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Dune House

Location
Suffolk
Size
Sleeps 9

Dune House was designed by Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects for Living Architecture. It is located close to the picturesque village of Thorpeness in Suffolk, on an idyllic spot on the very edge of the sea, nestled among rolling dunes. Step from the living room directly onto the beach and enjoy extraordinary panoramic views over the sea from the terraces, bedrooms and bathrooms on the upper floor.

About The Architecture

Architect – JVA

JARMUND/VIGSNAES ARCHITECTS

Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects (www.jva.no) are famous around Scandinavia for their creative responses to the highly seasonal Nordic landscape. They have designed a number of beautiful, rugged and simple holiday homes for Norwegian clients, as well as schools, hospitals and other public buildings.

Interior

The predominant materials used in this house are concrete and wood. The concrete was formed in a number of different ways, changing how it looks and feels. Around the central staircase, you'll find the imprint of planks (echoing the motif of the ash in the ceiling and library). The floors are made of highly polished concrete, the kitchen work surfaces have exposed aggregates and all around the interior walls, more neutral boards were used.

In the bedrooms, the walls and floors are made from whitewashed ash. Each room is illuminated by wall mounted Arne Jacobsen lights, positioned to accentuate the peculiar geometry of the ceiling.

Facts

  • Completed 2010
  • Footprint 264 sqm
  • Plot – approximately ½ acre
  • 14 metres long and 9 metres wide,
  • Structural steel columns
  • Concrete base and foundations
  • Structural cross laminated timber for first floor
  • Stainless-steel patinated roof tiles
  • Ash timber throughout ground and first floor
  • Polished concrete floors

Contents of the house

Ground floor

Leather modular sofa – designed by JVA, manufactured by 7 Upholstery www.7upholstery.co.uk

Floor lamps – designed by Arne Jacobsen for Louis Polsen, supplied by Coexistence www.coexistence.co.uk

Branca chairs – designed by Sam Hecht for Mattiazzi, supplied by Aram www.aram.co.uk

 Aria floor lamps – designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune, supplied by Skandium  www.skandium.com

Daybed cover and cushions – manufactured by 7 Upholstery www.7upholstery.co.uk

Library area

Butterfly chair – designed by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, supplied by Circa 50 www.circa50.com

Noodles rug – by Nani Marquina www.nanimarquina.com

Wall lights – designed by Arne Jacobsen for Louis Polsen, supplied by Coexistence www.coexistence.co.uk

Bedrooms

Bed frames and side tables – designed by JVA and Mole Architects

Wall and bedside lights – designed by Arne Jacobsen for Louis Polsen, supplied by Coexistence www.coexistence.co.uk

Chairs – designed and manufactured by Mint Light Living, supplied by Places and Spaces www.placesandspaces.com

The making of Dune House - a short essay by Steve Rose  (2011)

Thorpeness is endowed with the Beautyof wide Suffolk wolds and woodlands fringed by amethystine sea the land of Viking Vigour and of sea-borne health. Thorpeness is absolutely Englishin her beautyin her healthy Home-Lifein her social amenitiesin her devotion to every one of those popular athletic open air exercise.

Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie - Publicity booklet for Thorpeness, 1910

As the above exhortation indicates, Thorpeness's principal creator, had fixed ideas about the type of place he wanted. And a bracing gust of Norwegian modernism cannot have been further from the “Viking Vigour” Ogilvie had in mind. Compared to the quaint, stage-set surroundings of Ogilvie's “absolutely English” village, the Dune House is an incongruous intrusion. Passers-by strolling along the beach are often stopped in their tracks by it. It has been likened to a “stealth bomber”. Or could it be the bomb? The Dune House's jarring, jagged presence threatens to explode the illusion of merrie England Ogilvie so assiduously strove to create in Thorpeness. But on closer examination, it is actually scrupulously contextual. It respects and reinterprets its surroundings. Perhaps it even represents an exit route out of the architectural cul-de-sac surrounding it.

