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A House for Essex

Sleeps 4

A House for Essex is designed by FAT Architecture and Grayson Perry. It is both an artwork in itself and the setting for a number of works by Perry exploring the special character and unique qualities of Essex. The building has been designed to evoke the tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels. It belongs to a history of follies, whilst also being deeply of its own time.

About The Architecture

Architect – FAT Architecture and Grayson Perry

FAT has been one of the most provocative and challenging voices in UK architecture for the past twenty years. Their previous projects include the BBC’s new production village in Cardiff, a civic centre and park in Hooglvliet, Holland and Islington Square housing in Manchester. FAT’s designs have embraced decoration, ornament and explicit communication to create popular and enjoyable buildings. They have won numerous awards and their work has been exhibited and published worldwide. In December 2013 the practice, led by Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland and Sam Jacob, announced they were disbanding with their final two projects being the British Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale and A House for Essex. Following this, the completion of A House for Essex has been overseen by Charles Holland.

GRAYSON PERRY was born in Chelmsford and grew up in the villages of Broomfield, Bicknacre and Great Bradfield. He is one of the UK’s leading contemporary artists. He won the Turner Prize in 2003 and has gone on to achieve enormous critical and popular acclaim. As well as making ceramic pots, tapestries and sculptures, Perry has curated a number of high-profile exhibitions. His 2006 exhibition The Charms of Lincolnshire mixed historical artefacts with his own works to reflect on the county’s culture. His recent exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum also used objects from the museum’s own collection mixed with specially commissioned new works.  A recent Channel 4 television series, All In The Best Possible Taste, followed Perry as he produced a series of artworks based around the issue of contemporary taste, and helped secure his reputation as one of the UK’s best loved artists.


  • Completed 2014
  • Footprint 148 sqm
  • Plot – approximately 2 acres
  • Blockwork and steel frame, with faience of cast terracotta tiles taken form original artwork produced by Grayson Perry
  • Solid oak timber floors

The making of A House for Essex - a short essay by Steve Rose (2014)

Some buildings have stories woven into them but houses tend to hide their secrets. The homes we live in are rarely brand new, but we usually prefer not to contemplate who might have lived in them before us: what they might have done, how they might have used the spaces we now use, who might have slept, or even died, in the bedroom we now sleep in. The same applies to hotel rooms and holiday homes. As soon as we move into a "new" home, we traditionally set about erasing all traces of former occupancy. We clear them out and scrub them down and do them up, to create the impression of a "fresh start", a year zero.

In other types of architecture, we celebrate the opposite. Religious buildings, town halls, museums, galleries, the civic buildings that cement the built environment and the community -- we like these buildings to have a history, a story. Stories in architecture can operate on different levels. In the most obvious sense, there is the factual, chronological history of a building: when it was built, the events it has lived through and played host to.

Then there is what might be termed "spatial narrative" -- the way the architecture organises the experience of its users. Architectural spaces are arranged sequentially. They dictate certain forms and directions of movement and modes of behaviour. They create particular relationships, encounters, associations, memories, emotions. They conceal and reveal, the choreograph and direct, they lead and mislead. Architecture draws a user through a space in the same way a writer draws a reader through a text.

On a deeper level, there is the narrative encoded in architecture itself. As Victor Hugo observed in his novel Notre Dame de Paris, from the beginning of history until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, "architecture is the great book of humanity". He sees stones as an alphabet, organised by civilisation into "syllables of granite" -- letters, words, sentences, which "ranged themselves in stories in the sky, until they had written under the dictation of the general idea of an epoch, those marvellous books which were also marvellous edifices… The generating idea, the word, was not only at the foundation of all these edifices, but also in the form. The temple of Solomon, for example, was not alone the binding of the holy book; it was the holy book itself."

Religious buildings, in particular, transmit narrative on all these multiple levels. A Christian church, for example, broadcasts its very presence by dominating the skyline and the street plan. Its vaults and domes and arches, its axes and symmetries and orientation, all speak of that accumulation of history Hugo alludes to. Its architecture communicates spiritual and institutional power. Its spaces are shaped by, and speak of, ritual and tradition. Its symbols, artworks and inscriptions carry and preserve more intimate stories -- of divine beings, saints, martyrs, deceased notables. Stories within stories.

Serendipitously, religious architecture was very much on the mind of Alain de Botton, Living Architecture's creative director, when he first met the artist Grayson Perry in 2010. It was the subject of the first conversation they ever had, in fact. De Botton was writing his book Religion For Atheists, at the time, exploring how beneficial aspects of organised religion could be usefully applied to the secular world. Architecture, inevitably, was among those concerns.

"I was fascinated by the way religious architecture is among the best architecture in the world, and it is among the best things that religions do," says de Botton. "But religious buildings are not strictly limited to worship and the supernatural side of religion. The idea that you've got to be religious to be interested in them, or enjoy them, seemed wrong. They're just as inspiring to people to whom they don't mean anything, like the music of Bach might be very enjoyable to an atheist."

Perry had also been thinking about religious buildings, as it happened. He enthused to de Botton about wayside chapels and pilgrimage churches. As an artist whose work often addresses identity and place, these were buildings that defied the rootlessness of modernist architecture to Perry. They reinforced the local, the personal, the emotional. Perry was a bit of a church-lover, at least in an architectural sense. "When I think of the really numinous experiences I've had with architecture, it's been churches or cathedrals," Perry says. "I've been to Chartres, to the rococo Wieskirche in Bavaria. I've been on a bicycle tour through Spain, stopping off at all the fantastic, dark gothic black-magic cathedrals like Toledo."

So when de Botton asked Perry, "Have you ever thought of making a church?" Perry replied: "Curiously, I have done a few doodles."

