history and connections, a link between present and past.

Timeless materials and houses out of timeTimeless materials and houses out of timeTimeless materials and houses out of time
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