The Anglo-Swiss philosopher du Botton first made his mark on the architectural community after publishing The Architecture of Happiness' in 2004. In the book he criticized the English for their low expectations of personal space, their obsession with nostalgia, the failures of modernism to provide a decent standard of living and ventured into the realms of home decorating tv shows. His ideas propelled him onto a carousel of conferences but unlike his very real and tangible subject, his debate was stuck in the realm of theory. "I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that – a few exceptions aside – books don't change anything." Reflects du Botton. "I realised that if I cared so much about architecture, writing was just a coward's way out; the real challenge was to build."
His project was to bring in some of the most talented names in architecture and invite them to build rental homes in some of the most beautiful parts of the English countryside. Together with a good deal of support from the industry including Design Museum director Dejan Sudjic, Brett Steel the director of the Architectural Association, the Living Architecture project was an attempt to show the British public that 'modern architecture', apparently frowned upon, is not just preferable to a 14th century thatched cottage, but far superior.
Not all of the projects are finished, but the project looks on track to provide at least two or three interesting and provocative contributions to the architectural conversation in the UK. Nord, a Scottish practice have built 'the Shingle House' on the Dungeness coast which was a source of much local controversy because in order to build the project, a beach hut had was purchased to be dismantled. Norwegians JVA who are no stranger to building elegantly in rural environs have built the interesting Dune House on a beachfront in Suffolk. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was invited to the woodland and rolling hills of South Devon to build 'The Secular Retreat' using a rammed concrete technique he has used in a chapel in Germany.
One of the more unusual participants was Michael Hopkins, an architect who is more associated with glass and steel than quaint country retreats. "We also wanted to represent the iconic tradition of British high modernism, as exemplified of course by people like Norman Foster or Richard Rogers." Explains du Botton. "Hopkins came from a high modern background but half-way through his career, got interested in 19th century warehouse and industrial architecture – and we love this swerve and how it can help to reconcile those who love the old with the new."
Two of the first five houses, The Shingle House in Dungeness by Nord and the Balancing Barn in Suffolk by MVRDV, are now available for booking from October. The Dune House by Jarmund Vigsnaes Architects, also in Suffolk, is available from January 2011. Houses by Peter Zumthor and Michael and Patty Hopkins will take bookings later in 2011.Prices start from £625 for mid-week bookings. Beatrice Galilee