The story of how Thorpeness came into existence takes some explaining to outsiders. It began with Glencairn Ogilvie's father, Alexander, a Scottish civil engineer who made a fortune in railway building. He acquired Sizewell House in 1859 and set about buying up surrounding land, including the insignificant fishing hamlet of Thorpe, a few miles down the Suffolk coast. Glencairn, a barrister and playwright sometimes described as a “dandy”, inherited the estate in 1908. Legend has it, Ogilvie was inspired by the flooding of the River Hundred, in 1910, to make the resultant shallow lake a permanent fixture – The Meare – and to build a new resort town around it for his well-to-do family and friends (who included JM Barrie – hence the Peter Pan theme to the Meare's man-made islands). In time, Ogilvie imagined, the resort would become a tourist destination, and he would sell plots to other wealthy holidaymakers. Thus, lowly Thorpe was rebranded as fashionable Thorpeness.

Ogilvie's scheme was visionary in its ambition, but conservative in its execution. This was a time when Britain was in flux. The social order was being shaken up by new forms of wealth (such as Ogilvie's own) and avant-garde currents coursed through European cultural life, and the clouds of the first world war were gathering. Work had only just begun on the new Thorpeness, in fact, when war broke out. In the face of this upheaval, Ogilvie's vision can be read as an attempt to turn back the clocks – an exercise in architectural escapism.

But this Olde Worlde illusion was built on decidedly modern principles. Ogilvie's somewhat autocratic scheme was undoubtedly informed by the broadly anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement, and Ebenezer Howard's ideas of the Garden City, where town and country fused harmoniously. Where most traditional villages grew around the church, the manor house, the working landscape; Thorpeness conforms to the logic of leisure and the picturesque, of “social amenities” and “popular athletic exercise”. Its layout is dispersed and informal, and its centres are the country club and the boating lake.

With the aid of architects Frederick Forbes Glennie and William Gilmour Wilson, Ogilvie dressed Thorpeness's buildings in mock Tudor and Jacobean styles. There is an abundance of exposed timber framework, complex roofs of gables and eaves and chimneys, irregular, slightly chaotic facades. This simulacrum of the 17th century was underpinned by 20th century technology. The turreted Westbar tower, reminiscent of a medieval gate house, turns out to be a water tower, as does the eccentric Gazebo – now repurposed as the holiday home known as the House In The Clouds, with its little windmill to pump the water. The half-timbered cottages are actually holiday homes built of concrete, and the Hampton Court-like “Almshouses” were designed to accommodate serving staff rather than poor peasants. Nothing is quite as it seems here.

No wonder there's something slightly “off” about Thorpeness. To the critical modern visitor, it reads as an eccentric anachronism, best appreciated with a measure of irony. If the constructed jollity brings to mind the 1960s TV show The Prisoner, the comparison is apt. In The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan's ex-spy is abducted to an disconcertingly jovial seaside village which turns out to more of an open prison, where he is subjected to a surreal form of psychological torture. The programme's real-life location was Portmeirion, a flamboyantly eccentric holiday village in north Wales. Like Thorpeness, Portmeirion was built to the vision of a single landowner – architect Clough Williams-Ellis, and like Thorpeness, it is a playground of nostalgic pastiche, although Williams-Ellis favoured Italianate and oriental styles over Thorpeness's mock-Renaissance. The two villages were built at roughly the same time, making them arguably the first two purpose-built leisure resorts in the country.

Whatever visitors think about Ogilvie's design decisions, he was broadly successful: Thorpeness remains an appealing holiday destination. The “wide Suffolk wolds” and “amethystine sea” Ogilvie exhorted are largely intact. The summer climate is relatively benign in this part of Britain. There are natural and cultural attractions nearby and plenty of family activities on offer. When it comes down to it, for most parents, a child-friendly lake with Peter Pan-themed islands tends to override reservations over cultural authenticity.