"I had some little drawings in my sketchbook," Perry explains. "I had this notion of building a kind of secular chapel that people could use for weddings and funerals -- elaborate, with all the pomp of the Christian church, but without the God." De Botton had been thinking along very similar lines: how could architecture operate in this neo-religious sphere without any religion? What would such a structure look like? What story would it tell? Other examples fed into the conversation: the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a non-denominational place of worship housing 14 of the artist's abstract panels. Or the work of Peter Zumthor, another Living Architecture contributor, particularly his austere little Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in rural Germany.

Perry and de Botton pursued the idea of building something. They initially envisioned the project as a television documentary -- a sort of art-world Grand Designs, perhaps. It was television that had brought the two of them together, after all: a mutual producer colleague had introduced them. Perry turned some of his sketches into ceramic models, there were discussions with producers and various regional organisations about sites, but the idea slowly petered out.

At this time, Living Architecture was in its infancy. Its first few holiday homes -- in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent -- were nearing completion, and it was unknown at that stage how they would be received. In addition, the team was going through a steep, at times precipitous, learning curve in what it took to deliver such projects. A Grayson Perry-designed secular chapel did not seem like an idea that could work under the Living Architecture banner.

The situation had changed, however by the time de Botton and Perry met again, two years later, at an exhibition opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Living Architecture was now up and running and had proved itself viable. The early houses had attracted public and media interest, overwhelmingly positive. "We'd grown in confidence," says de Botton. "We'd proved the basics, and we were newly ambitious for what we could do to push the envelope. It no longer seemed enough simply to make a beautiful contemporary house. We felt we'd achieved that, so we grew more speculative."

De Botton said to Perry, "You know that idea we had ages ago? I think I can see a way of making it work."

For the secular chapel to work as a Living Architecture scheme, it would need to be more than just a folly; it would need to be a functioning holiday home. And for Perry to genuinely design such a building, he would need to work with an architect. That presented a problem: Perry does not hold contemporary architecture in particularly high regard. Especially not the "slightly too flash" modernism-with-a-twist that has become the orthodoxy of early 21st century British architecture. "They're a bit anaemic, architects," he says. "It's blokes on the whole, isn't it? It's got that blokishness, and playfulness isn't part of it. They don't take playfulness very seriously."

The field of potential collaborators was therefore very small indeed. Fortunately, de Botton knew just the person. A few months earlier, he had had another chance encounter: with Charles Holland, co-director of the London-based practice FAT -- for Fashion Architecture Taste.

FAT were very much the outsiders of British architecture. Established in 1995 by three designers -- Holland, Sean Griffiths and Sam Jacobs -- FAT challenged distinctions: between discrete design disciplines, between high, popular and folk culture. Their work focused on and celebrated elements the modernist-dominated mainstream tended to ignore, such as decoration, variety, pluralism, playfulness. Their philosophy related to more postmodernist currents of the 1960s and 70s, which sought to reconnect architecture to context, be that architectural history, local conditions or the hybrid visual language of the contemporary landscape. You could say, postmodernism sought to re-infuse architecture with narrative.

FAT never took their profession too seriously. Indeed, they often made efforts to deflate its pomposity. One of their early projects, for example, was a sound installation that cheekily juxtaposed Le Corbusier's appreciation of ocean liners with that of Rod Stewart, in his song Sailing. "Stewart recognises what Corbusier doesn't: that cars and boats and planes are not just machines, they are things imbued with hope and sadness and sentimental journeys," they said.

FAT's provocations were grounded in theory, analysis and research, but the practice were often regarded as jokers. Their design proposals and competition entries were often well-received but considered too radical and outlandish to actually build, especially in Britain. Still, they had built up a distinctive portfolio, mixing residential, workplace, public and educational buildings. For a Dutch advertising company, they created an office that resembled a grown-up version of children's playground; the BBC's Roath Lock studios, in Cardiff, they draped standard facilities in a continuous, 250 metre-long facade of ornate neo-baroque motifs. BBC chairman Chris Patten described it as "a cross between the Doge's Palace and IKEA." The architects took that as a compliment.

Especially pertinent to Living Architecture's concerns is FAT's Blue House, completed in 2002 in east London. It is a radical reimagining of British domestic architecture. The house's exterior is almost cartoonish in its language: its pale-blue clapboard facades resemble two-dimensional billboards, with cut-out cloud shapes and a stylised "house" silhouette superimposed on a grid of office-like square glazing (alluding to the house's dual work/live function). The Blue House is unashamedly what postmodern pioneers Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would have called a "decorated shed". There is no pretence of the modernist "form follows function" -- a tenet Venturi and Scott Brown did much to debunk. Externally, the structure communicates with the world around it in an accessible, graphic language. Internally, the house is practical, spatially rich and informed by historical precedent. The Blue House could almost be a metaphor for FAT's reputation: playful and cartoonish on the surface; more thoughtful and learned beneath.

"It has always been FAT's belief that modern architecture was very boring," says Alain de Botton. "It sounds like a strange or naive thing to say, but it hides a very large truth: that so many possibilities have not been explored. Modern architects put themselves in a strait-jacket, but the potential is enormous."

De Botton could imagine Holland and Perry getting along, professionally and personally: "Despite a rather wry and quiet exterior, Charles was very compelling: friendly, creative, open to things. Quite quickly I realised what we had to do was to marry them together."


The blind date got off to a bad start. Perry, already one of the busiest artists in the country, was exceptionally stretched at that time. He was in the midst of preparing a new television series, All In The Best Possible Taste, as well as an exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman (consisting of curated objects from the Museum's collection alongside new works by the artist). Designing a house in addition looked nigh-on impossible.

