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When Alain de Botton opposed nostalgic architecture through diffuse accommodation

From the Domus archive, the project by which the Swiss-born philosopher and writer brought together a dream team of architects and designers – including MVRDV, Zumthor and Urquiola – to “educate” a conservative British audience about contemporary architecture.

“Albergo diffuso” (lit. the scattered hotel, a diffuse accommodation model) is now in our 2020s a well established concept, especially in association with an imaginary of slow tourism, with a strong domestic and, in most narratives, sustainable vocation: reclaimed hamlets; scattered dwellings that become rooms; the urban, human and tourist dimensions coinciding. From its first – mainly Italian – experiences, dating back to more than 40 years ago, the albergo diffuso can already be said to have lived through many different trends and visions, one of which had been conceived and promoted by Alain de Botton: always suspended between deconstruction, preaching and provocation, the Swiss-born writer in the 2000s was already in the midst of his activity (the celebrated The architecture of Happiness was published in 2006), intending to build links between architectural form and individual or collective psychological formation.

And this is how, at the end of the decade, along the Suffolk coast, he would bring together international names including MVRDV – co-founded by Winy Maas, Domus Guest Editor in 2019 – NORD Architecture, Michael Hopkins, Jarmund Vigsnæs Architekter, Patricia Urquiola, Peter Zumthor, for the Living Architecture project: in short, a mission to counter the English public's nostalgic tendencies in architecture through a diffuse territorial-scale hotel with a strictly contemporary language. Domus followed the project, publishing the first buildings in July 2011, on issue 949.

Domus 949, July 2011

Living Architecture

On a picturesque stretch of the Suffolk coast, a parade of holiday homes looks over a sandy beach. Each of them is a jumble of patios, conservatories and loft extensions. Their windows are battered by the sea and their painted wooden are porches fading. Among them is nestled Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects’ Dune House, its jagged roofline cutting a sharp silhouette. The house is a curiosity for the locals. Private residences designed by world-class architects are not so uncommon, but this very contemporary seaside home is available to rent. The Dune House is one of five new buildings belonging to Living Architecture, an organisation set up by the Swiss writer Alain de Botton, who aims to open up the experience of exquisite modern architecture to the general public.

De Botton is a philosopher and the author of The Architecture of Happiness (2006). He claims that the very nature of contemporary architecture in the UK – be it as vast as an airport or museum or as private and elite as a residence - has left the British public disenfranchised, with only a transient, superficial and often downright suspicious experience of 21st-century design. “Britain remains so resistant to contemporary architecture that we thought it important to open minds and hearts,” says De Botton, noting that many prefer to holiday in romantic thatched cottages or 14th-century inns.

Domus 949, July 2011

The plan is simple. Commission a handful of avant-garde, world-class architects to build beautifully designed houses on remote plots in the English countryside. Families and friends can hire the whole house for a few nights up to two weeks. On board so far is Pritzker prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, Dutch architects MVRDV, Scotland’s Nord Architects, British high-tech protagonist Michael Hopkins and gentle Norwegians Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects (JVA).

Three of the projects are now open and the reviews have been unanimously generous and positive, with two receiving awards for architecture. Visitors have warmed not just to the idea of the project, but to the scale and the thoughtfulness with which the architects have crafted each house. The practices collaborated with furniture designers to customise every part of the Living Architecture experience, from bathrooms to bedrooms. In the Balancing Barn house by MVRDV, the interiors are by Studio Makkink & Bey. Wieki Somers and Patricia Urquiola have contributed lamps and furniture, too. Far beyond the generic-house expectations of most visitors, the Living Architecture strategy is to communicate the intimacy and quality that can be found in contemporary design. “Because Britain industrialised so fast, there’s a tremendous nostalgia for history,” says de Botton, “But the architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like sensory richness, warmth, and a connection with history.”

Domus 949, July 2011

Indeed, each of the houses built so far is imbued with a very personal and sensitive response to the site. JVA’s Dune House on the Suffolk coast, despite its abrasive appearance, is particularly homely and comforting inside. Like most Living Architecture homes, it has room for up to nine people. Its design is instinctive with a glazed ground floor that opens directly onto the beach with a huge living area and kitchen. Upstairs, the bedrooms have sloping ceilings reminiscent of lofts or attics, corner rooms and childhood memories of cartoon houses. The silhouette cuts quite a figure on the Suffolk skyline and is joined in its oddness by the haphazard local buildings. Similarly sharp is the multi-award-winning project by MVRDV. The shimmering mirror-clad Balancing Barn is a single horizontal extrusion of a barn cantilevered over a gentle artificial hill. MVRDV began their search for a site in Suffolk looking for beaches and churches, trying to find a tumbledown milk barn to renovate. They came across a remote patch of land on two levels with a frog-filled lake and scattered with dilapidated barns. Instead of trying to transform an existing structure, they decided to acknowledge the local pitched-roof vernacular, even the footprint of a normal-sized barn, and simply extrude it horizontally until it couldn’t be lengthened much more.

The house, therefore, is incredibly simple in plan, but betrays its complex structure internally. Vast ash-clad trusses zigzag along all visible walls. A corridor begins with a kitchen and is flanked by a series of four en-suite bedrooms until it reaches the generous and cosy glass-walled living space that hovers over the grass and towards the small lake, its reflective metal sheeting absorbing the greens and blues around it. “It’s like a fairytale,” says architect Winy Maas of the project, “Things are not that literal here.” It is telling that Living Architeture’s director, Mark Robinson, used to be project manager of the annual Serpentine pavilions in Hyde Park. The two projects share much of the same spirit, where selecting and commissioning architects is the best way of communicating contemporary design to the British public and highlighting the potential of major architects to otherwise wary developers.

Domus 949, July 2011

Peter Zumthor, the Swiss architect who is designing this year’s Serpentine pavilion, is working on the completion of Secular Retreat. The house is set in South Devon, in a landscape of rolling hills, patchwork fields and small stone villages (scheduled for the end of 2012). It will be his first building in the UK. Zumthor says of the project, “The Living Architecture concept appealed to me right away. It felt like a unique opportunity to create a work of architecture, merging with and growing out of the landscape. So, I hope our design feels British and has the ‘smell’ of the area somehow, and will become part of the local chemistry of things. Visitors to the house should feel that they never want to leave, or at least want to return again and again.”

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