For all these reasons, Thorpeness had been on Living Architecture's radar from the start, says Founder Alain de Botton. He was first made aware of it by his wife, Charlotte, who is from Suffolk and had holidayed there as a child. “Originally I was very charmed by the place, but at the same time, quite freaked out,” he says. “It's a Britain that's completely disappeared, and it makes no sense. But people do love the place. There's a real community and real characters, everything you would expect.” Thorpeness is also one of the few places in Britain where there are houses situated right on the beach, de Botton observed – just what a prospective homebuilder like Living Architecture was after.

The most effective way to achieve a new, modern project in rural Britain, Living Architecture had determined, was to purchase an existing property, demolish it, then build something new in its place. This approach was more likely to gain approval than building something from scratch. So de Botton and Mark Robinson, Living Architecture's director, took half the village each and wrote individually to each homeowner along the beachfront, asking if they were thinking of selling. About a year later, they got a positive response. Very quickly, Living Architecture acquired the property, situated at the southern end of the beachfront. It was a typical two-storey house: pitched, tiled roof; black-stained timber and dormer windows on the upper storey; cream render and white PVC windows on the ground floor. Architecturally, it was utterly unremarkable, and therefore perfect.

Early thinking for the project was a “cold European” designer, says de Botton. He grew up in Switzerland, a country whose fruitful engagement with progressive architecture (in contrast to Britain's ) was one of the inspirations for founding Living Architecture. The current generation of Swiss architects is world-renowned, including Herzog & de Meuron (best known for London's Tate Modern), Peter Zumthor, Mario Botta, Gigon/Guyer and Bearth & Deplazes. The Swiss preference was also a reflection of the other projects Living Architecture had in the pipeline in early 2008. Just up the coast, near Southwold, the Balancing Barn by Dutch firm MVRDV was about to start construction. Further up, in north Norfolk, was the Long House, by established British architects Michael and Patty Hopkins, and in Dungeness on the southeast coast was the Shingle House, by young Scottish practice NORD. Peter Zumthor would later come on board to design a Living Architecture property in Devon, the Secular Retreat. For Thorpeness, two leading Swiss practices were approached, plus one Norwegian firm, Jarmund/Vigsnaes Arkitekter (JVA). The latter were practically a wild card. Mark Robinson had chanced upon JVA's Red House – a private house just outside Oslo – in a magazine. “I said to Alain, 'This is quite interesting, what do you think about adding these guys?'” Robinson remembers. “We'd not heard of them, and they hadn't built outside of Norway, but I looked at their website and they'd done a few other things we liked, so we thought, 'Let's invite them over as well.'”

All three architects visited Thorpeness in early 2008. The Swiss proposals were disappointing. One of them suggested a long, flat, modernist glass box which failed to inspire de Botton and Robinson. The other produced nothing for months, eventually submitting a single sheet of A4 paper. The Norwegians, by contrast, were everything Living Architecture had hoped for. “I thought the Swiss would go for it, but JVA's scheme was immediately much cleverer,” de Botton says. “They spent no more than three hours in the place, and they just got it all. It's unbelievable how they understood a site so well.”

JVA's first submission communicated the essence of what would become the Dune House in two simple images. The first was a photograph of the existing house on the site, except with its lower storey Photoshopped out, leaving just a pitched roof suspended, Magritte-like, in mid-air. The second was a very basic section sketch, showing a ground floor sunken into the brow of a dune, with a blobby squiggle of a roof hovering above it. That was it. The whole scheme unfolded from those very simple ideas. “Sometimes it takes ages to find the right concept but this was quite direct,” says Hakon Vigsnaes, co-founder of JVA. “We made that first conceptual sketch at the airport on the way back from Suffolk.” 