"Grayson basically said, 'I can't work at all on this project for ages, I can next pick up a pen in a year's time,'" de Botton remembers. Perry did, however, pass on to him a few preliminary sketches he'd done. "And I, being a very impatient person, wondered what we could do just to get the ball rolling. So I said to Charles, 'Why don't you take these sketches and just try and see what you can do? Play around with some ideas.'"

Holland duly went away and worked up Perry's sketches into a more concrete proposal -- something to work with. He even made a little 3D-printed model. Perry and Holland met for the first time at FAT's slightly careworn east London office, chaperoned by de Botton and Mark Robinson, Living Architecture's director, who oversees the design and construction of the houses. The moment they presented Perry with Holland's proposals and model, and saw the expression on his face, the other three realised their mistake. "I said, 'Well it looks like you don't need me,'" Perry recalls. "I took umbrage deeply. I thought I was in this right from the off, but I was presented with it as a done deal, and I was just there to titivate it."

It was an awkward moment. "I was quite happy to walk out," says Perry, "because it was right at the beginning. I'd invested nothing in it yet. Alain looked really embarrassed. He is always in a bit of hurry, Alain. I said to him, 'We'll work it out,' and he went off to buy some coffees or something, and left me and Charles to it." Holland's model went straight into the dustbin, Perry laughs.

"To be honest, everyone was really nervous," says de Botton, looking back. "There was a lot at stake for everyone. Grayson was very, very overworked and I think he realised he'd just said yes to yet another thing, and if he was going to do it seriously it was going to have to be a large commitment. Meanwhile, I knew there wasn't an endless shortlist of alternatives to Charles, so I was thinking, 'I really hope this works because I don't know who else we're going to go to otherwise.'

Holland also saw Perry's reaction in the context of the difference between artists and architects. The House for Essex project could be seen as an encounter, perhaps a negotiation, between the two disciplines. Issues of control and authorship were hovering over the project from the outset, so the encounter was already fraught with unease. "Grayson described it as 'dogs sniffing each other's bottoms'," says Holland. "It was inevitable we'd be sussing each other out a bit. The biggest question was, what kind of relationship were we going to have?"

"Grayson is a super-famous artist, and you don't get to be a super-famous artist without being pretty determined about what you want," Holland observes, pointing out that Perry doesn't simply "conceive" his artworks then outsource the fabrication to others like, say, Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. "Grayson does everything himself. He doesn't have assistants. He's used to having total control over everything. As architects, we [FAT] are a collaborative practice, and we're inevitably much more involved in the businesses of compromise and teamwork. We're used to the diplomacy of trying to get things done as groups of people. So for me, this was normal on some level. But then FAT had never designed something like this before. There was no real precedent for either of us."

One crucial aspect to Perry and Holland's relationship was the fact they are both from Essex. From the outset, Perry had in mind the project would be something in, about, and ultimately "for" Essex. Perry, who grew up around Chelmsford, is proud and public about his Essex roots. He has often referenced the county and depicted its landscapes in his art, particularly in his earlier, more autobiographical works. When he accepted the Turner Prize in 2003, he remarked, "There aren't many other worlds that would be so accepting of a transvestite potter from Essex." The "from Essex" component was arguably the largest obstacle to success in London's art scene.

Essex has something of a reputation among Britons, today, usually for worse rather than better. It is the county others like to look down upon. But when Perry was growing up there, it barely had any reputation at all. "I can remember having more than one conversation, when I first came to London in the early 80s, where I'd say I came from Essex and people would go, 'where's that?'," says Perry. "It wasn't like Yorkshire or Cornwall or Lancashire, places that had a strong identity. Essex was sort of Home Counties but not the nice stockbroker-y bit. It was mainly Cockney overspill. That's the real character of Essex: it's where Cockneys meet yokels."

Broadly speaking, the northern half of Essex is rural and agricultural; the southern half more industrial. Over the past century many London families, usually lower-income, migrated to Essex, particularly after the second world war destroyed much of the East End. Southern Essex became a landscape of manufacturing and industry, of new towns such as Basildon and Harlow, and of stereotypical seaside resorts such as Southend and Clacton.

During the 1980s, the county accumulated a new set of associations. There was the "Essex Man": a representative of the demographic that had benefited from improved healthcare and education, and Margaret Thatcher's policies of low taxation and "right to buy" -- which enabled residents to buy their council homes from the government. Essex man became the symbol of this new demographic shift, from working-class Labour voter to aspirational Conservative-supporter. "He'd have a BMW and a mobile phone and a tan," says Perry. "He'd be some sort of salesman and he'd holiday in the Costas. Either that or he'd become a trader in London's newly deregulated financial sector, using his barrow-boy nous."

Essex Man's infamous counterpart was the Essex Girl -- traditionally characterised by white stilettos, short skirts, fake tan and all-round cosmetic excess. To snobbish outsiders, the Essex Girl was the butt of jokes mocking her low intelligence and promiscuity. To Essex natives, she was both embraced as a symbol of brassy resolve and derided as a cruel cliché with which to smear a diverse county. The stereotypes have persisted into the 21st century, characterised by the reality TV series The Only Way Is Essex.

Charles Holland, a decade younger than Perry, also grew up around Chelmsford. In fact, Holland's elder brother went to school with Perry. "He remembers Grayson as 'Private Perry'; they were both in the cadet force," says Holland. "Grayson was like this teenage punk; my brother was a heavy metal fan, but in Chelmsford, anyone in any kind of alternative subculture went to the same pub. So reading Grayson's autobiography was like hearing my older brother's stories." Holland and Perry bonded over their knowledge of Essex's landscape and landmarks. Perry, for example, worked as a teenager at the sugar-beet processing factory Holland used to drive past as a child.

