Book Review: Country Houses Today

Country Houses Today, Jeremy Melvin (John Wiley publishers, £34.99)

This is an articulate survey of some 25 recent country houses, or rather houses built as country retreats, around the globe from Brazil to New Zealand. It is rather fun to compare a new neo-Palladian house in Dorset to one proposed for a client in Kazakhstan. Indeed, this is an intriguing volume altogether, as Melvin, a long- established architectural critic has a good sense of the architectural preoccupations of the age, particularly those of contemporary architects.

He makes many interesting observations about the development of the country house and about modern design in a landscape setting-not least how today the architectural and technological sources are super-international. The houses in his book, he argues, like Nash’s Luscombe Castle in Devon, engage with the landscape ‘aesthetically rather than economically or socially’.

I do not accept his view that it is so extremely rare to find houses being built on inherited family estates or new sporting estates. He argues that ‘almost all new houses in the countryside are just that-rural retreats that are not economically dependent on the land’. If one excluded all country houses on estates built in the past 300 years, chiefly from other sources of income than that of the attached estate, the list of ‘true’ country houses would be oddly short. That said, Mr Melvin is an acute observer and any serious enthusiast for contemporary architecture will enjoy his book.

His choices are interesting, even if some have that concrete bunker/secure hospital look I find impossible to admire. Several are sublime as works of architecture in their simplicity and response to landscape: the artistic Du Plessis house in Brazil, the timber Casa Cascara in Chile, the enigmatic courtyard house Well Hall, Jade Valley, Xian province in China.

The most effortlessly minimalist house is found in Japan, standing lightly on stilts, deep in a wood, and surprisingly with a pitched roof with tantalising deep eaves. I was charmed by Eric Parry’s graceful extension to Old Wardour House in Wiltshire and pleased to see Outram’s Sphinx Hill, Oxfordshire, one of the most original houses in the book.

Perhaps this work covering weekend retreats and not a few beach houses would have been more accurately titled ‘Villas Today’, but as its publishers know, the phrase ‘country houses’ carries much more swagger and interest. It is true that none of these houses were built to be sustained by an agricultural estate, but they are built by people of considerable wealth, and the architecture they commission inevitably speaks of power, and symbolically, of ownership and control of the land.