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December 15 2011

Stay in your very own Frank Lloyd Wright house

Three of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic houses can be seen on a day trip from Pittsburgh – and there's even the opportunity to spend the night in one of them

Frank Lloyd Wright was coming towards me in his trademark pork-pie hat and opera-goer's cape, frosty eyebrows raised, when I woke up. As a rule I don't dream of world-famous architects – never, so far as I recall, have I dreamed of Frank Gehry or IM Pei – but there were extenuating factors. I'd nodded off over a biography of Wright, reading about how he'd arrive unannounced at a house of his design to see how its owners were treating it. And the house where I lay, the Duncan House, an hour south-east of Pittsburgh, was an actual FLW, one of only half a dozen where Wright-lovers can stay the night.

Left in sole possession, my wife and I struggled that first evening to make ourselves at home. To begin with, we tried going for a walk. The house is at the end of a mile-long private driveway, set amid a 125-acre wooded estate. In October the trees were in their autumn finery, spanning the spectrum from deep red to palest yellow. Climbing a hill, we looked out over the rolling Laurel Highlands, one of Pennsylvania's prettiest landscapes and a favourite getaway for Pittsburghers, before following a trail to a secluded pond. On our return leg, we looked in on the estate's two other houses, both designed by a pupil of Wright's and bearing his influence.

Back at home base, we tried walking around the single-storey house, considering it from every angle: the horizontal bands of bleached mahogany, the gutterless eaves, the stonework of the chimney, and the carport (Wright hated enclosed spaces like garages, attics and basements). Inside the house was a vintage 1950s American kitchen, like the set of Happy Days, but instead of cooking we made a picnic at the living room table. This was our favourite space, the heart of the house with its cathedral roof and fireplace, and the expansive windows that allowed us to sit warmly inside without missing the magnificent foliage. It wasn't until we were ready for bed that we noticed another typical FLW feature – no curtains or blinds on the windows.

So, up at first light, we made the 40-minute drive south through the Laurel Highlands to Fallingwater. Wright built Fallingwater in the 1930s, when he was pushing 70, and such was its impact that he never again lacked for commissions. People have been visiting, photographing and writing about the place ever since but it still has the power to startle at first sight. The family who commissioned Fallingwater, owners of a Pittsburgh department store, anticipated something more conventional: a weekend cabin with a view of the falls. What they got instead was a bravura exercise in modern architecture and engineering – the core of the house resting on boulders with terraces of reinforced concrete cantilevered out over the falls. To their credit, they were content to foot the bill, which, in true Wright style, never ceased to climb.

Seven miles from Fallingwater and now under the ownership of Lord Palumbo, Kentuck Knob is another FLW favourite. Crowning the brow of a hill and shrouded by trees, Kentuck Knob is built around a hexagonal kitchen and its angles just keep getting odder. Wright hated the dark, Victorian houses of his childhood, calling their rooms boxes within boxes; one of his abiding aims was to break down those boxes and blur the line between inside and out. Built for local ice-cream barons, Kentuck Knob achieves these aims with considerable charm. Adding to its appeal, the house and grounds are dotted with modern art – works by Claes Oldenburg, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Serra – from Lord Palumbo's collection.

Having toured these two houses, we returned for a second night at the Duncan House and found ourselves looking on "our" FLW with fresh eyes. Now that we'd learned a little about Wright's methods and motives, certain things made more sense: the absence of decoration (Wright abhorred "inferior desecrators"); the narrow gallery leading to the bedrooms (a mere passing-through space, to be minimized as far as possible); the built-in shelving; and the division of the house between living areas (spacious and open) and private spaces (smaller and darker, places to sleep and take shelter rather than for living).

FLW houses try to teach their inhabitants how their paternalistic designer would you to live: together, around the fireplace; in harmony with nature; simply and without clutter. If Americans have largely ignored his lessons, holding on to their garages and basements, preferring to live in bigger and bigger boxes on sub-divided estates, that isn't Wright's fault.