A modest, thoughtful man with a reserve that easily gives way to humour, Vigsnaes could well fit the archetypal description of a Norwegian architect. He and JVA's co-founder, Einar Jarmund, had known each other since secondary school. They both studied at Oslo's renowned School Of Architecture and Design (AHO), but two years apart: Vigsnaes first had to do his military service; Jarmund somehow avoided it. After graduating, they studied abroad -- Vigsnaes at London's Architectural Association, Jarmund at the University of Washington – before returning to Norway in the early 1990s. Like most of Europe, the country was in economic crisis at that time, and the vast majority of architects were out of work. Vigsnaes and Jarmund had to improvise. “We did part-time teaching, a garage here and a fence there,” says Vigsnaes. “There were always small things to do that bigger offices couldn't make money out of, which is good: you learn practice from building small things.” With similar interests but complementary skills, the two of decided to work together, and founded JVA in 1995. It was in no way a strategic, commercial decision, Vigsnaes remembers: “I will claim it basically happened because we had time to do it! A lot of Norwegian practices which are quite strong today started at that time. If we'd got jobs and positions in bigger offices, I'm not sure we'd have started on our own.”

AHO is something of a touchstone for Norwegian architecture in general and JVA in particular. One of just three architecture schools in the country, the institution has produced the majority of significant postwar Norwegian architects, in particular Sverre Fehn, who died in 2009. Fehn was an elder statesman of Nordic architecture. He had worked with Jean Prouvé in Paris and known Le Corbusier. He gained recognition with his Norwegian Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Expo and his 1962 Scandinavian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and received the Pritzker Prize in 1997. In short, Fehn was the embodiment of design principles we think of today as quintessentially Scandinavian: simplicity, clarity, honesty to materials, attention to relationships between interior and exterior, between the natural and the man-made, between traditional craft and modern technology. Scandinavian design is often lazily described today as “cool” but at it its best, it is warm, prioritising human comfort and experience over abstract formalism or visual sensationalism.

Fehn was a professor at AHO when Jarmund and Vigsnaes were studying there. “He was part of that existentialist movement of the 50s and 60s, and transported that way of thinking into discussions about images and perception, not always directly related to architecture,” remembers Vigsnaes.  “He could give lectures about stone-age cavemen, or cowboys and Indians. In that way he was a great teacher. I think he was a better teacher than he was an architect, actually.”

Vigsnaes also briefly worked as an assistant in Fehn's studio after graduating. He was in his early 30s; Fehn was in his 70s. It was a small, personal practice. Fehn never employed more than four people, and rarely worked on more than one project at a time. It was a different generation of architectural practice. “He was more modernist in that sense of 'the authority of the architect',” says Vigsnaes. “He didn't really want contact with his clients at all. If he wanted to concentrate he might turn off the phone for weeks! As a result, the commissions he got were only from people who were really eager to get him.”

Vigsnaes now teaches at the AHO himself. In fact, one of JVA's early successes was winning the competition to design a new home for the school, a stone's throw from their Oslo office. Converted from a 1930s factory, it is an open, workmanlike facility. “The old school was full of corridors and corners,” says Vigsnaes. “People got physically and mentally lost.” Despite being so close to the epicentre, JVA are not typical Norwegian architects, they say. They cite other influences, such as early James Stirling, Peter Salter (who taught Vigsnaes at the AA) and Rem Koolhaas, who’s Rotterdam Kunsthal the office made a trip to see in 1996. Koolhaas's irreverent urban aesthetic was something of an epiphany after the serious-minded rigour of Nordic design. Of course, JVA are mindful of “nature” and “place” and “material” and all those hallowed virtues of their national heritage, but they have no single strategy towards them. In the 40-odd private houses and public buildings they have designed to date, they have often employed unorthodox geometries, resulting in buildings with barely a 90-degree angle in them.

“Quite often we claim that the straight line is not necessarily the quickest way to achieve good architecture,” says Vigsnaes. Those “stealth bomber” associations extend further back than the Dune House, though they have often been misinterpreted as form for form's sake. “Usually, it comes from the relationship between spatial conditions and light conditions, I would say. And also the dynamics in experiencing space.” As an example he cites their White House, in the suburbs of Strand, western Norway. Its angled planes and twisted plan at first seem wilful; in fact, the house was carefully shaped so as to screen neighbouring buildings, frame views, provide sheltered areas, and let in as much low-angle sunlight as possible during the course of what could be an extremely short day. What appears to be a rejection of place is, in fact, a sensitive response to it. Likewise their Svalbard Science Center, one of JVA's largest and boldest projects. It looks thrillingly sci-fi, a snaking, faceted carapace, clad in copper. But it was primarily shaped by the harsh Arctic climate. Wind and snowdrift projections influenced its complex shape. Copper was used because of its consistent performance in very low temperatures.

