Planning legerdemain

The amoebic house: Simon Conder returns to Dungeness.

Dungeness is a large, roughly triangular shingle peninsula that extrudes from the south-eastern coast of Britain into the English Channel. It is home to a strange assortment of buildings and activities, from tiny fishermen’s huts to a giant nuclear power station by way of lighthouses and a miniature steam railway. Once considered the back of beyond, it was a place of squatter communities. Today it is borderline fashionable, a nature reserve and a conservation area. It is here that architect Simon Conder has built his latest eccentric house.

In the inter-war years of the 20th century, ad-hoc settlements sprang up, largely unregulated, all around Britain’s coasts. Sometimes they were permanent homes, more usually cheap holiday bolt-holes for the working classes. Little more than crude shacks, they were often made from the wooden carcases of old railway carriages, adapted over time with various lean-to extensions. This was the case with the house known as “El Ray” on Dungeness Beach. It took its place near the end of a row of such dwellings, facing due south across the Channel. It long predated the building of the nuclear power plant, very close by.

Dungeness started, very slowly, to get fashionable when the artist, film-maker and gay activist Derek Jarman bought a little house, Prospect Cottage, here in the 1980s, shortly after having been diagnosed with AIDS (he died in 1994). Here he began work on his famous shingle garden, taking inspiration from the other existing gardens of the hippy community which had inevitably fetched up here. His aptly-named film “The Last of England”, a diatribe against the bleakness of Thatcherism, was also shot on Dungeness.
From the 1990s, with the rediscovery of the English seaside in general, the well-heeled came looking for property here. An earlier house by Conder was built quite close to Jarman’s cottage. While that was painted black as is typical of the area, Conder’s little house was instead sheathed in black rubber. This tiny cottage – itself an adaptation of an earlier structure – garnered enormous critical acclaim.

The new house, however, is very different. Sited on the southern tip of the peninsula rather than its eastern flank, it commands a view right out into the busy shipping lane of the Channel. A couple had bought the existing shack as a holiday retreat but wanted it expanded into a place they (and soon their child) could live for half the year. The rest of the time, they live in France.

Now that the place is so tightly regulated by conservation-minded planners, new building here is difficult. “The planners basically wanted it to look like Derek Jarman’s cottage,” remarks Conder when I meet him there one sunny afternoon. Nor was it permitted to demolish the whole of the existing shack – it could only be extended. Oh, and it had to have a pitched roof. The way Conder got round these constraints is a testament to his ingenuity as an architect.

The old cottage was stripped back to its original core of a section of railway carriage – which itself dates from the 1870s. But instead of extending that, Conder designed a house that absorbed it, like an amoeba. Now the old carriage – treated as a found object, complete with scabby paintwork and with some entirely unpainted sections – stands in the main living-dining area and acts as the house’s kitchen. There is no glass in its windows and its ends are open, so it is a solid yet skeletal structure. When you are in it, you are only partially enclosed.

In plan, the single-storey house is roughly bell-shaped, meaning that its rear elevation is hemispherically curved in order to reduce its visual bulk. The entrance is a doorway placed right in the middle of the curve. Two quadrant-shaped bedrooms are located in this rear section. There are two little open courtyards within its curtilage, providing wind shelter and acting as suntraps. Then you negotiate the railway carriage, and are through to the main living area with its enormous sliding-glass front façade set back within a hooded timber patio deck. There are little angled viewing slits to either side, but otherwise the whole house is orientated towards the big sea view.

Clad entirely in slats of timber left au naturel, (no black paint or rubber here), the house looks flat-roofed. But when you get up there, you find that the timber deck forming the roof (indistinguishable in finish to the walls) has a very gentle pitch – just two degrees.

The planning officers did not take at all kindly to Conder’s merry twisting of their rules, and recommended it be refused planning permission. But when it came to the elected planning committee of local people, they unanimously approved it. Democracy thus triumphed, and the house is built.

It’s a beguiling, if peculiar, place to be. The old carriage acts as a kind of refuge and cave, as do the bedrooms. Lined throughout with light ply – walls, floors, and ceilings – and massively insulated, it should withstand the winds and spray that buffet the area. The house is set right on the shingle, which goes down to an enormous depth, so requiring only a minimal raft foundation. And when you stand outside it or on top of it, you become very aware of the looming presence of the nuclear power station next door – not only visually, but also because you can clearly hear the hum and clanking mechanical noises of the place (its older part is being slowly decommissioned) and the periodic Tannoy announcements to the workers.

This, then, is a strange and wonderful house in a strange and wonderful place. It relates less to the context of the other shacks, and not at all to the colossal scale of the power station, but takes some cues from the curved walls of the highly architectural old lighthouse complex nearby. It may not be the Last of England, but it certainly feels like the end of a very particular line of inquiry.

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published on Gabion.


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