The Duncan House is no Fallingwater. In common with the other five Wright houses where you can stay the night (all in the Midwest), it's a Usonian. Usonians, designed and built in the last decades of Wright's life, were prefabricated houses that could be assembled according to one of a dozen blueprints. They were meant to be affordable, bringing good design within reach of middle-class America. (Though affordable was always a very relative term with Wright.)

The only way you'll ever get to experience Fallingwater is on a guided tour. Staying at Duncan House felt a bit like being able to take a Rembrandt home from the gallery – not a major work, a sketch, but a Rembrandt all the same.
We certainly got to like the place and were sorry to leave – perhaps, if we'd been allowed to stay, we'd have become better people! Lingering on our last morning, I took time to flick through the comments book. In the couple of years since the Duncan House opened, Wright aficionados from all over the world have stayed there, adding an extra, personal facet to their FLW tour. It's not cheap but very few were complaining. 'The dream of a lifetime' wrote more than one.

The Duncan House, 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme (+1 877 833 7829) costs $425 per night (two night minimum); the house sleeps up to six – extra $50 per night for fourth, fifth and sixth guests. Fallingwater, 1491 Mill Run Road, Mill Run, (fallingwater.org; book tours several months in advance). Kentuck Knob, 723 Kentuck Road, Dunbar (kentuckknob.com; advance bookings recommended). Flights from London to Pittsburgh with various US airlines start at around £340, if booked via kayak.co.uk.


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October 01 2010

High design, low price: UK holiday homes

Alain de Botton's set of cutting-edge, affordable holiday homes is bringing modernism to the masses

The experience of spending a night in an architect-designed space is limited usually to those lucky enough to own one, or to afford a top-end boutique hotel. The philosopher Alain de Botton and a group of top architects are hoping to change this with his latest project, a series of contemporary and, he says, affordable holiday homes in the UK, designed by renowned architects. The aim is to persuade the less elevated among us to spend the weekend and return home more enthusiastic about modernism.

"We want people to discover what it's like to live, eat and sleep in an architect-designed house," says de Botton, who got the idea while writing The Architecture of Happiness. "Most modern buildings are in private hands, or tend to be places one passes through – airports, offices." I don't know; I've slept in a few airports in my time.

The not-for-profit enterprise, called Living Architecture, is a self-styled "educational body". As such, it is hoping that its prices will attract ordinary, non design-savvy people to its high-design houses. On a mid-week night during low season (November or February, say) you can stay for £20 a night per person, but prices rise to £65 a night per person for peak periods. Both costs are on the proviso you can fill every one of eight beds, so not suited to a weekend getaway for a couple.

First I head to Suffolk to see the Balancing Barn, which will be the first house to open, at the end of this month. It's extraordinary. From the front it looks like a small bungalow, but from the side, you can see it's a long silver barn – covered in reflective steel tiles – that hangs dramatically off the edge of a slope like the bus in The Italian Job. It even sways a little if you jump up and down in the living room. Mark Robinson, the director of Living Architecture, gives us a demonstration. "It used to be even livelier!"

The setting is exceptionally peaceful. The house, designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, is a few miles inland from Walberswick. It is surrounded by pine trees and wild plum trees. A disguised trap door fit for a Bond villain opens on to a cobbled terrace directly underneath the cantilevered living room. A swing hangs off the end.

Inside it's clad in timber. An expensive-looking open-plan kitchen – "it's actually only Miele", says Mark (they're keen not to be branded too high-end) – has floor-to-ceiling windows and designer crockery. It leads on to a long, light-filled hallway with wooden joists that slice diagonally across the windows. All four double bedrooms sit in a row off the hall. They are filled with tricksy digital art that references Constable and Gainsborough, bespoke beds, bespoke carpets and more geometric woodwork. All have en suite showers, and two have baths by the foot of the bed.

But it's the large living space that opens out at the end of corridor – the bit that hangs off the edge – that provides the wow-factor I'd been waiting for. A huge floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooks woods, meadows and a pond. And taking up most of the floor, like a large rug, is a glass window with a big drop below.