“We're never imposing a general aesthetic upon our work in order to develop some kind of style,” says Vigsnaes. “We don't work like that. We try to find a purposeful architecture for each case and develop that quite consistently, but then it's finished. Of course, you can see some similarities between projects but we would rather avoid them.”

When it came to the Dune House, Vigsnaes was mindful of the contradictions of the brief: “It was clear from the beginning this house had to be 'modern', whatever that means, because that's one of the ideas about Living Architecture, but at the same time it had to relate to the existing building culture, because it was also absolutely necessary to get planning permission.”

Vigsnaes' first impression of Thorpeness was that it was “a kind of Miss Marple village”. Appropriately, the architects investigated the site like detectives looking for clues. They quickly found them. The houses along the beachfront strip, for example. “They're not very nice,” Vigsnaes laughs, “but they have some typicalities which you can use: the large gables, the mix of one material on ground floor and another on the roof, the way the scale of the rooftops are brought down – so we sort of picked that up.”

Coming from Norway, where most roofs are simply flat or pitched, these complex roofscapes were something of a novelty to JVA. Their sketches of the myriad permutations of gables and pitches and dormers to be found nearby highlight them as a feature of British architecture most Britons tend to overlook. Thorpeness's landmark House in the Clouds takes this roof obsession to illogical extremes – and only encouraged the architects' line of questioning. Their key strategy for the Dune House – a roof floating in mid-air – was therefore extrapolated from a pre-existing local characteristic.

By extension, the horizontal functional segregation of most British houses is a trait so self-evident, it is seldom remarked upon, or expressed architecturally. By and large, houses have communal areas on the ground floor (for cooking, eating, socialising, relaxing together) and more private areas upstairs (sleeping, washing, privacy, intimacy). If anything, this division needs to be even stronger in a holiday house, Vigsnaes points out, where it could be an assembly of friends or people who do not normally live together. Under such conditions, both communal activity and privacy might well carry greater importance.

JVA's treatment subtly acknowledges the potential stresses of these temporary social configurations. Rather than ignoring this division and wrapping the entire house in one kind of architecture, they instead articulate it explicitly: a single, open ground-floor space, with glass on all sides; a complex cluster of more enclosed bedrooms on the upper storey, each with its own Thorpeness-style pitched roof. They architects originally wanted to take the idea even further: instead of a central staircase, the ground-floor would have had four ladder-like flights of steps, each leading up to a separate bedroom through holes in the ceiling. Once upstairs, occupants could even draw up their ladders and seal themselves in.

Another, less obvious local reference point for the Dune House was the Thorpeness Golf Club. Not a remarkable building in itself, but the architects were struck by the way it was dug into the earth so that its ground floor is below street level. “That made sense to us,” Vigsnaes says. Hunkering the house down would offer some protection from the wind, especially in the external terrace areas. It would also reduce the overall height of the building and mitigate its impact on the landscape. What's more, the hunkering gives a sense of psychological protection to residents, who might otherwise feel they were in a fish tank. Naturally, that led to the concept of a concrete ground floor, like an extension of the beach outside. By contrast, the more intimate, upstairs spaces would be in wood.

Some of JVA's ideas had to be discarded as the design evolved. The ladders going up to each bedroom were also ruled out on the grounds of safety and accessibility. A fanciful scheme for a dining table suspended from the ceiling was met with bafflement by Living Architecture. In the initial proposal, the roof was a large, flat terrace, on which the four bedrooms sat, like separate “cottages”. But de Botton reasoned the terrace should be on the and the architects saw his point. Consequently, the bedroom roofs fused together, without losing their discrete identities. Reducing the terrace to a small balcony resulted in a more compact layout for the upper storey, and a generous internal landing that could serve as a library or reading area.

