Takero Shimazaki on the evocative and allusive forms and spaces of Adam Richards Architects’ Nithurst Farm
Walking through the woods and down a long path towards Nithurst Farm, a wide, open landscape emerges and you are presented with a striking, painterly image that is absolutely breathtaking. As you walk a little further along the path and stop, the view is not quite believable. It is as if a villa you had seen in some rural region of Italy, perhaps near Vicenza, or a page from an illustrated travel book by an eighteenth-century architect, has suddenly presented itself in front of your eyes. But this dream-like view is in the South Downs National Park in Sussex, just 40 minutes or so by train from London.
The boldness of the house’s scale, the composition of its arched windows, and its slightly flat, collage-like relationship to its context and the nearby farm buildings make you wonder what is being presented here.
Designed and built over a 10-year period by Adam Richards for himself and his family, the house represents the culmination of an autobiographical and architectural journey. There are many references to Richards’ inspirations over the years, including scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’, in which three men journey through the forbidden ‘Zone’ in search of a room that grants a person’s deepest wishes. Palladio’s Villa Barbaro and Robert Mangold’s abstract artworks are here too, and a reminiscence of Vanbrugh’s halls and palaces.
You don’t need to recognise the references, of course, to find the house very powerful. Its sheer volume and form, together with its positioning in the landscape make this sculptural monolith an enigmatic force to appreciate, admire and equally to come to terms with.
The interior spaces are exquisitely carved out of the stepped three-storey volume and arranged around the symmetrical, ‘Palladian’ plan of the ground floor. The external form and facades are composed with a fascinating mix of classical, rural and contemporary architectural languages. The brickwork is full of subtle details, with patterns around the arched windows lending a sense of movement, impressively deep brick cills beneath these openings, and a darker toned brick lattice motif on the south facade.
Entered via a small vestibule, placed off-axis on plan, the The centres on a main double-height room, flanked by six ‘towers’. Beyond, a southerly sitting room is accessed via a lateral stair hall.
Curiously, though, you enter the house through a modest corner door, accessing the interior sideways via one of six concrete ‘towers’ that flank the main double-height space. This low-key, oblique approach seems a little contradictory to the essence of the Villa Barbaro-inspired plan, though Richards explains that it is borrowed from Edwin Lutyens’ houses. Once inside, you then encounter the main room, a magnificent, tall central chamber, cleverly arranged with kitchen and dining spaces occupying the ‘void’ areas between the concrete towers. A raised playroom podium at the northern end of the room adds to the classical ordering of this beautifully proportioned interior.
Ground, mezzanine, first and second floor plans
Richards, an engaging storyteller, evokes a scene in ‘Stalker’ – in which the guide enters the ‘Zone’ with his two clients – as he leads us from the main room, through a dark, transverse stair hall to the sitting room at the south end of the house. It’s a surprise to find this cosier living ‘Room’, whose proportions are quite different to those of the main room we have left behind. With sofas paired symmetrically in the centre, and surrounded by artworks, tapestries and books, it is an oasis of escape.
The southerly sitting room leads onto the garden
From here one can wander out to the south garden, where the lawn seems to extend out into the darkness of the woods beyond. The gentle slope of this grassed path makes the idea of a journey towards the ‘Zone’ quite relatable, even though we are no longer inside the house. Looking back, the south facade – perhaps the least bold – is beautifully resolved and composed with a very subtle vertical inflection at its centre. From here you begin to notice the way the entire house tapers from one end to the other in plan.
The south facade features a subtle ‘hashtag’ pattern the in brickwork, and a subtle vertical crease in the centre which resolves the tapering plan with minimal use of cut or special bricks.
The effect of this gentle tapering takes different guises in different parts of the house. In the main room, it accentuates the magnificent nave-like view towards the entrance to the ‘Room’ as well as the space widening towards the glazed end by the play room. The southerly concave facade adds ever so gently and subtly to how the building engages with the rear garden and terrace. The flatness of this facade and the darker toned brick pattern provides a classical assurance using contemporary means, making a graphic ’eye-catcher’ as you approach the house from the woods.
The route up to the sleeping areas is equally adventurous, and like climbing to the loft spaces in Palladio’s villas. As in Palladian stairs, one is granted a breather on the mezzanine level with a window overlooking the main room. Having negotiated the tight dark staircase, the view of the main room from above is majestic; the clarity of its plan, like a meticulous stage set, makes ‘looking back’ both rewarding and thought provoking.
The journey continues towards the bedrooms on the first and second floors. Two incorporate private maze-like stairs that take you down to en-suite bathrooms at the mezzanine level. This is at first very disorienting and it’s hard to figure out what is happening in terms of the levels. Here one appreciates the smart use of the towers in the main room, with both en-suites encapsulated within them, thereby freeing up floor area in the bedrooms.
A tapering stair ascends to the master bedrooms on the second floor.
Rising from the first floor is a tapering central staircase whose design refers to the ‘stairway to heaven’ in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, about an airman ascending to the afterlife, and so, indirectly, Richards’ pilot father. At the second floor, you are greeted by vast windows facing the south landscape. Paired main bedrooms are arranged with dressing areas and a central bathroom at the opposite end. Here again absolutely everything is laid out symmetrically. The central steps to the shower cubicle from the open bathroom area are particularly impressive, elevating this daily routine into an architectural ritual.
Nithurst Farm represents a compelling story of the architect’s journey and his inspirations – a ‘zone’ where “your deepest wishes will come true”. During my visit I found myself questioning whether so many layers and references were really needed to make a good piece of architecture. Because this is quite simply a very beautiful house.
Yet, having watched ‘Stalker’ again, and contemplating why we are drawn to build, I came to better understand this house, and see how it is absolutely necessary that these stories are embedded within its walls. It is a building etched with rich tales of architecture and the family. And even though the house is very much engaged with the present and the specific context of its site, it belongs to the long and continuous history of marking the land with a building. Richards describes the house as a modern Roman ruin, an impression maintained in the more ‘industrial’ interior by the way the outer brick skin can be read through openings in the concrete ‘body’.
Like Palladio’s villas, Nithurst Farm is a singular artefact that embodies the idea of the city and the collective memory. The labyrinthine qualities of the connecting routes, the vast main room and the surrounding smaller, more intimate spaces all give a sense of the city within the house. The main room is both a public plaza and basilica, and the first-floor landing is a mini piazza. Nithurst Farm is a monolithic, monumental sculpture in the tradition of country villas, but one where the allusions to urban, civic life fuse with rural qualities of space, landscape and air.
Adam Richards Architects
Adam and Jessica Richards