Yusti Herrera of Ian Chalk Architects explains how revisiting historic methods of reading the landscape informed the practice’s approach to building a new house in collaboration with RA Studio in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Cornish coast.
Drawing inspiration from traditional mining workshop typologies, the larch-clad extension designed in collaboration with RA Studio is connected to the reworked stone cottages via an underground link.
The first time we went to Hillside, we’d been instructed to design a sea-facing dwelling on the Cornish north coast. It was a chilly November morning, and a damp sea breeze soaked the dead leaves on the ground. We walked around the site, scrambling uphill, under the drizzle and the trees, silent to the imposing landscape. We reached a point overlooking a mist-matted valley. Trees and cliffs framed a flat grey sea. But had we stood at the same location a hundred years earlier, we would have witnessed something completely different: dead mud, toxic debris – the entrails of an open-pit mine. We had to make a project out of that.
Ian Chalk Architects’ area of influence didn’t extend beyond London. Working in St Agnes, Cornwall, gave us the opportunity to study a new territory, and understanding the forces – natural and human – that had shaped the site was paramount. We learnt about the flushes of plutonic magma that gave Cornwall its once plentiful ores and its still mighty granite cliffs fending off the Celtic Sea. We learnt about the implacable ocean winds that made the exposed uplands infertile, and the resulting concentration of the population along the sheltered valleys and porths. We learnt about the intense mining that hollowed the land, polluted the waters, and fed the people before disappearing. All these factors resulted in the landscape of heathlands and chimneys that would later help consolidate Cornwall’s position as a leading tourist destination.
The site became a rubble field in the 19th century as a result of mining. COURTESY OF REDRUTH RECORDS LIBRARY
Hillside represented a paradox: on one hand, a hopeful example of naturalised land and a dream of seaside living; on the other, a not-so-idyllic past hidden beneath a canopy of invasive azaleas and non-native trees. Under that light, Hillside reminded us of the summer-lilac-ridden docks and canals of London: a quaint memento of the Industrial Revolution’s ecological bankruptcy.
But unlike the London docklands, St Agnes’ heavily manmade landscape was declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1959 – only 19 years after the closure of the last mine – and a World Heritage Site in 2016. Hillside had transitioned from quarry to invaluable heritage in just a couple of decades. Every architectural project poses the question – wittingly or not – of its relationship to nature, but could the word nature be applied to Hillside? And more importantly, how could we work within the context of a protected landscape?
The cottages at the foot of the valley are reminders of the area’s industrial past.
AONBs, which along with other types of protected areas cover 28 per cent of the UK, need to be understood within the larger context of the British landscape tradition whose origins date back to the 18th century. At the time, the leisured classes showed a growing interest in the countryside as an escape to the rapid social changes occurring in the cities. Many of the terms that we use to describe a vista – splendid, beautiful, sublime – were used during this period to indicate a sense of aesthetics that defied the Enlightenment’s conceptions of harmony, regularity, and symmetry. This new way of considering nature became predominant in the landscape painting of the time and gave rise to the word picturesque: fit to become the subject of a painting.
During the following Romantic era, the picturesque became the paradigm of nature. But what made a landscape picturesque? In his essay ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’, John Ruskin defined the picturesque as ‘parasitical sublimity’. Beauty alone didn’t suffice, it needed to include the awe, the greatness – even the terror – inspired by the scale of the world. The terms changed with time, but not the intention.
As the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty puts it: an AONB is an ‘exceptional landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are precious enough to be safeguarded’. At Hillside, it only takes a glance at the waves breaking against the cliffs and the moss-covered ruins to understand that the British taste in landscapes hasn’t changed much since then.
