A House for Essex is the ultimate in interiors inspiration in the county, and with summer stays now available, Absolutely Essex takes a closer look at the unique project
Living Architecture’s project, A House for Essex – a daring and provocative collaboration between FAT Architecture and Grayson Perry – launched back in 2015 to plenty of fanfare. The house, which is situated in Wrabness close to the Essex coast, is an extraordinary work of architecture and art, which provides a setting for a number of specially-commissioned works by Grayson Perry exploring the unique qualities of Essex.
A House For Essex was conceived as a landmark in the tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels. Like a pilgrimage chapel, the house is dedicated to a saint – in this case a secular one by the name of Julie Cope – and gives architectural expression to her life.
The design relates to a number of influences including Stave churches, arts and crafts houses and English baroque architecture. Charles Holland of FAT Architecture has described the building as ”a radical statement about architecture and its capacity for narrative and communication. The design embraces decoration, ornament and symbolism in order to tell a rich and complex story. Formally, it is like a Russian doll, a series of archetypal house shapes that step up in scale as the building descends the hill”.
The interior features a number of Grayson Perry’s handmade ceramic pots and tapestries depicting the fictional life of Julie, described by the artist as an ‘Essex Everywoman’. Visitors to the house pass through a series of unfolding spaces before entering the chapel, concealed behind two ‘hidden’ doors. The chapel itself is organised around a striking decorative object – part medieval rood screen, part baroque façade – that frames a ceramic statue of Julie herself. Upstairs the two bedrooms – with views to east and west – have walk-through cupboards that lead to internal balconies overlooking the chapel space.
The exterior, clad in more than 1,900 green and white ceramic tiles, are cast from originals made by Perry, depicting Julie as mother and icon, along with symbols associated with her life. She appears again, on the roof in the manner of a giant weather vane in addition to a beautifully cast ceramic chimney pot, wheel sculpture and beacon.
On the project, Grayson Perry says: “When Living Architecture offered me the opportunity to collaborate with FAT it was a golden chance to realise a long held ambition to build a secular chapel. Charles Holland and I batted ideas back and forth until a bonkers yet dignified design emerged glistening. The resulting building is a total art work, a fiction in which you can live, a digital age shrine and a homage to Charles’ and my home county. I hope the people who stay in the House for Essex find it playful yet monumental, cosy and maybe slightly disturbing. It is a three dimensional musing on religion, local history, feminism, happiness and death.”
Charles Holland adds: “The house is a striking object in its setting, but one that also has formal resonance. It is like a richly encrusted and highly decorated barn, with a healthy dose of Essex bling thrown in. Ultimately, it is a built story with something of the qualities of a fairy
tale and you come across it as an unlikely, somewhat fantastic surprise. Like Grayson, I was born and brought up in Essex so the house is both fiction and autobiography.”
A House for Essex will be available to rent on a short-term holiday basis, and can sleep up to four people in two bedrooms. Mark Robinson, director at Living Architecture, invited Absolutely in to tell us a little more about the unique project that everyone has the opportunity to stay in.
What’s the thought process behind Living Architecture?
Living Architecture was founded by Alain de Botton, to create a number of one-off architect designed homes for holiday letting, enabling people to experience contemporary architecture first-hand, by having the chance to stay in them for a few days. At the time, such homes were generally privately owned, with little opportunity to see them, let alone stay in one.
How did the idea for A House for Essex originally form?
The collaboration came about through a conversation between Grayson Perry and Alain de Botton. Grayson had in-mind the idea of creating a living shrine to an Essex every-woman, and Alain thought we could help achieve this through Living Architecture.
How was it working with Grayson Perry on the project?
While Grayson had proposed the idea, when it came to going forward, he was already very busy with many other projects, therefore it was a while before he could fully focus on it. Once he was fully engaged, it proved to be a hugely enjoyable process, and all those involved were committed to making it happen.
It is described as a ‘daring and provocative’ collaboration with FAT Architecture. Why?
FAT Architecture was seen by many in the architecture world as ‘outsiders’, with clients maybe a little afraid of what they might get if they hired them. Living Architecture had always admired their design ambition and wit, and thought they would be a good match with Grayson. Charles Holland (one of the three co-founders of FAT) was also from Essex, therefore had an immediate affinity with Grayson and the county.
Who is Julie Cope?
Julie is a woman born in Canvey Island in 1953, during the great floods; grew up and worked in Essex until her untimely death in 2014 – for Grayson she represents the women he encountered throughout his own years in Essex, who lived their lives: childhood, adolescence, marriage, children, divorce, education, marriage…
How would you describe the interior design?
Is the chapel the centrepiece of the project?
It is, here you see the whole of Julie’s life in the one space, with two tapestries designed by Grayson that portray her birth and growing up in Basildon, and meeting her first husband Dave and having two children – her subsequent divorce, going to college to gain an education, and then meeting Rob, who following her death on Colchester High Street, by curry delivery moped, builds the House for Essex as a shrine to her.
There is a larger-than-life ceramic figure of Julie set into an alcove, facing three large ceramic pots, all made by Grayson, with motifs depicting periods in Julie’s life. A ceiling covered in original prints, from which is hanging the curry delivery moped, now converted to ‘chandelier’.
How would you describe the exterior?
As a ceramic and gold jewel sitting in the Essex landscape.
Do you have a favourite element of the project?
The favourite element for me is showing people around the house and telling them the story of Julie – for many people it can be very overwhelming and something they have not experienced or had access to before; it often gives them pause to reflect on their own lives.
It has become something of an Essex landmark – how does that make you feel?
For all involved, from the local builders to Grayson, Charles and Living Architecture, we are all in awe of what was achieved, and how it has become embedded in the Essex landscape – we are very proud!