They began to talk about the character of Essex, emotional, cultural, and architectural. "Essex has always been a little bit impure," says Perry. "I think of it as a county where you could easily walk down a road and there'll be a petrol station, then there'll be a half-timbered, collapsing farmhouse, then there'll be a row of Victorian workers' cottages, then some 1970s bungalows."

Essex has a history of self-built architecture. In the early 20th century, during the agricultural depression, large tracts of Essex farmland were sold off as plots to build on. Migrants from London and elsewhere either bought them up or squatted the land and built homes for themselves -- usually ramshackle shacks and sheds and huts, which gradually grew into more permanent structures. "My stepfather had traveller relations," says Perry. "We used to go down funny little lanes and visit funny little houses. So that was part of the character of Essex for me: slightly semi-legal, ducking and diving."

Holland, meanwhile, had been engaged in searching for a suitable site, which also alerted him to the variety of Essex landscapes "That came with a whole lot of questions about the nature of Essex, and what kind of site one might look for. Was it an industrial estate outside Romford? A muddy estuary near Southend? Somewhere off the A12?"

Perry and de Botton took a drive around Essex one wintry weekend, talking and visiting places of interest. Among their stops was the 7th century chapel of St Peter-On-The-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea. It is one of the oldest churches in Britain. It looks more like a barn than a church: a simple, pitch-roofed, little brick structure with only a few high windows. "I wanted it to be like a religious building, but I didn't want it to be airy-fairy spirituality," Perry remembers. "So I said it's got to have a story attached to it. Because all religions have stories. That's how they work: while you're concentrating on the story the rest of the stuff is revolving around it, in a way. So I said if it's going to be a chapel, it should be dedicated to a woman, like 'Our Lady'… something like that. But I wanted it to be an ordinary Essex woman."

It all came into focus when they found their site: on the edge of the village of Wrabness, on the northern border of Essex, overlooking the River Stour. As well as being secluded and scenic, the site lay at the confluence of a number of travel routes: the road through the village, the river, the pedestrian Essex Path that runs alongside it, the Manningtree-to-Harwich railway line. It was exactly the type of place you might expect to find a pilgrimage chapel.

The fact that Wrabness was right at the northern edge of the county, with Suffolk on the opposite river bank, was rich with narrative potential for Perry's fictional Essex woman. "For me, Essex is a place of class mobility," he says. "So if she's born at the bottom, then she can rise to the top." Canvey Island, at the opposite end of the county, on the Thames estuary, therefore, became her birthplace. "And the most famous moment in Canvey Island's history was the 1953 flood. So that's when she was born. So that gave me a neat starting point. "Everything else just built up on that spine of an idea, of travelling up the county. I even drew out on the map a pilgrimage route from Canvey Island to Wrabness."

What to call this Essex woman? Perry looked up a list of the most popular female names in 1953. After eliminating a few names owing to personal associations, they arrived at Julie. "So it became Julie's house," says Perry.


Perry talks about a game he used to play with his daughter: "We'd draw an imaginary character, then we'd draw their family, their car and then their house. Then we'd draw inside the house, we'd draw them on holiday, and you built a narrative around this imaginary family."

The construction of Julie's biography wasn't all that different. It became a collaborative effort. They would discuss it over dinners, on drives to and from the site, all the time adding details: where she had lived, what her family was like, what she did, who she married, what music she liked. "We had fun," says de Botton "Grayson is very generous like that. He allowed us to chat and dream up these things with him."

Julie's journey of upward mobility, from working-class roots to educated, cultured middle class, corresponds to Essex's own history and geography, Charles Holland explains: "Canvey Island, where Julie was born, began as a community of self-built homesteads. Then she goes to the new town of Basildon, which was built on top of one of largest communities of self-built, working-class houses. So Basildon is this 1950s civic modernist aspiration coming out of the war which leads to the growth of the middle classes. Then that gets spruced up by Thatcherism, and Julie moves to South Woodham Ferrers, which is sort of an 80s Thatcherite new town. Then she goes to Maldon, which is a nice, old fishing town, so she's acquired a more middle-class appreciation of older things, then she ends up in a ritzy Georgian house in Colchester."

Many of these locations had personal associations for Perry. He lived close to South Woodham Ferrers, in Bicknacre, as a child, before the new town was built. He would go swimming at the lido in Maldon and shopping in Basildon's then-state-of-the-art town centre. Perry himself is an example of that Essex class mobility. There are elements of his own mother in Julie, he acknowledges. In some ways, she is an idealised rewriting of his own family history, "making it as I wish it would have been."

Inspired by a re-reading of Philip Larkin's biography, Perry rendered the life of Julie as an epic poem, distilling all those conversations about Essex and detailing her journey through the decades, through the county, through different relationships. As well as his mother, Julie's story reflects a universal history of 20th century Essex womanhood. She is a symbol of "thwarted female intelligence and drive," says Perry. Julie benefits from the female emancipation her mother's generation had fought for. She gets a state education, though her "tender intellect lies parched". She swings in the 60s, divorces and discovers feminism in the 70s, goes to Greenham Common (the site of a women's anti-nuclear peace camp) in the 80s, and studies at the University of Essex in the 90s. And finally, her journey comes to an end, at the county's end, in the 21st century.

"All of this suggests that Suffolk is the unattainable sunny uplands," Holland points out. There is some truth in that. Historically, Suffolk considers itself "posher" than Essex, and is a more popular destination with well-to-do Londoners. "We realised something when we were designing the house: the north bank of the river is always the most expensive side because it always gets the sun. So the Suffolk side is always bathed in sunshine."