But Ruskin described the picturesque sublimity as parasitical because it replaced real nature with its picture. Consider the Claude Glass, a dark-mirrored device used by Ruskin’s contemporaries during their visits to the Lake District in order to achieve the picturesque experience – an early version of our Instagram filters. Not without irony, the painters using it needed to stand facing away from the scenery they wished to paint, and were often derided for that. Accordingly, we don’t think Ruskin would have been pleased with Prince Charles’ Ten Principles for Architecture, nor with the chain-produced Victorian pastiche we associate with picturesqueness today.
Providing views of the sea and surrouding cliffs, the new structure employs a simple material palette, including white walls, concrete floors, and black steelwork.
In Countryside, the Future – a recent architectural exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum – Rem Koolhaas asked, ‘Can we relearn romanticism?’
The answer may as well be that we’ve never unlearnt it. Our society seems to crave the picturesque, and this need permeated Hillside’s brief. The client requested a new dwelling – one multiple times bigger than the existing cottages – that enjoyed the best ocean views. For this, the bucolic setting provided many opportunities, but also considerable challenges. The abrupt topography allowed distant views, but also limited the areas where building was possible. The self-seeded trees provided shade and character, but were in poor condition and posed a serious risk of falling. Our response to these constraints required acknowledging that any project would imply the introduction of a new layer of human intervention in the site’s history.
But Ruskin’s conception of a beautiful landscape didn’t exclude the human presence at all. In ‘The Poetry of Architecture’, he concludes that every landscape needs a cottage: ‘The cottage is one of the embellishments of natural scenery which deserve attentive consideration. It’s beautiful always, and everywhere.’ But the landscape that Ruskin observed and idealised wasn’t industrial yet. To Victorian society, a chimney was too much of a tangible reality, too little of a sublime experience. It would take a century of deindustralisation and the work of Hilla and Bernd Becher to update our sense of the picturesque. Had we taken Ruskin word for word, we would’ve missed the point.
On the contrary, we accepted that the construction of Hillside would significantly impact the site, and that we could recreate the land-shaping industrial processes of the past. The resulting scheme comprises three parts. The existing stone cottages, that were substantially rebuilt and rehabilitated; a new timber cottage set 6.5-metres above the existing, which reinterpreted traditional mining-workshop typologies while allowing scenic views; and an underground link that – through the excavation of the existing topography – bridged the level difference.
Section showing link structure connecting the new and old elements.
This tripartite configuration allowed a site implantation referencing the surrounding buildings on the landscape, and extended to the internal layout of the house, with the upper area containing communal living spaces and the lower one providing accommodation. The underground link included ancillary spaces in addition to a stairway and a platform lift.
The works on site started with the stripping and underpinning of the stone cottages, and followed with the 8-metre deep excavation, which resulted in the removal of more than 1,500 cubic metres of material. This process was conducted in a similar way to open-pit mining, by forming a series of banks based on the bearing capacity of the bedrock. Half of the construction time and about a quarter of the total budget were invested in digging and stabilising these profiles, which provide foundations for the floors of the house.
Ground floor plan. The communal living spaces are located on the upper level to maximise views out.
From that point on, each part of the house was designed to achieve a distinct architectural language. Together, the three complement and reference each other to create a unified narrative that follows the Ruskinian principles of rusticity and simplicity. The stone cottages were finished in whitewashed oak. The weathered-larch cottage features light-grey concrete floors and black steelwork. Between both, the underground link is organised along a 7-metre tall stone wall which articulates 20 metres of steel and concrete stairways.
But the greatest Ruskinian influence can be found in the way the house reveals the landscape. Reflecting on the site’s original topography, the spaces form an itinerary winding its way uphill while withholding the views of the sea. The route starts in a narrow entrance lined in timber and slate, then leads us to a double-height foyer lit by a rooflight framing the treetops.
From there, the stone wall accompanies our ascension. The elements of nature are brought to our attention one at a time: the sky weighs over the stairway, the forest seeps in behind the kitchen sink, and jagged cliffs dominate the dining room. Only when we reach the terrace do these elements reunite to frame the ocean, reminding us that the sublime is alienation.