Modern Classic



Built to perch on brick walls and made of steel and timber, this house is a chic example of modernist architecture from the sixties.

It is surprising how many of the architects who built houses for themselves in the Sixties are still living in them. Jack and Esme Bonnington moved into Ferrum House, Harpenden in 1963, with their two children, and it looks as clean and fresh now as it did in early photographs. The house was quite famous in its time, and in 1966 the House & Garden Book of Modern Houses and Conversions not only put it on the cover, but led with a 12-page description of the design.

In 1963, Jack was a partner of Sir Basil Spence, designer of Coventry Cathedral, with a busy practice in England, Scotland and overseas. The Bonningtons started their married life in a very small flat in Friern Barnet, and when their second child arrived, it was time to set their sights on something larger. They found their plot in the grounds of a late Victorian country house on the fringes of Harpenden Common.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic2 Only once you have been in the house for a while do you begin to understand the cleverness of the design of both the house and garden, for a calm order imposes itself on the potentially chaotic surroundings. If you believe that logic and simplicity in architecture make life less complicated, here is a house to demonstrate the point. It is not just that the forms are all rectangular, but that everything is designed with the right kind of economy, resulting in effects that are generous and unfussy.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic3Fundamentally, the house is a steel box held up on a simple skeleton of walls. It is a design that could be demonstrated using a few playing cards and a steady hand. On the table, as it were, lies a card made of Portland Stone paving, which passes between the inside and the outside. You walk over this paving, under a deep overhang, to reach the front door, where the entrance hall offers a transparent view through to the garden.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic4 A void beneath the raised living space originally made the structure even more permeable, but this was later used to create an extra downstairs room. The floating steel box is faced with floor-to-ceiling windows or vertical cedar boarding, and the same boarding forms the roof surface and cladding for external walls throughout the interior. The yellow brick reappears indoors, neatly aligned with the structural walls beneath.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic5Raised main living spaces, as seen here, were a popular habit in post-war houses in Britain and America alike, giving a greater sense of occasion even to quite a small house and in this instance preserving the tree roots. The staircase makes a minimal intrusion on the living space, rising quietly alongside a wall of brick, and bringing your feet onto the white glass mosaic floor that unifies the upper level and reflects the light and adds a feeling of rather un-English luxury.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic6 You arrive first in the dining area, which is connected to the kitchen, only partially screened by a small breakfast bar. The living room, reached by passing either side of the stair, is planned on a grand scale, with three separate sitting areas and an outlook in two directions, including a view down a rectangular pond.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic7Beyond the central dividing wall are the living areas, well provided with a line of storage cupboards. The furniture is a feast for retro-modernists, but rather than being painstakingly collected from dealers in midcentury-modern antiques, it was all bought as new and has simply stayed in place ever since.

An extension was built around 1970, to provide more room for the growing family. But rather than being similarly poised in the air, the new sections provided space on the ground and first floors alike. I asked Jack Bonnington whether anything of Basil Spence had rubbed off in the design, and while recognising affinities, he traced the general idea to the USA, where he had worked in the mid-Fifties. Whilst there, he was able to visit some Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and get a sense of the breadth of modern domestic planning, rather different to the convoluted plans favoured even by Modernists in Britain.

theselfbuilder_modernclassic8The abstract simplicity of the steel box on its brick supports inevitably makes one think of Mies van der Rohe, a hero for many young architects in the post-war period. Ferrum House is a listed building, and if the planners would let you, you could do worse than build something like this again today.

Words: Alan Powers Photography: Jefferson Smith

Useful Contacts

Architect: David Brain Partnership
Baufritz (uk) Ltd
Consulting civil and structural engineers:
Ground contractors: Dellow Construction Ltd
Basement construction:
Glatthaar Fertigkeller
Fitted frurniture:
Frank Neubrand
Johnny Grey
Fisher and Paykel
Concrete worktops:
Cast Advanced Concretes
Lava Stone:
Polished plaster:
Polished Plaster Co
Lighting consultants:
Wow Lighting
Stairwell crystal light:
Cherry Windmill
Landscaping contractor:
James Wyne 01225 872 874
Decking: Grand Deck Designs
Outdoor furniture:
The Modern Garden Company

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