Feeling at home in old and new design

May 10, 2016

It’s important to revere the past, but it is equally valid to revel sometimes in the pleasures of modern life. So I was fascinated to learn recently of the organisation Living Architecture, which was set up at the instigation of philosopher and writer Alain de Botton.

In de Botton’s recent book The Architecture of Happiness, he discusses the theory that a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent.

Living Architecture is a response to this: a collection of modernist properties that are available to rent so that those unfamiliar with new buildings (other than the airports or other public spaces they may pass through) can experience the allure of the new.

Properties available for rent include Grayson Perry’s recent build A House for Essex, which is both an artwork in itself and the setting for a number of his works exploring the special character and unique qualities of Essex.

The building has been designed to evoke a tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels. It belongs to a history of follies, while also being deeply of its own time.

In that way, it is surprisingly similar to the properties of the Landmark Trust, an organisation that makes available to let historic houses. They are inspiring in a more traditional way yet I do not think they are any less interesting for being old.

The Landmark Trust owns (and has restored) all kinds of quirky buildings such as the Gothic Temple at Stowe, Lord Dunmore’s exuberant pineapple pavilion near Stirling, and the 23 buildings and fragile eco-system of the isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

Bringing its properties up to date, the Trust’s rescue from utter dereliction of Astley Castle in Warwickshire has seen the fusing of medieval and modern in a bold new scheme.

Rather than pitting old against new, I wonder if we can simply acknowledge the glory of all these special buildings. As Frank Gehry said: “Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”

This, after all, is the true test of design. Do we value its intrinsic qualities, its sense of internal space, its curves and straight lines as much after four years as four hundred years? Brilliant architecture can revisit the old in the new, predict the future while being rooted in the past. A house is always alive and interactive; we help to shape it while fulfilling our need to call it home.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation