Never a dull moment

Far from the metropolis, Jonathan Hendry is happily ploughing his own rewarding furrow in Lincolnshire

A tiny chalet in Humberston Fitties, turned into something quite sublime.
A tiny chalet in Humberston Fitties, turned into something quite sublime.

‘Hendry sees himself ploughing his own furrow despite sorties to Cambridge to teach – and perhaps being the richer for not having to keep comparing himself to his peers’

Jonathan Hendry’s manor is Lincolnshire: it is where he grew up and where he has practised for the last 12 years. This year he won one of the few RIBA Awards for smaller arts buildings and has previously been winner of the Young Architect of the Year. These are somehow metropolitan accolades to him. He is fiercely aware of not being in London, having spent the years after his RIBA President’s Silver Medal award in the capital, working first for Allies and Morrison and then, more fruitfully he says, for Jamie Fobert. He sees himself ploughing his own furrow despite sorties to Cambridge to teach – and perhaps being the richer for not having to keep comparing himself to his peers.

Hendry’s office is closer to Grimsby, but he picks me up in Lincoln for a tour of some of his more recent projects. After a drive through historic Lincoln (with a stop off at some of his handsome flats) and moving from fens to the rolling hills of the wolds, the characterful ad hoc innovation of the chalets at Humberston Fitties in Cleethorpes is refreshing. We are here to see a tiny house. And amid the much loved holiday shacks the Hendry-designed chalet has the air of one that might actually survive a sea breeze, or an inspection from a panel of RIBA Award judges. It is encased in stainless steel and the timber of the veranda is coated with a black bitumen typical of such buildings. Like many of Hendry’s projects this went a bit further than the clients were expecting. A refit turned into a rebuild – though more as a consequence of the crumbling frame and four-brick foundations than anything Hendry had planned. 

In the car he explains the rigmarole of dealing with conservation rules that prohibit new buildings when the impossibility of keeping the structure is patently obvious. Robust and lengthy discussions with planners got his clients through. They were luckily open to suggestion so the conception of a floating ‘furniture’ of bathroom and bedroom under a truss roof, and large mirrored surfaces, let Hendry do something quite unusual. At least for a beach chalet. It wasn’t always so.

A tiny chalet in Humberston Fitties, turned into something quite sublime.
A tiny chalet in Humberston Fitties, turned into something quite sublime.

Hendry is very aware of the local reputation he now has. In his time here he has seen a shift in the sort of clients who are attracted by what he can do. The early days of competing with draughtsmen are over. He is lucky enough to normally work through JCT contracts so the detail that is all important in his work does get translated into built form. ‘Our buildings rely on detail, they are very subtle,’ he says. He is well known by local planners, and the county’s conservation officers often meet for coffee at one of his projects, Caistor Arts and Heritage.

In fact this is where we go for lunch. It is Hendry’s only public project although a village hall has just gone on site in Great Coates and he is looking further afield nationally for more. He is ambitious for his architecture. The words that come up again and again are abstraction, local, lining, atmosphere, rigorous restraint. And Zumthor creeps in there too.  

Like the chalet Caistor is warmly timber-lined. The stepped section (the result of a hillside beneath) cleverly allows café, library and heritage collection to coexist, each feeding the other. And he rejoices that it was all on just £343,000 – due not only to his rigorous design restraint but also some straight talking early on about what could and could not be afforded.

It is in contrast to the house which is our next stop. Driving some of the way down the farm track we peer into the valley at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s £18m PPS7 South Farm. It’s big. Hendry tells of plans for a new-Georgian design being turned down and the PPS7 modern house requirements converting developer Geoff Dyson, previously of Chartdale Homes, to more contemporary style. The Dyson family in the form of Cyden Homes is now Hendry’s client for an old golf course site in Humberston. There was some excitement when Hendry won this job. The whole office tested themselves with an exercise in describing what it is about villages they love that is so special. Hendry’s early ideas of a new village complete with almshouses and a village green have been squeezed somewhat by demands for numbers. 

Caistor Arts and Heritage – it looks expensive but it’s not.
Caistor Arts and Heritage – it looks expensive but it’s not.

‘Hendry sees himself ploughing his own furrow despite sorties to Cambridge to teach – and perhaps being the richer for not having to keep comparing himself to his peers’

But whatever the pressures Hendry always likes to have a narrative, a rationale, for his designs. ‘I like to write down the aspirations at the start. It is easy to lose sight of what you are trying to do,’ he says. Sitting in his 1960s office he shows me a gothic-style folly designed for the Sutton family (currently on ice). References back to the now-demolished 1900s manor house on the estate in Stainton-Le-Clay are stylistic rather than explicit. Hendry really works his projects and being in Lincolnshire he gets to design whole buildings, unlike the infills that many of his London contemporaries are working on. 

The whole process leaves him asking himself why English buildings are dull. The answer, he says, is risk averse procurement and large practices which lack key players who are passionately-obsessively interested. These are two things he fights hard to avoid.