It wasn't all down to methodical, logical design procedure. That only gets you so far, says Vigsnaes. Organising the non-orthogonal layout of the upper floor was a simple question of trial, error and intuition. “That's when you have to stop thinking,” he says with a smile. “It was a balance between expressing the single spaces, giving each of them height, and being able to solve the plan. All the bedrooms had to have nice views, from the bed, from the bathtub, and so on, so the windows we put in very carefully. It was a lot of work, done mainly through models. We made many, many models.” Indeed, the walls of JVA's Oslo studio are lined with long shelves crammed with models, most of them rough, card sketch models. This is the way they work, says Vigsnaes. Computer renderings are useful for communicating to clients, but for the architects to visualise it, models are the only way.

The biggest sticking point of the project turned out to be the living area. JVA envisaged that at certain times of year the southern end of the downstairs space could be closed off with glass doors to create a winter garden and a smaller, cosier living room. In warmer weather, it could be opened out as a semi-outdoor terrace. But Living Architecture preferred to preserve the unity of ground floor space. It became a bit of an impasse.

“When we got resistance, we weren't always assured why things were not accepted,” says Vigsnaes. “Sometimes Alain was very precise and very philosophical in his wishes, and also quite risk-taking, but other times he was very homely, and purposeful for a more standard kind of living -- a bit backward-looking. He got a bit tired now and then. He was overwhelmed with all the details, I think. We sensed that there were difficulties in other projects as well.”

There were. The Balancing Barn, just up the Suffolk, was causing Living Architecture major headaches at this point. This was to be the first Living Architecture project to launch, and it had become the most troublesome. MVRDV's initial proposal was deemed unworkable, necessitating a complete rethink. The budget was spiralling out of control, and negotiations with the architects were becoming fraught, to say the least. Despite his decision-making role, De Botton had been trying to stay in the background and let Robinson, whose background is in project management, deal with the architects. But that was proving difficult, as Robinson recalls:

“Hakon would ask, 'Why can't I speak to this guy? I want this winter garden space.' And I was saying, 'Well, Alain just doesn't think it workable, and as a client we have that right.' I remember a very, very long conversation on the telephone with him that went on for hours about the whole thing, and me eventually saying, 'Well we don't want it. You're just going to have to accept it I'm afraid.'”

Vigsnaes laughs at the recollection. “Of course, we were always speaking frankly with them – we're Norwegian!” Robust discourse is better than lack of communication, he says. “Having made so many houses, we know that there will always be arguments. You shouldn't avoid that. But most of the time our discussions with Living Architecture were quite straightforward. Even if they're not a private client who's going to live in the house, they were a very engaged client. For us it would be very difficult to have the perfect site and a client who's not interested, and who says, 'Just do whatever you like.' That's what most architects dream of, but if there's not enough resistance, you don't do good work.”

“Sometimes, it's more difficult to make houses with large budgets,” Vigsnaes continues. “If you have doubts like, 'Should the fireplace be here or there?' They'll say 'Let's have both.' Which doesn't make you smarter as an architect. Very often clients want to have the maximum of everything, everywhere, if they can afford it. We can't give them sun and views everywhere. Then there's no contrast. So maybe you have a low window here, a high one there. Then there's a rhythm of expectations, a dynamic of experiencing a space.”

By comparison, planning approval and construction were relatively straightforward. It is standard practice for a foreign architect working in the UK to partner with a British firm, in light of national differences in building laws, codes and regulations. As with the Balancing Barn, the nominated “executive architect” for the Dune House was Mole, a Cambridge-based practice with a reputation for careful, contemporary houses, not dissimilar to that of JVA. Ian Bramwell, senior architect at Mole, worked on both the Dune House and the Balancing Barn.

