Trevor Dannatt

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Articles & Reviews

From Architecture Today (November 2011)

A new house by Trevor Dannatt
Feature by Ivor Richards. Photos by Peter Cook.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt represents, in bricks and mortar, the summation of a long and distinguished career, says Ivor Richards. Photos: Peter Cook.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt

The house occupies an L-shaped footprint facing south-west; the symmetrically-arranged west wing contains a salon and library with the main bedroom above.

‘Architecture has an ulterior motive’, declared Alvar Aalto. ‘Every building is intended to show that we wish to build paradise on earth for man’. In his essay The Orthodoxy of Alvar Aalto, Colin St John Wilson contrasted his free organic functionalism with the stricter rationalism of Le Corbusier and CIAM, concluding by noting those British architects who had been receptive to Aalto’s influence including, beside himself, Leslie Martin and Trevor Dannatt.

There are a number of parallels between the West Sussex house, recently completed by Dannatt at the age of 91, and Aalto’s Villa Mairea (1938-39). Both have woodland sites and a play of geometries in the plans, and both are imbued with an enriched sequence of arrival, entrance and domain in which the experience of the inner life of the home connects intimately with an idyllic landscape.

Dannatt described his situation at the outset of his career as being between the English Arts & Crafts movement and mainstream modernism, and while his projects undoubtedly reveal the influence of Le Corbusier’s ‘five points’, it is with the work of Aalto that we find the most sympathy. Dannatt seems to have taken the best of what he learnt in his early years and instinctively integrated these precedents into the forms, materials and details of his own works over six decades.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt

Garden view of the house with swimming pool.

One further seminal experience merits mention: from 1948-52 Dannatt worked at the London County Council Architects’ Department under Leslie Martin and Peter Moro on the design of the public spaces of the Royal Festival Hall. Dannatt became immersed in the flowering of architecture and design associated with the 1951 Festival of Britain and his tea bar, built within the Power & Production Pavilion, was a brilliant planar composition that drew on the work of artist Ben Nicholson. Within the context of the Royal Festival Hall team, and from Moro in particular, came the notion of a richer modern architecture that could embrace decoration, and something of this took root in Dannatt’s work.

The West Sussex house plan is composed of two main geometrical figures: an axially-arranged west wing with a formal salon and principal bedroom above, and an asymmetric east wing with family rooms below the children’s and guest bedrooms, articulated by a skewed stair-hall. The north entrance facade and utility areas are enclosed by a flowing batten-clad curtilage one storey high. The main volumes are a heavy 500mm-thick masonry construction faced in a Sussex-red brick, with concrete floors and roofs throughout but for the salon wing, which has a lead-clad steel and timber pitched roof. The flat roofs to the family accommodation are edged by an inboard lead-faced upstand within a parapet, a feature Dannatt describes as a ‘fictive-mansard’. This was envisaged as a site for (as yet unrealised) photovoltaic panels and as a roof terrace served by a glass conservatory. The overall composition is anchored to the east and west by two massive chimneys, one serving the basement boiler room and the fireplace in the family space, and the other serving the salon and west terrace, sheltered by a balcony. The choice of traditional high thermal mass construction, highly insulated, with potential sustainable add-ons, chimes with the client’s ardent ‘green’ concerns.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt

Ground and first floor plans: the client’s brief was for a six-bedroom house (one principal, three for children and two for guests). Initial studies in which their existing house was retained and extended proved unfruitful, so the decision was made to replace the building. The plan is articulated as three elements: a central entrance and staircase hall; to the west, a salon approached through a library with the master bedroom above; and to the east a study and kitchen area opening into a family area and dining room, and in turn to a covered terrace; above are the five other bedrooms. Storage, cloackroom and service areas with access to basement plant and storage occupy a single-storey element.

The combination of two distinct geometric types – axial/formal and asymmetric/informal – makes this an intriguing hybrid, predicated loosely on two squares, major for the family and minor for the parents. There are certainly echoes of the Villa Mairea in its play of square geometries and a rambling, asymmetric L-shaped plan.

The West Sussex house is approached by a diagonal graded drive, with a security gate set in a heavy timber palisade, and this geometry extends into the York stone forecourt and cantilevered concrete entrance canopy. The rippling fenestration above, between the two brick masses, joins with the grey-boarded service enclosure, which in turn is echoed in a series of sheds for cars, logs and bicycles and a changing room for bathers, which also has the modest luxury of a glass roof and black-stained interior.

Even at the entrance, a plethora of carefully crafted details are evident – for example the black-brick marker plane that slides alongside the oak entrance door and the white applied veins in the slatted oak fenestration above, which signal the stair hall floor void. The York stone pavement extends internally to a top-lit vestibule with a generous family cloakroom.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt

The extensively glazed entrance and stair hall occupies a pivotal point in the plan, articulating the two principal wings of the house and, with views through to the landscape to the south, allowing clear orientation.