There was still a house to design. Perry had begun sketching ideas before they had even found a site, almost as an extension of the game he used to play with his daughter. His early ideas were fanciful and fantastical, in a fairy-tale gothic somewhere between Tim Burton, Dr Seuss and JRR Tolkien. "I do have a tendency to err on the hobbit-y," Perry admits. But he also sought to capture some of that self-built character of Essex he so admired: "The principle visual thing I really wanted was that the building look like it had been added to, higgledy-piggledy, or rather was some sort of accretion or conglomeration, like architectural salvage that had been stuck together or a piece of outsider art. Something that had been dumped from outer space. I didn't want to have all this architectural stuff about reflecting the local environment, or something like that. I wanted it to look alien."

Holland had his misgivings about Perry's early sketches, though. "There was one moment when Charles sat me down and said, 'This is going to look really kitsch. We've got to have something with a bit more architectural dignity,'" Perry recalls. "Which, coming from him, I thought, 'Wow. He must mean it.' His buildings aren't necessarily what you'd call dignified at first sight."

As the architect, Holland always had in the back of his mind the building's programme -- it wasn't just a piece of art; it had a function. It had a brief. As well as a chapel-like space, it was to contain two double bedrooms, a kitchen, facilities of a certain standard. It had to satisfy building regulations and environmental controls, and innumerable practical concerns. Holland was also mindful of its impact as an object in the landscape, visible, on its exposed site, from afar and from numerous vantage points. "What do you put there? It's not a house, and it's not a barn, or a shed."

The two men began to find common points of reference. They began sending each other examples that inspired them: Scandinavian stave churches, roadside chapels, barns, follies, sketches and clippings of ideas and details. "One of the first books Grayson got off FAT's library shelves was on the wooden churches of Russia," says Holland. "We both immediately thought, 'this is a really good starting point' because there was a sort of folk quality to them -- handmade but very richly decorative, and quite hard to pin down. They were obviously historic, but didn't have any of the difficulties of historic English things."

In the end, something clicked: "I started thinking about these shed-like shapes that got bigger in scale," says Holland. "Grayson and I sat down and we sketched out this thing that was like a telescope -- that would get taller and wider as it went down the hill. This thing could have classical spaces and sort of build in intensity as you get to the end. That emerged in one sitting."

The idea of self-similar volumes was a riff on the layering of those Russian churches, with an added Russian doll-like eccentricity. The resulting form was impossible to pin down. It looked fantastical yet familiar. Even its scale was difficult to grasp.

Holland's concept was a "brilliant manoeuvre", says Perry. "Charles brought his playfulness to it but he formalised it, too. I think that's the real FAT element of it. After those drawings, we started thinking, 'We've got something here.'"

The concept evolved rapidly thereafter. Within a month, after two or three more sessions, Perry and Holland had resolved the basic plan of the building. Now they began to focus on the details. The initial, preferred option for the exterior was a reinterpreted form of "pargeting" -- a traditional style of decorative plasterwork common to buildings in Essex and Suffolk. At its simplest, pargeting takes the form of patterns etched or stamped into the wet plasterwork. More ornate examples include patterns, figures, plant motifs and even entire scenes in relief sculpture. Perry wanted "mega-pargeting". He sketched huge figures, animals and patterns playing across the facades. The team quickly realised, however, that Perry would never be able to spare the time to execute these designs by hand.

A better solution was terracotta tile. The material was still in keeping with Essex (particularly its pubs), but could be mass-produced. Nonetheless, it was a fraught, complicated, occasionally nerve-wracking process. First, Perry had to sculpt full-scale originals of the tiles in clay. The primary design is a monumental, naked Julie, her rounded belly and breasts exaggerated, like a fertility goddess or a sheela-na-gig. Then there are six smaller, simpler triangular designs with motifs relevant to Julie's life, such as a cassette tape or the Essex county coat of arms. The 1,925 tiles would cover virtually every inch of the building's facades, which presented a gigantic design jigsaw puzzle for Holland.

Mark Robinson established that there was only one manufacturer still operating in the UK that could cast the tiles. He was taken aback at their first quote for the job: about half a million pounds. After some persistent negotiating, the price came down considerably, but the tiles still took a huge bite out of the total budget. Robinson then had to transport the fragile clay originals from Perry's studio in east London to the tile factory, in Lancashire. Then, the fabrication process gave rise to more headaches. Special firing programs needed to be devised for Perry's odd-shaped templates. Each nipple of Julie's breasts on each tile had to be reapplied by hand. In addition, making tiles to exact tolerances is a fine art, as the clay shrinks during the firing process. When a sample batch of tiles was brought to the site and put up on the house's facade, the differences in tolerance were clearly visible. There were also variations in colour. It did not look good. All the tiles had been cast by this stage, however, at great expense, so there was no alternative.

Robinson and Holland returned to the factory. "They laid out all the tiles," he says, "and Charles and I had to go around on our hands and knees and measure them all, and mark which ones were in tolerance and which were out of tolerance. It was mind-boggling. Then when they started delivering to site, because of the way they were batching them, we were getting either all the really good ones or those that were out of tolerance. So we had to tell the factory to give us a mix each time, In the end it was a matter of the guys on site taking them out of the crate and going, 'OK, this one fits best."

The building contractors were a local family-run firm, Rose builders, who had some experience of non-standard housebuilding. By coincidence, Jason Rooke, who had site-managed Living Architecture's Long House, in Norfolk, and "had the right temperament", was available to come and oversee the Essex build. Sussex-based craftsmen Millimetre -- who worked on Living Architecture's Room For London -- took on the roof sculptures and the interior woodwork. Everyone felt that they were working on something unique, and not just because Perry would occasionally turn up on site as "Claire", his colourfully-dressed transvestite alter-ego. "Grayson is a fantastic communicator," says Robinson. "He brought everybody in, and everyone always went the extra mile for him, so it all went extremely well."

