How the South Downs' Downley House unexpectedly fits in
Down a steep rutted track, in a secluded valley in the South Downs National Park, cloaked by trees, is an unexpected hamlet, once part of a country estate to a grand house that is now a school. It has only five or six houses but one, set slightly apart from the rest, is new and remarkably interesting. Little surprise there, as this Manser Medal shortlisted house is by the ever-distinctive Birds Portchmouth Russum.
This is a £2.5m house for a family of four and their guests. Accordingly it is divided in two: family quarters one side, guests the other. Between them is a large, high dining room and entertainment space – a modern reinterpretation of the Great Hall. So far, so logical – and indeed this is a rational response to the clients’ brief. But BPR – who cut their teeth in the office of Stirling Wilford – are also romantics. They see this house not only as a (characteristically late Stirling) cluster of forms, a mini-village in itself, but also as part of the overall landscape, a portal to the rural idyll.
The clients are fine wine enthusiasts. They met at a wine tasting. Their wine cellar is proudly displayed at the heart of the house. But not so proudly as the great hall, which takes the form of a huge oval wine barrel. This runs from front to back of the house, its glass sliding doors opening onto courtyards at each end. The entrance courtyard is defined by the ruined, stabilised remains of the flint and brick cottage that once stood here. A previous planning permission was to rebuild and extend that house, but BPR saw its potential as a picturesque ruin, forming part of the overall composition and acting as a screen between the new house and the others across the lane.
Built of cross-laminated timber and Glulam, clad in oak at the front, render at the rear and copper over the great hall (which, in a shift of imagery, from above resembles a locomotive charging into the hillside), this house is a sophisticated sequence of spaces inside, giving framed views of the landscape at key points. Its rear block, with a viewing terrace, will be covered by climbing plants as the ruin in front is. Its style might be described as narrative or symbolist or magical realist but is, in the end, pure BPR. The landscape likes it.