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Slow Architecture: The Birth of Secular Retreat

Slow Architecture: The Birth of Secular Retreat


Slow Architecture: The Birth of Secular Retreat

When I arrived at Haus Zumthor back in late 2007, even by Peter Zumthor’s reputation for ‘slow architecture’, I still hadn’t quite envisaged some ten years on I would still be in the (final) stages of completing the house designed by him. I’m not sure he thought it would take this long either.

Following a letter from the Swiss Ambassador, introducing Living Architecture as the new company it then was, Peter agreed to a meeting. For the many who have not made the ‘pilgrimage’ to his base in Haldenstein, it takes a series of trains, planes, more trains, and then a car to take you up to the mountain village. I had timed it carefully, leaving London City Airport on the first flight out to Zurich to arrive on his doorstep at 12.30pm. It all went to plan, and as I stood in front of his gloriously unpretentious concrete building amidst the traditional Swiss houses of the village, I thought to myself “not bad for a boy from Grimsby”.

Naturally I was nervous at the prospect of meeting the man, who had a reputation for being difficult; going over and over in my head as to how I might convince him to design a house for Living Architecture. This was not the first time I had been on the doorstep of a renowned architect, whose work I greatly admired. Being part of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion team, we used to rehearse our opening ‘pitch’ many times, probably the most memorable being the first encounter with Oscar Niemeyer at his studio overlooking Copacabana Beach in Rio. Today I was on my own.

As I entered the Zumthor compound there was not a soul to be seen. It was a particularly hot day, all the doors and windows to the house and atelier were open, and I wandered around expecting to find someone. Had I arrived on the wrong day? After waiting for about 40 minutes, the first person came back from lunch. I was informed - after many a blank expression - that Peter was out playing tennis. An hour later he appeared, acknowledged my presence and went off to have a shower and change out of his ‘whites’.

If I have learned anything over the years of working with Peter, it’s that he wants to test you. How serious are you as a client?  Do you just want his ‘name’ on a project? Are you willing to go the full course? How long are you prepared to wait?

It seemed that my patient nature had seen me through the first test, and I found myself with his full attention. I talked to him about Living Architecture - our vision, the leading architects we were working with, our proposed sites - to show we were serious in what we were doing. Just like the other architects we were already working with, I told him he would have free reign to explore the concept of a holiday home. We only ask for it to be on a domestic scale and within budget.

Finally, he spoke. “I don’t want to design another private house, they cost me too much money”.

I persevered, pulling out my laptop to show him images of sites we had already purchased, still he seemed disinterested. Finally, I asked if there was any type of site that might persuade him to change his mind. His answer: "Expansive open views, no near neighbours and a place to inspire him”. That was it, he thanked me for coming and I headed back down the mountain to report my findings. Overall, I concluded, this was not a complete ‘No’.

At this point Living Architecture had already purchased the Chivelstone site in Devon. Hyghdowne House had been on the market and a local property finder had flagged it up to me. I headed down from London to look at the site along with a couple of others of potential interest. 

This was a time before Google Maps, readily accessible aerial images and other digital tools that makes finding sites and identifying the right properties so much easier nowadays. After being shown a house that wasn’t anything like the one I expected to find, I prepared to get back on the road. I asked the property finder to double check one more time and he finally realised that he had shown me the wrong house – the Chivelstone site was about a mile away and was under offer. Slightly annoyed at the mix up, I suggested we should go take a look anyway. Sitting in the car at the top of the long drive I could see enough to know this site could be perfect. 

Halfway back to London I turned the car around and decided to go back. On this beautiful summer’s evening, I approached the house from the adjacent farmers field. With no one around I circled the site, took in the expansive views and thought, we cannot let this one slip away. After our offer was accepted a few days later (I am not sure it was ever seriously ‘under offer’) we had secured the site.

Since that memorable first meeting in Haldenstein, Peter and I had stayed in touch. I would occasionally send him images of new sites we had or were thinking of purchasing. A month or so later I would receive a polite ‘no’. I had not shown Peter the Chivelstone site as we had already invited another architect to draw up a concept for it.  Only once we decided not to proceed, did I  send him some images.

Within a couple of days, we had a ‘yes, I am interested’ and we set about arranging a site visit to Devon. The project that would become Secular Retreat was underway.

Slow Architecture: The Birth of Secular RetreatSlow Architecture: The Birth of Secular RetreatSlow Architecture: The Birth of Secular Retreat
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