Holland and Perry were getting to know each other's working methods a little better, too. Perry tends to be more forthright in his communications, for instance, which brought home to Holland how circumspect he, and other architects, tend to be. "I remember one time saying to Grayson, 'I'll go away work on this,'" says Holland, "I thought that was a really normal thing to say at the end of the design meeting, but Grayson gave me a suspicious look. He was like, 'Does that mean you're going to finish it?' Another time he said to me, 'Right, I get it now: when you say, 'I'll have a think about that', you mean you don't like it.'"

On the whole, though, the relationship working settled into good-natured collaboration. "He's actually a very practical artist," says Holland of Perry. "He moves forward very quickly. He's not particularly difficult or arcane or prima donna-ish to work with, so it was quite a straightforward conversation in that respect." It was not the type of conversation Holland usually has with clients or other architects. "It was things like, 'Is it really dark in there?' 'Does it feel a bit cramped in some places?' 'When you go upstairs do the stairs creak?' We were both into the atmospherics of it."

Given Perry's scepticism towards modern architecture, his approach to the house's layout occasionally verged on the perverse. A typical architect's response to the Wrabness site, with its panoramic riverside aspect, would be to wrap the living spaces in glass so as to optimise the view. Perry did the exact opposite. "They were slightly horrified that the main room didn't have picture windows," Perry recalls with a smirk. "I'm very antagonistic to that fetishisation of 'the view'. It's like when people say, 'Have you been to the top of The Shard [Renzo Piano's London skyscraper]?' I've seen a city from the top of a tall building, I know what it looks like. I don't need to see another one." Perry was seeking something closer to the ambience of St-Peters-On-The-Wall. "If you look at what makes chapels and barns feel nice, it's the lack of windows, usually. As soon as you put a window in, it's not a chapel anymore; it's a house."

"I was being really devil's advocate, particularly with Alain," Perry admits. "I remember sitting him down one day and saying, 'Alain, this isn't a place where some metrosexual's going to sit around and read the Sunday supplements while staring at the view. This is a place where I want people to look inwards.”

There were practical reasons, too: Perry needed wall space in the main room for his artworks. Attention began to turn towards the interior, which was always intended to be rich in detail, including four large tapestries depicting scenes from Julie's life, two in the chapel; two in the bedroom. Construction had proceeded apace though the Autumn of 2013, and was nearing completion. Perry, though, had barely begun on the artworks. Meanwhile, the demands of his career outside the project were starting to creep back in.

"He was getting to be under a lot of pressure," says Robinson. "Living Architecture were saying, 'We want tapestries. We want pots. We want a larger-than-life-size Julie.' So all these things kept mounting up. And I was telling him, 'The building's going to be finished in October and I still don't have these tapestries. They're going to take three months to make and you haven't even drawn them.' It became pretty obvious that we just needed to finish the building and his work would follow, as and when. So it was about six months between completion and installing all of Grayson's work."

"I was starting to realise how much work it was going to be," says Perry.

By this stage, Perry and Holland had honed and absorbed the narrative aspects to such a degree, decision-making became relatively straightforward. They both brought other influences to bear. The benches in the chapel, for example, were inspired by similar ones Perry remembered from Chartres Cathedral. Holland cites the work of Austrian proto-modernist Adolf Loos, in particular, who was renowned for his rich, layered domestic interiors. "They're very inward-looking and immersive, with strange, surreal aspects to them. The use of mirrors, alternative circulation routes, gendered spaces. FAT have always been interested in houses that contain some sort of meta-narrative about domestic life." There were English references too: John Soane, whose London house (now a museum), is another microcosm of spatial complexity; Edwin Lutyens and the Arts and Crafts movement; 18th century architect John Vanbrugh. The red, mirrored screen in the chapel space, housing the life-size Julie sculpture and the balconies, could be seen as an homage to Vanbrugh's magnificent oak screen at Audley End House, in nearby Saffron Walden -- albeit filtered through FAT's pop sensibility.

From day one, there had been continual discussions over the point at which these elaborations might tip over into becoming too "Game of Thrones" as Holland puts it. At what point does domestic design become set design, or over-design? How much was too much? One factor that mitigated potential excesses was simply the time. It is probably just as well they ran out of it, Perry muses, "I would have just kept making things and adding to it otherwise." There were innumerable plans that didn't happen: more sculptures, laser-cut grilles over the windows, a giant mosaic of Julie's entrails on the floor, bespoke crockery, tables, armchairs, door handles. There was even talk, at one stage, of providing monastic robes for guests to wear in the house.

But what also prevents the House For Essex from going too far is its balance of artistic exuberance and architectural integrity. The Julie narrative is overtly expressed in the house's artworks: the tapestries, the pottery, the murals, the cushions, the moped chandelier/installation (it had to be a Honda C90, Perry is something of a motorcycle aficionado). But crucially, that narrative is also embedded in the project's architectural DNA. "It's got architectural integrity because Charles has done an amazing job of detailing it," says Perry, "and because of all the clever, very much architectural language that's going on in it."

Holland has a slightly different take: "Grayson often says 'Charles talked me down', and I always slightly wince at that. It's got to be the first time FAT have ever been accused of talking anyone down from anything! But we were both interested in how you could make this quite outlandish thing have some strange sense of authenticity. It has some of that theatrical outlandishness but it also has other qualities. It is actually pretty monumental, which cuts across that. It's got a solidity to it."

"The spatial planning didn't feel like something that was going to overburden the project with another narrative," says Holland. "Somehow, the rich set-up allowed us to develop subtleties to the planning which weren't necessarily there at the beginning. It gave it a lot more depth, to have this idea of axial hierarchies and symmetries and expectations that are suddenly cut off."

"It's quite hard to separate the story from the house now. For instance, Julie has two husbands, and I can't remember if that's because the house has two bedrooms or the other way round. The two things are intertwined which, to me, makes the house more successful."

