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A Home with a History: old meets new at contemporary architect Chris Dyson’s 17th-century house in Suffolk

Chris Dyson is known for his genre-defining ability to marry heritage and modernity in total harmony, as a new book on his work celebrates. Why would his home be any different?

Grace McCloud
Peter Landers
A Home with a History: old meets new at contemporary architect Chris Dyson’s 17th-century house in Suffolk

Chris Dyson is hard to put into a box. A look at his new monograph tells you as much before you even open the cover, its title – Heritage and Modernity – giving some sense of the shapeshifting sensibilities of this most versatile of architects. He is recognised as much for being a conservator of old buildings as a radical creator of contemporary ones, and his name is to many indelibly associated with Spitalfields, that East End enclave of gorgeous Georgian-ness, where now Dyson-designed concrete and glass sit flush with the lovingly preserved stock brick and pitted floorboards of Huguenot houses. “Architecture isn’t as simple as just designing a new building,” he says. Well, quite.

All this is to say Chris is a champion of pluralism over particularities – someone who understands implicitly that the present and past are merely extensions of the same idea. Unsurprisingly, then, a conversation with him goes no way to helping us pin him down stylistically – and that’s just the way he likes it. “You might be surprised to hear that I don’t often think about what label my work ought to have,” he says genially. He admits that in the past it was perhaps more important, referencing the desire of the likes of James Stirling, under whom he worked, to design in a powerfully recognisable vein in the post-war period. “I don’t think it’s like that anymore.” He is not motivated by style, he says, but instead “interesting briefs, sites and possibilities”.

Such projects comprise the content of the book – and while all have a story worth telling (not least the fêted London studios of Maison Colbert), we’re here to talk to him about just one: his own home in the Suffolk countryside. Chris and his wife, Sarah, bought it from a friend and Spitalfields neighbour, the late lawyer John Cornwell, in 2013. Cornwell had bought it as a retirement house, but sadly never really got to enjoy it as such. “One day John rattled the keys at us and said, ‘Go and have a look it at. I can save you loads of time and hassle and just tell you now it’s a great place.’” They did; it was. “Unlike most architects, I decided there and then.” Chris and Sarah have spent almost every weekend in it since.

The set-up is typically Dysonian, if such a notion exists. The original 1650s thatched house has, under his auspices, benefitted from contemporary replacements in two phases: first of a tumbledown conservatory with a timber-framed garden room, and of a lean-to with a brick-vaulted kitchen; later, an old garage was removed to make way for new timber studio. Markedly modern, there is no pretending that these have been designed to ‘blend in’ (in the most basic sense) with the existing structure. Pastiche is not this man’s bag. The subtle cohesion of these addendums instead lies in something far cleverer: their translation of context. “It’s the materials you use, the shapes you echo, the forms you reference – that’s how you make something feel like it belongs.”

“We don’t have much green space at home in Spitalfields – I’ve turned most of what was the garden into a studio – and that’s really the great beauty of the Suffolk house: its ruralness. I saw the place just once before we bought it – in the dark! – and Sarah viewed it a week later. But we were both immediately drawn to its quietness. I love how, if you wake up at 5.30, there’s nothing to hear but the birds. It’s a slice of heaven, but we can be here from London in an hour and a half.

“By great fortune, six years ago, the land behind the house came up for sale. We bought it, which then allowed me to do the extensions. We didn’t buy the house with grand plans to change it; it was more serendipitous than that – things unfurled, opportunities arose. That being said, I am an architect, so there were ideas cooking… Though they wouldn’t have been as good as what we ended up with as a result of having more space to play with.

“The development happened in two stages: first the kitchen and garden room, then the studio. Steve Webb, an engineer and one half of Webb Yates, and his associate at the time, Anna Beckett, helped me enormously with the kitchen, which has a barrel-vaulted brick ceiling within its timber frame, itself cantilevered above ground, supported by brick piers. We then used some great, really committed builders, who I’d worked with in London. They would come up and camp out here for the week and then we’d swap places when Sarah and I arrived for the weekend.

“I also met a wonderful guy called Leigh Cameron, who did the concrete craftsmanship – ergonomic engineering of the steps, counters, floors. Craftsmanship is a very old idea, whereas concrete feels much newer, but there’s a huge skill involved in getting the right finish. Modern materials should still be treated with as much care as ancient ones.

“When I was designing the extensions, I was driven by the idea of having a variety of spaces. They’re pretty much all ground-floor level – they connect almost like an enfilade, each giving you a different view of the landscape, starting in the rather snug sitting room in the old house and ending in the glass-walled dining are in the garden room. I wanted each to have a different character too. An amazing artist called Ian Harper helped with that, painting the ceiling in the old sitting room, which makes it feel cosy, and adding a copper-leafed ceiling to the garden room; in the kitchen, meanwhile, you’re enveloped by brick. It feels very grounded.

“The bricks are all reclaimed from nearby Peasenhall. That indigenous quality appealed to me. We used lime in the mortar mix, which not only gave the brickwork a light feel, but it also spoke to the lime render that covers the original house. They all help give the extensions a sense of place, but achieving that is about more than materials. It’s about appropriate proportion and scale and about the architectural language you use. You have read the architectural landscape and respond.

“When the original house was constructed in 1650, it was done so in reclaimed oak from old beams, wattle and daub, and thatch – as such, it’s a reflection of a moment in history. And I think we should all be building for the moment, in a way that performs to the standards of our age in an aesthetic and functional way. That’s exactly how the original houses were built. We’re just doing it in a different way because we have different technologies, different materials and different thoughts. All architecture is a reflection of a time and place in the universe.

“I’m quite catholic in my own taste in architecture. Just as I designed a barrel-vaulted brick structure, I could equally find myself building in a Meccano style of steel and glass, if it was the right thing to do at that point. But I don’t think that that’s the approach we have to take for every single project. There’s more to it than that.”

Further reading

Heritage and Modernity, published by Lund Humphires, is available from 8 September

Chris Dyson Architects

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