Skene Catling de la Pena
Projects:

Flint House (Buckinghamshire, 2011)

A flint and chalk house for a curator and visiting academics.

Stone age: Located on a seam of chalk that extends from the White Cliffs of Dover through to Norfolk on the east coast of Britain, the building is treated as landscape or geological extrusion. Flint is an ancient material related to jasper, obsidian and onyx; a hard, cryptocrystalline form of quartz found only in chalk, and in abundance on the surface of the ploughed fields surrounding the site.

The site is a curious linear island isolated within the context of a large estate. It is a strange, still place; an anomoly of wilderness within its highly cultivated agricultural context.

The Form: The building has a rawness that echoes the landscape, jutting from the ground like a collision of tectonic plates, a man-made mountain that follows the profile of the existing trees. The landscape and architecture are inextricably linked, and the form is sculpted using layers of natural materials found there: flint and chalk with inclusions of concrete, glass and metal. The architecture becomes an optical device, at once a platform, frame and lens for viewing the surrounding landscape and context. 

Geological Extrusion: There is a material transformation over the building where at its base it appears to be almost ripped raw from the ground before it undergoes a ‘civilizing process’ as it progresses into the uppermost ethereal chalk layer where it finally dissolves into the sky. It embodies the idea of the geological extrusion, infinite age and of revealing something already there. This was the fundamental generator for the design, and carries through from the form itself into the materiality and final detail. The site is inextricably bound to the building at all levels.

Callibrating the Site+Narrative Routes: The building is aligned along the central spine of the north-south axis and becomes a means of callibrating the site, making the range of site conditions readable. It becomes an ‘atmospheric thermometer’ where the building itself measures, reflects and makes legible the range of different atmospheres there, from the darker, introverted north-east, embedded in the tallest trees, through moss, ferns and lichens to the exposed centre. Stripes or bands of different landscape developed diagrammatically in response to an initial analysis. Over the relatively small space of the site, levels of water, light and shading vary dramatically, which is reflected in the plants that have taken root over time.

Crossing the Line – the Three Cuts
The long, narrow building is crossed at three points, binding the form to its context. These three strips or ‘cuts’ have very different material realities and each uses a different means to pull the landscape through the architecture; optical, material, and finally elemental: with the physical coursing through of water.

The road, cuts through at the lowest habitable point. The walls are bands of two-way mirror, creating a rhythm though the space. The mirror pulls panoramas deep into the core of the building, and reflections reverse light into otherwise dark spaces. The two way mirror allows views out of the building during the day, and lights the openings and entrance at night.

The garden cuts through the building at the centre, linking the sitting room to the landscape beyond. The mysterious dark green serpentine stone dissolves into the surrounding moss and ferns. The floor rises and folds back on itself to become a bench in the garden. The bridge between the sitting room and study appears to merge into the water below it. As the top of the building blurs into the sky, so the base blends into the earth.

The river cuts between the sitting room and the study, creating a series of spaces that have an offset visual relationship to each other over water. The walls of this cut are lined with raw, bone-like nodules of flint, forming a secret grotto dripping with vines and animated by firelight. Architecturally, the role of the water is to create a boundary between the public areas of the house, and the truly private or even 'cerebral': prosaically. This is a crossing point where the building becomes more mythological or dreamlike. 

Optical ‘dissolve’: The optical principle of paler objects appearing to be more distant is applied to the material treatment of the building. From the base to the top, the geological layers of flint and chalk fade from black, through a range of greys, to white. The base pieces of flint are large and rough hewn with big gallets embedded in the black lime mortar. As the flints fade to pale grey, they become more meticulously worked, knapped into smooth, square blocks with razor fine joints. Finally the chalk reads almost as a dissolving mist at the top where the building fades into the surrounding sky.

Memory and Mystery: The building as landscape or megalith hints at a mystery concealed within it. It should maintain and evoke the existing memory of the site; there is a strangely palpable sense on ancient sites of something undefined having happened there; the landscape left behind can be wild, but is not entirely natural.   

Materiality: The building is conceived of materially as a flint landscape that has been carved away to become habitable. Wherever the main body has been cut or sculpted, such as the roof and balconies, the surface becomes terrazzo. The colour of the terrazzo is carefully graded to follow the progression of the flint, and its smooth vitreous quality echoes the natural waxiness of the flint. The flint was chosen for its rawness, to read like a Keifer painting of ash and lead, or the paint strokes of an Auerbach. The texture of the building answers the rough clods of ploughed earth in the surrounding fields. The flint is graded from a coarse, oily black, rusticated base to a refined fading out of powdery, smooth chalk.

The three cuts through the flint form that bind it to the site are of silver steel and two way mirror, dark serpentine stone, and bone-like flint nodules and water.

Internally, the main architectural form is articulated through the continuous concrete soffit, the underside of the roof structure that defines the ‘landscape’ of the building. This roof is visible through full height spaces that carve a key route through the building. 

Planting: The planting will replicate or mimic what is found; to act as a memory or echo. It should reveal and intensify the essential nature of the site and the point of being here. The planting needs to be a subtle articulation of what is already there. At the centre of the site, the informal arrival point, there might be a practicality or even ‘edibility’ to what grows there: orchards, wild flowers, grasses. The building form is a response to the hierarchy of existing trees on site, the tallest part of the building in the highest existing trees to the north east. The aim is to create a almost inhabitable canopy for the master bedroom and roof terraces. 

 

On site for completion 2012.

Skene Catling de la Pena Project team: Charlotte Skene Catling, Jaime de la Pena, Theodora Bowering, Amaia Orrico, Tomoaki Todome, Samuel Chisholm, Thomas Greenall, Jordan Hodgson

Client Representative: Colin Amery                                         Estate Managers: Edward Parsons, Mark Hyland

Consultants / collaborators: Landscape & Garden Design: Mary Keen, Pip Morrison, Structural Engineers - Haskins Robinson Waters, Adam Redgrove, Stephen Haskins, Mechanical + Electrical Engineers - Max Fordham, Kai Salman-Lord, Civil Engineers - Infrastructure Design Studio, Martin Jones, Quantity Surveyors - Selway Joyce Partnership, Nick Tarrier, Ed Smith, Hui Meng, Flint Consultant - The Flint Man, David Smith, Lighting Consultants - Spellman Knowlton Lighting Design, Claire Spellman, Christopher Knowlton, Environmental Consultants - Haycock, Nick Haycock, Amy Evans