Mirroring Julie's life, the house's spatial sequence does not progress simply from A to B. The external symmetry of the house and the centrally aligned front door suggest a symmetrical layout along a central axis, for example. But having passed through the vestibule, the smallest of the four volumes, the symmetry is immediately broken by a staircase to the left and a downstairs bathroom to the right. Passing into the next space, the central circulation route terminates abruptly at the tiled kitchen fireplace. To proceed further, one must locate the concealed doors on either side. Then there is another threshold to cross -- a liminal little zone of columns and mirrors that cuts laterally across the front-to-back axis -- before entering the giant chapel space with its surprising leap in scale and decorative richness. There is an episodic quality to it, and a sense of acceleration.

A similar spatial game happens upstairs: the walk-in wardrobes in the two bedrooms reveal themselves to be walk-through-wardrobes, which bring visitors out onto the balconies overlooking the chapel, either side of the giant ceramic Julie. Guests become inadvertent actors in a stage production, or ornaments in a cuckoo clock. Even the bathroom makes use of the building's central axis, its "ley line" as Perry calls it. Guests lying in the bath unwittingly mirror the centrally aligned Julie figures on the roof and overlooking the chapel space.

In contrast to the exuberance the chapel space, the rest of the house has a sobriety to it. The other rooms effectively become "back of house", as though they are living quarters, and guests are the custodians, the chaplains. These spaces have a utilitarian, 1920s feel: Simple, solid wooden furniture, open racks and shelves in the kitchen, Butler sink, dark-metal light switches and industrial-looking lampshades. The phrase "vestry chic" was often invoked.


In retrospect, de Botton's arranged marriage worked better than he could ever have predicted. Art and architecture rarely come together happily, and when they do, it is often by maintaining their boundaries rather than attempting to genuinely integrate. It has become fashionable for architects to employ artists to "titivate" their buildings, as Perry would have it. Occasionally some have gone further, such as Frank Gehry in his famous Chiat/Day office building in Los Angeles, whose lobby is a giant pair of binoculars by sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, or Herzog and de Meuron's collaboration with Chinese artist Ai Wei-wei on their "bird's nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Occasionally, a polymath might create a comprehensive gesamtkunstwerk, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh's House For An Art Lover. In the House for Essex, though, the two disciplines do more than simply come to a compromise.

"Synthesis is a good term for it," says Holland. Not that the process was blandly harmonious, or that every decision was made equally, but in the service of a common goal, the boundaries melted away. "The authorship of it was much more painless and much more organic than we gave it credit for," he says. "We were inhabiting the same world to the point that, say, choosing a bright yellow skirting board was not a controversial decision but the right one. It didn't feel like we were shoehorning a FAT aesthetic into a Grayson project; it felt like we were working on the same plane. I found it an incredibly enjoyable design process."

"It sort of put me off wanting to do another one!" says Perry. "The amount of work and the concessions to practicality. But it made me realise buildings don't have to look like they do." As a result of the project, Perry since been made an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute for British Architects, he adds. "I did a lecture there basically telling them all off for their fear of colour and pattern. They're tip-toeing up to it but not really embracing it." The architecture people most respond to is the architecture that pushes it further, that goes out on a limb, Perry suggests. "People don't go to Barcelona to look at the office blocks!"

De Botton enjoyed watching the partnership between Perry and Holland develop over the course of the project: "I think Grayson at first thought, 'I'm the guy in charge, and the architect will just make sure the roof stays up.' Not because he's a mean person but because he's worked with other craft people in the past. He'll draw it, then somebody will go and fabricate it. He imagined the architecture would be the same. But I think with time he would acknowledge that Charles became much more than that. Just by his very respectful but very intelligent interventions, Charles was able to see things, and to show Grayson how spaces work: how to think three-dimensionally, how to think of a human being walking through spaces, what they would see and feel around them, all the multi-sensory, multi-perspectival things that architects are just trained to think about. I think that was new to Grayson, and at some point Grayson became the student of Charles, in the best possible way."

Perhaps there is another steadying influence to the House For Essex: Undercutting the games and playfulness is the inescapable presence of death. The House For Essex is a shrine, and like all shrines, its purpose is to keep alive the memory of a dead person. Julie's death looms over the house. The physical fact it is depicted in all its prosaic ungainliness in Perry's tapestry, In Its Familiarity Golden -- her body sprawled on the streets of Colchester, her face in close-up, like a medieval memento mori. (Note how her death is foretold by a discarded doll in the same corner of the tapestry on the opposite wall.) Fittingly, death is there at the termination of the house's spatial sequence, too: Perry's floor mosaic on the back porch depicts a skull borne by a boat, casting a Stygian aspect over the river beyond. Again, there's a poetic symmetry, expressed architecturally: Julie was born in the Canvey Island flood; now she floats away to the next life. Perhaps death is the ending of all narratives. Though, as the preponderance of wheel motifs alludes, it is also the beginning: Julie's death is the raison d'être for this "Taj Mahal upon the Stour".

"It's funny," says de Botton. "At the end of the project, all of us, I think, felt a bit deflated. We all felt, in our different ways, that something extraordinary had happened that might not ever be repeated, and in some ways all of our careers might have peaked. I'm sure we'll all go on and do exciting things but there was that sort of sense that always follows an exciting moment. To be honest, it slightly changed Living Architecture. I think this will stand as our finest hour in many ways, even though it's quite odd and quite different from what we set out to do."

For Holland, the House For Essex was very much the end of an epoch: it was FAT's final built project. After 23 years together, its three principals decided to close down their studio and go their separate ways. In a sense, the project was a fitting end. It was the culmination of everything FAT had set out to achieve, says Holland. "A culmination but also a new opportunity for us to demonstrate those things about FAT that weren't quite so noticeable. We didn't have an unlimited budget but we had a healthy budget, so we didn't have to cut as many corners. That gave us a level of control over the spatial composition and the drama aspects of the design that was quite new to us. It's not something FAT was known for but it was always present in the work."

