A local archetype has been brilliantly manipulated into a truly original work of architecture
The oldest known oast in England is believed to date back to the 16th century, but the ones with beguiling roof forms, at times pyramidal, at times conical, are mostly creations from the 19th or early 20th century. Though admired for their picturesque quality, the oasts were utilitarian structures housing the kilns to dry hops. Gone are the days when families brewed their own beer for profit, and many have been converted into dwellings.
Perhaps one of the earliest examples of architects exploiting the oast house aesthetic in a different typology was the late 19th century school built on the Glen Tanar estate in Scotland by the Victorian eccentric and cofounder of the AA, George Truefitt. Truefitt gave no hints of their source, but the two enormous pyramidal roofs crowning the school, each topped with a ventilating cowl, resemble the English oast houses. A recent reference is Caring Wood in Kent, a large country house with a striking angular roof designed by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell.
Although oasts are not unique to Kent, the county is especially known for them. In the countryside, one spots many funnel-shaped roofs crowned with cowls rising above the treetops.
Still in Kent, in a village just north of the High Weald Area of Natural Beauty, an open field dotted with detached houses emerges. One of them is a modest two-storey red brick building with white painted casement windows and terracotta ceramic tiles at first floor level, known to the locals as Bumpers Hall. Bumpers Oast, ACME’s 300m2 new family house, sits behind.
First impressions play on the native psyche: a cluster of reddish volumes unmistakably reminiscent of the round Kentish oasts but without the cowls. Overlooking a grassy paddock to the east, the building sits serenely on a brownfield site previously occupied by a stable and a ménage, with a row of tall trees immediately to the west.
ACME’s involvement began in 2013 when the client, a planning consultant, ditched a design by a different architect featuring gables, a chimney and a large (also quite Kentish) cat-slide roof. ACME presented three radical proposals. The first two, a circular single storey disc and an undulating green roof building that merged with the earth, sought to make the building invisible in the landscape. The third option was the most audacious and evocative: a reimagination of the oast composed of five conical roofs, almost 13m in height, with three floors.
The client opted for the oast lookalike. ACME began by drawing circles on plan: quatrefoil, cloud and lined up in a row. In the end it arrived at a central circle 6.6m in diameter, intercepted by four smaller circles of 4.9m diameter, with a gap separating each smaller circle from another. All five have cone-shaped roofs. The original intent was to form a group of cylinders with majestic cones clad entirely in brick, thereby unifying the walls and the roofs, but this proved impractical. Eventually the client and the architect settled on local clay tiles.
The seemingly monolithic appearance is nuanced by six different shades across 41,000 tiles. The colours blend subtly from dark red at the base to orange in the middle and bluish-grey near the chamfered rooftops.
The interior is a medley of dreamy spaces. Entering through a slit between the roundels you are greeted by an oval dining table in the middle of the larger central circle, on a floor of polished concrete. Double-height glazed slits between the turrets help create the feeling of being in an external courtyard. Looking up, one’s eyes travel some 40ft towards the small circle opening to the sky, inviting all kinds of whimsical thoughts: the hole topping Zumthor’s cave-like 2007 Bruder Klaus Field chapel; standing at the bottom of the pitch-black well in Tarkovksy’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood; or simply a giant telescope reaching out to the cosmos. The enormous cone also has a practical purpose as a ventilation stack in summer when the ground floor windows and doors are all open.
On the ground floor, the parlour and kitchen each occupy one turret with no door separating them from the ‘courtyard’. The other two accommodate an en-suite guest bedroom and the study. A stair following the curve wall of the central circle leads to the galleried first floor landing which is finished with a parquet floor and connects the upper chambers. One contains a chill-out space, the other three are bedrooms for the family. Each has an en-suite and a workspace as well as a small staircase leading to an attic where the bed is found. The conical walls inside the treehouse-like bedroom spaces are lined with large nailed-up overlapping plywood tiles. The bark-like scales spiral until they touch the rooflight at the apex, through which one could count the stars at bedtime. Square windows look out to the surrounding trees.
The circular layout would have defeated many experienced carpenters, but not these Kentish ones, who are familiar with installing oast-house-friendly built-ins, including curved plywood cupboard doors. In fact, the whole process was full of serendipitous moments; had the client picked one of the other options, it would have changed the trajectory of the project. The decision to evoke a different ambience in the private spaces, for example, was for cost-cutting as the architect had initially intended to clad the entire interior with plywood, but the builder recommended whitewashed plaster.
There are interesting parallels between ACME’s Bumpers Oast and David Leech’s ‘A house in a garden’ in Dublin, completed in 2017. Both are based on a typology entrenched in the local subconscious – in Leech’s case, the 1940s suburban house. Each created something familiar but unique through brilliant manipulations of their chosen archetype – a task that if done badly would result in pastiche. Both houses explored the local builder’s skills and materials for economical but maximum results. They are too contextualised and poetic to fall into the Po-Mo genre, too idiosyncratic to wear the critical regionalist badge, nor they are trying to revive anything so cannot be labelled historicist. Both are truly original works of architecture 20 years into a century where modernism is still the orthodoxy. It is possible that the Instagram-genic Bumpers Oast might fade into oblivion in a world so indulged in consumption of architectural imagery, but it is one of the great houses of the past decade.
Structural engineer Akt
Contractor Harry Barnes
Planning consultant Barton Willmore
MEP Furness Green Partnership
Building control Wilkinson Construction Consultants
Environmental consultant Etude