“JVA were less trusting to begin with,” Bramwell says. “MVRDV were used to working with local architects to realise their projects, so they were quite happy to do the concept, then hand it across to us. JVA are more used to doing bespoke buildings themselves, just as we are. So they took more convincing that we were the right people for the job.” They soon found they spoke the same language design-wise. “With the Balancing Barn, if an idea was challenged, rather than work on it, MVRDV would look at it in a fresh way and come up with a completely different idea,” Bramwell continues, “whereas with JVA there was always an iteration, working through a clear argument as to why things should be a particular way. They were much more decisive, let's say, and therefore much less challenging.”

One thing the experience brought home to JVA was the difference between British and Norwegian skills and working methods. Vigsnaes was surprised by the hierarchy of the construction team. “There are many more layers of responsibility, even on a small building site like this. That guy speaks to this guy, who speaks to this guy…” Also, in well-forested Norway, timber-frame construction is by far the most widespread and efficient way of house building, whereas in Britain we use more brick and stone. The complex timber geometry of the Dune House's upper storey would not be a stretch for Norwegians, in Vigsnaes' estimation, but it was deemed to be beyond the skills of the average British carpenter.

As an alternative, the Dune House's upper storey is made from cross-laminated timber (CLT), a material consisting of sheets of timber glued together with the grains at right angles. It is 10 centimetres thick, strong, structurally self-supporting, low-carbon and relatively easy to use. It also has a solidity to it that a timber frame with a skin of plywood would have lacked, and nobody wanted the bedroom walls to feel flimsy. The CLT panels were manufactured by a company in Austria. They were cut directly from a 3-D digital model sent by the architects, even the window openings. The whole kit arrived on site on a flat-bed truck, and only took three days to crane into position and screw and bolt together.

Externally the walls are clad in black-stained timber (with insulation in between), in keeping with the surrounding houses. For the roof, an atypical fish-scale pattern of etched stainless-steel shingles, which gives the house a subtly reflective quality. Openable windows are set back from the facades, unopenable windows are flush with it, adding to the rhythm of the facades. On the inside, the thickness of the walls creates built-in window seats for the larger picture windows. JVA's skewed geometries create a novel set of spaces upstairs. Our eyes, accustomed to conventional perspective, are deceived by their non-orthogonal lines. Combined with the high ceilings, this optical illusion makes the rooms appear larger than they really are.

Care was taken to integrate the concrete downstairs with the wooden upstairs. The rough timbers for the shuttering, for example, were first passed over with wire brushes to pick out the softer timber and thus accentuate the grain impressed into the surface of the concrete. The timbers were also left untreated, so as to allow the colour of the wood to leach into the concrete and give a warmer feel. Where the two materials meet, the finished timber boards line up precisely with their concrete counterparts. Even the timber ceiling downstairs is carefully detailed. JVA devised a concealed lighting system for it, and the direction of the timber boards changes as they rotate around the central fireplace/staircase core. This rotation corresponds the daily path of the sun around the house, from the eastern corner (facing out to sea from the kitchen) to the western corner, as well as accentuating the way the whole downstairs space “unwinds”, from the front door, around to the kitchen and into the main dining and living areas.

Once completed, one final problem presented itself. “It was a bit sterile inside,” says Robinson. “We finished it just a couple of weeks before Christmas 2010, I remember it vividly. I'd been up at the house. Alain and Charlotte were about to come up there to test it before the Christmas guests. A snowstorm was approaching so I took some pictures and headed back to London. I recall showing the pictures to Alain and him commenting it looked really cold, and needed some comfort.' It was all a bit grey, brown and hard. There were no highlights to it.”