Between Perry's level of recognition and the curiosity value of the building, the House For Essex has already fulfilled its pilgrimage function far more than was anticipated. The house has been oversubscribed since opening day, and public bookings are decided at random by a ballot process. Owing to its location and visibility, it is routinely surrounded by a throng of passers-by, ramblers and cyclists. For the first time in its existence, the village of Wrabness has even experienced traffic congestion as a result of motorists making a detour to see the building. For all parties, the chief regret is that the house could not be made more accessible to the public. "If we were doing it again, I think we should have made it into an actual proper chapel and rented it out for weddings," says de Botton. "We get enquiries about whether people can get married there every day, but it just isn't designed for it. We weren't to know."

The memento mori aspect of the House For Essex is especially acute for Perry. As much as Julie, the house functions as a shrine to him. It will continue to exist, carrying his memory when he is no longer alive. It got him thinking about his own death. "It's the first thing I've done where I've really had that brought home to me," he says. "Where I've thought, 'that could be there forever', the nature of a building, its permanence and stillness." He's fine with that, though. "I'm very proud of it as an achievement."

"I was quite overcome when we finished it," he continues. "I remember feeling really… not sad, but I was crying," Perry recalls. "Towards the end it was all a big rush to get it finished in time so I'd been working flat out on all the ceramics and finishing the tapestries, and in quick succession we made the film [the Channel 4 documentary Grayson Perry's Dream House], then I'd had to go somewhere like New York, and then the next day I had to get on a train and go up to Wrabness for the press launch, so I was a bit vulnerable. They left me on my own in the chapel for a moment; it was like… it all came out. I put on Elton John. It was Julie's favourite."

Press comments

The house, in fact, is stonking. It has fertility and abundance in its ideas, the skill it took to make them real, generosity of thought, wit and un-pomposity, sumptuousness, pure antipathy to received wisdom, and the sheer outrageous nerve to go out and do it.

Rowan Moore, The Observer

Julie Cope may be a fictional Essex everywoman but the complexity of the story and the sheer dedication to realising it as represented by art and architecture make this a rather moving space. And “moving” is not an adjective that can be easily applied to the clever tricksiness of postmodernism.

Edwin Heathcote, The Financial Times

It is a tour de force of narrative design, an autobiography wrought in the vessel of a home, that has been made possible by Charles Holland of FAT, the architect charged with turning Perry’s whims into a piece of architecture. Together they have crafted a beguiling sequence of interiors, taking visitors from small domestic spaces through to the soaring chapel at the back of the building, playing games with hidden doors and mirrored panels, recalling the elaborate spatial tricks of John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in London.

Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

The strange thing is how un-shocking it was, how quickly one became accustomed to it. Almost as if Julie always wanted it to be there.

Hugh Pearman, RIBA Journal

The House for Essex is an extraordinary and fecund vision that has been made meticulously real. It is serious rather than silly in its playfulness and the architecture is sophisticated… Architecture has borrowed the German word Gesamtkunstwerk to mean a total work of art, a place designed entirely by an architect from its roof beams to its doorknobs, but Fat and Perry have gone beyond this to fuse art and architecture entirely.

Robert Bevan, The Evening Standard

The critical and public reaction to this wonderfully odd and colourful ceramic-encased shrine to the life and death of Julie, an imagined Essex woman, is overwhelmingly positive… It is indeed a wonderful place, a modern folly to stay in just as you can stay in follies from earlier centuries rescued by the Landmark Trust, some of them no less mysteriously symbolic."

Hugh Pearman, The Sunday Times

Pretentious? Absolutely. And yet the project’s boundless visual imagination ultimately carries the day… It is a place where one everyday life has been elevated to mythic status and where guests are invited to view their own triumphs and tragedies in the same transformative light.

Ellis Woodman, The Daily Telegraph

"Played out as a fanatically choreographed secular canonisation, the House for Essex is [an] intoxicating gesamtkunstwerk of Julie tapestries, Julie sculptures, Julie wallpaper, her favourite drinks, even her book collection, and finally the Honda C90 moped, the instrument of her modern martyrdom suspended from the chapel roof in a deus-ex-machina flourish… That the architecture is capable of absorbing and processing such an intense sensory overload suggests that the collaboration was genuinely reciprocal, activating the artist in the architect and vice versa."

Catherine Slessor, The Architectural Review

The intense, sometimes overwhelming, interest will slacken with time but the diminutive, exceptional house above the Stour will go on shining out, its gilded roofs concertinaed above the pastoral landscape like a cottage for Rapunzel painted by Arthur Rackham.

Gillian Darley, The Architectural Review

Seeing the house from a distance for the first time as we return from our walk is a revelation: its playful form, the way the roof reflects the sunshine, the touching ambition of its perched emblems. It belongs, not in spite of being extraordinary, but because. It is an Essex fairy tale, and I am sold enough on Perry’s story to believe that Essex is perfectly capable of giving birth to such a confection.

Emily King, Frieze

"Grayson Perry doesn't do shy and retiring, he does this: ebullient and eccentric, Disney meets Dali with a bit of Russian Baroque thrown in… Yes it is kitsch, but also, in its own way, thoughtful. This is more than just a house of fun."

Will Gompertz, BBC

"This is the most extraordinary rental home in England: a fairy-tale house and a work of art."

Kate Maxwell, New York Times

The house is all kinds of bizarre, but irresistibly cute… This is pretty much the trippy, down-the-rabbit-hole wonderland of our dreams.

Suzy Strutner, The Huffington Post

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