The stair hall, floored in chequered slate, is defined by cruciform concrete columns, which are reconfigured elsewhere as octagonal columns. The stair, set in a double-height glass bay, comprises an elegant precast concrete flight with polished marble treads. Punctuated by surprising external views and south light, the hall leads west to the library and salon, and east along an oak-floored route around the pivotal study (the ‘nerve centre’, according to Dannatt), into the heart of the plan – the kitchen, with a breakfast bar and sitting space in front of the hearth, and beyond to the dining/garden room where a spiral stair links to the games room above. These spaces are all joined seamlessly by a sheltered external terrace, accessed by a huge sliding door that parks among steel I-section pergola supports. Views overlook the pool, part of a series of descending York stone terraces forming a plinth. From this position, the southerly prospect of the sloping meadowland and the South Downs is both spectacular and utterly relaxing – arrival here is a moving experience.

The library space that guards the entrance to the inner sanctum of the parental salon is a showpiece of joinery design, a thoughtful pause before stepping into the oak-floored salon itself – a fine formal room with an axial, lowered ceiling, concrete and slate fireplace with Tobia Scarpa light fittings and paired corner windows with cills of white marble. Though not part of the initial brief, Dannatt had added the salon to give a base for the master bedroom above, and it came to assume a major role in the plan. The master bedroom above is given special status by a pyramidal ceiling, finished in hemlock boards and raised above discreet clerestories. The axial plan is subtly respected with corner windows and a west-facing balcony.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt

North-facing entrance elevation with timber-clad ‘service’ corridor.

On the upper level of the eastern wing are five bedrooms, three bathrooms and the children’s games room. The three bedrooms on the east side feature 30/60 degree splayed bay windows, with carpeted cills that form window-seats offering views north and south to the woodlands. These are expressed externally as asymmetrical cantilevered glass projections within the brick elevation.

Close scrutiny of the sophisticated south elevation reveals a rich array of customised details that are indicative of Dannatt’s approach in which the villa was envisaged as Gesamtkunstwerk – a total artwork. These include a diagonal window aperture with a creasing tile gargoyle marking the circulation axis – Dannatt’s homage to artist Max Bill. The black and white de Stijl-like balcony to the stair hall is another evocative motif.

Contemplating the villa from the south meadow during our visit, Dannatt recalled Le Corbusier’s definition of architecture as ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’. For me, it was again Aalto who came to mind, and in particular his University of Jyväskylä, which Dannatt has visited on a number occasions. In bringing together the rich traditions of modernism, the West Sussex villa is the successful outcome of Dannatt’s lifelong engagement with the complex and multi-facetted building type that we call home.

A new house by Trevor Dannatt

Spiral stair access to the upper-level games room.

Ivor Richards is a former associate of Leslie Martin, with whom he designed a number of buildings, including the Centro de Arte Moderna for the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon (1983). Richards’ courtyard houses in Cambridge won RIBA Awards in 1986 and 1993.

Dannatt Johnson Architects
Born in 1920 and educated at the Regent Street Polytechnic, Trevor Dannatt set up his practice in 1952 after working for Jane Drew and the London County Council. In 1994, with David Johnson, he formed Dannatt Johnson, becoming a consultant to the practice in 2004. In recent years major projects have been completed at Kew Gardens and the universities of Westminster, Kingston, and Greenwich, including three grade-one listed buildings at the former Royal Naval College.

Project team
Architect: Dannatt Johnson Architects; design team: Trevor Dannatt (consultant), Jonathan Parry (partner), Jonathan Nettleton (associate), Julian Mowbray, Aidan Crawshaw; convenor: Adrian Dannatt; structural engineer: Michael Barclay Partnership; services engineer: Eng Design; qs: CBE Partnership; landscape architect: Judith Wise Garden Design; sustainability consultant: Ecofirst.

Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Main contractor: Westridge; electrical sub-contractor: Fox Electrical Contractors; brick supplier: Taylor Maxwell; stone flooring, cills and vanity tops: Diespeker Marble & Terrazzo; engineered timber flooring: Schotten & Hansen; joinery: Parker & Highland Joinery; pool: Guncast Swimming Pools; tiles: Grestec Tiles; wood pellet boiler: Guntamatic Heiztechnik from Treco; curved glass: Hounslow Glass; ironmongery: Allgood Secur; spiral stair: Spiral Construction; steel windows: Clement Steel Windows; balustrades: Sapphire Balustrades.

First published in AT223, November 2011