Vigsnaes had commissioned the bedspreads from his wife, Linda Knoph Vigsnaes, a textile designer. Otherwise, there was just the furniture in there. “Alain and I talked for an hour about what we were going to do,” Robinson continues, “and eventually I said, 'Well, I'll just go out and buy something.” At the last minute, Robinson dashed round the corner to SCP, a London retailer of modern furniture and accessories. “I bought heaps and heaps of cushions, blankets, bowls, rugs and anything to bring in a bit more colour and comfort. People thought I was on a crazy Christmas shopping spree.” Then Robinson sent it all by courier over to de Botton, who took it all up to Thorpeness. When laid out and it looked much better, which was a relief!”

The Dune House opened Christmas 2010 and reactions were overwhelmingly favourable, both from the press and public. Despite the initial reservations about its strangeness, it has taken its place as another eccentric landmark of Thorpeness. Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie's vision of a leisure utopia has proved robust enough to accommodate a holiday home that addresses the present day. The Dune House is also the most sought after of Living Architecture's properties. It is often booked more than a year in advance. “It seems simple but it wasn't,” says de Botton. “They had a very complex brief and they made it work, so I'm full of admiration for these guys. They really packed in the space. The geometry made sense. It does exactly what it should be doing. They seem to me to be the essence of what a good architect does, which is to really, properly listen to the client. Then their creative idea is original and full of life but it hasn't left financial reality behind and it hasn't left the brief behind. We think of it as the ideal house by the beach.”

The Dune House's success does, however, raise a nagging doubt in the minds of the Living Architecture team: is it the architecture that draws people or the location? “We have to admit, we could have built a far less interesting house there and it would still sell every week simply because it's an area where so many people want to go and stay,” says Robinson. 

“We get depressed by the idea that it's the location, though,” de Botton says. “We don't want it to be the location. On a bad day we think, we're going to all this trouble to get people excited about modern architecture but we could have done it with Laura Ashley and they wouldn't have noticed – that's the nightmare thought. Let's hope the architecture is still a big feature.”

For de Botton, the Dune House is a little slice of Norway in this most English of locations. “You leave England behind. Sometimes that downstairs space feels like the lobby of a Norwegian bank, but it's quite OK because you're in twee Thorpeness.” De Botton describes Norway as “Britain if Britain were better. If everything had worked out, that's what it would be like. It's egalitarian but with dignity. Egalitarian can mean everybody's in Elephant & Castle, or it can mean everybody's at the Dune House, so it's a very beautiful dream of what egalitarianism could mean.”

“We never think we're exporting 'Norwegianness',” says Hakon Vigsnaes, “but whenever we build abroad, people tell us we are.” Despite JVA's portfolio, Norway has its share of kitsch and backwards-looking architecture, too, he adds. The situation is not as extreme as Britain's but modern houses are still in the minority. Vigsnaes is struck by the way Britain seems to have accepted modern architecture for public buildings but never really embraced it in its houses. “It's kind of a schism.”

It is significant, in terms of Living Architecture's broader mission that the Dune House sailed through the planning process with the committee's blessing. Restrictive planning guidelines are often blamed for the lack of quality architecture in rural Britain, but the committee in question – local residents, mostly in their 60s and 70s – were unanimously supportive of the Dune House, says Ian Bramwell, just as they had been with the Balancing Barn. Does that suggest British homebuilders are being more timid than they need to be? Could the architectural conservatism lie with them rather than the planners? Or were Living Architecture simply lucky to find an open-minded planning committee in Suffolk? Having fought planning battles around the country on behalf of his own practice, Bramwell finds it difficult to imagine an architect could achieve as many bold and striking buildings in this country as JVA has in Norway.

At least they achieved this one. And if they could do it, why can't others? “It's the house you could learn the most lessons from,” says de Botton. “If you were building a four-bedroom family home, The Dune House is actually a model for what you could do on a reasonable budget on a reasonable plot size.” And yet the Dune House differs so radically from the standard British home. Not only does it offer spatial qualities beyond the imaginations of most homebuilders, it also, crucially, offers a variety of them. A house is more than just a series of rooms, it says, and those rooms are more than just a series of walls. And if even a landscape as resistant to change and pathologically rooted in the past as Thorpeness can benefit from an injection of architectural boldness, surely the rest of the country can too.

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