The room is spare. A TV is hidden away, shelves are empty except for one groaning with de Botton's entire works. It reminds me of a lobby of an advertising agency.

"We want people to take away ideas when they come and stay," says Mark. But I wonder whether spending a week here would instil in me a love of modern architecture. For all its showmanship, the Balancing Barn is a cold space, and a little isolated. Once inside and enjoying your break, it would be easy to forget its extrenal appearance.

How will they ensure that a wide range of people stay in their houses? In short, they're not sure. "There is a risk that only the demographic already interested in modern architecture will be drawn to them," Mark says. "But I think the interest is there. We're not trying to shock people – we've received lots of encouraging comments from locals and passers-by."

A few miles away on the coast is the Dune House, an altogether more inviting prospect. The location is sublime. It sits on a shingle beach a five-minute stroll from Thorpeness, with views of empty dunes, the beach, the North Sea and a vast sky.

The ground floor walls are almost entirely made of glass, the dunes rising up to the window ledges on the sides, giving the impression you are nestled within them. The first floor is clad in black timber, and the roof has four asymmetrical peaks clad in a rust-coloured steel. But it doesn't look out of place: the pointy roof and the steel are designed to mimic the terracotta tiles and gables on neighbouring roofs.

Inside, like the Balancing Barn, it's minimalist, but here it feels cosy and simple, softer somehow. Mark shows us round, saying architecty things such as "cupboards would have destroyed the space". Personally, I quite like cupboards. But instead, the four upstairs bedrooms each contain just a double bed, a freestanding bath located at just the right height for sea-gazing, and lots of pegs on the timber-lined walls to hang stuff. Downstairs, it's largely open plan, with a dining table, and a sofa huddled round a dramatic sunken pit. You can walk outside straight on to the beach.

The house, which opens in December, is designed by Norwegian architects Jarmund/Vigsnaes, apparently known for their "creative responses to the highly seasonal Nordic landscape". I think this means their houses are good in cold weather, and the Dune House is furnished with under-floor heating and a cosy log-burning stove to stave off those chilly easterly winds. It's a house to hunker down in, to get out the Scrabble and whisky, light the stove and settle in for the night with a gale blowing outside.

A few days later, I'm off to Kent. The Shingle House is a modern take on a wooden fisherman's cottage on other-worldly Dungeness beach in Kent, and opens next month. Actual fishermen live next door, fourth generation. It's practically my dream house: simple lime-washed timber walls, vintage furniture, four cosy bedrooms that sleep eight, sunken bath, wood-burning stove and a snug mezzanine with a huge window that overlooks the eerie landscape out to sea and, on a clear day, France.

The house is designed by young and hip NORD Architecture in Glasgow. It is the least architecturally demanding of the three, yet I took more delight in its clever details. The internal courtyard with slatted screens that pivot so you can angle them against the ever-present wind; and the fact that each room is designed around the time of day it catches the sun.

The existing cottage, complete with smoke house, was demolished. The Shingle House has been built on the same footprint to keep the planners happy, who wanted to retain the appearance of three separate buildings.

It's understandable: there are no holiday homes on Dungeness to speak of, and residents are fiercely protective of their beautiful, hostile landscape. It's a desolate expanse, dotted with boats and huts and a couple of lighthouses, overlooked by Dungeness power station. Tourists come to stare at Derek Jarman's garden, a stone's throw away.

Two more holiday homes open next year: the first, a medieval hall-type structure with a vast timber roof in Cockthorpe, Norfolk, designed by Michael and Patty Hopkins; the second, a monastic retreat in concrete near Salcombe, south Devon, by Peter Zumthor. After that, they plan to open one a year.

Guests staying in these extraordinary new houses may well be designers, architects and creative types from London. Or Living Architecture may succeed in its laudable aim of finding a wider audience. But either way, they are a welcome addition to the UK holiday home scene.

• Living Architecture (living-architecture.co.uk). Prices for a four-night mid-week break start from £725 (the Balancing Barn), £625 (the Shingle House) and £760 (the Dune House)


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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