A show-stopping self-build

Graham Phillips spent 33 years working with architect Norman Foster, but it was designing his own show-stopping house that taught him his biggest lessons.

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You may not have heard of Graham Phillips, but chances are you know his house. Since completion, it has become architecture's answer to Kate Moss, appearing in ads, catalogues, pop videos and more. Thierry Henry pondered the nature of va-va-voom in the living room for his Renault Clio ad. Victoria Beckham did a shoot there for the Spice Girls (while David waited, kicking a ball with Graham's son).

'The house has helped to pay for itself,' says Graham, who estimates it has hosted 1,000 days of shoots over the past 10 years. And it's easy to see why. Set in four and a half acres of ancient woodland, Skywood House, as Graham has named it, appears to float above its man-made lake like an apparition. It also offers a masterclass in architecture's power to excite and inspire, creating the thrill of space and light that you normally get in a cathedral, only with better views.

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'The house is an exploration in planes,' says Graham. 'It sits on a plinth the same thickness as the roof, and the walls zoom in and out between these two planes. It's not a box with windows cut into it.' The minimalist design is inspired by Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, who Graham has admired since he studied architecture in the Sixties. And of course, it's also influenced by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster, with whom Graham worked for 33 years, setting up his Hong Kong office and eventually becoming chief executive of the practice.

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Graham and his wife Diane bought the plot in 1991 and spent five years on the design, during which Graham had a eureka moment, which he says was 'almost like a religious experience'. The breakthrough relates to how the mind reads a building, and provides a valuable lesson for any self-builder. As he explains: 'If you put a cube on a pedestal, the mind sees it quickly, even though it can't see all the sides. So with a building, the more you can simplify the geometry, so that the human eye can recognise the simple planes, the more it becomes a joy. When you can see a wall for what it is – as something freestanding – the mind understands it quickly, and you get a spark. We are surrounded by built mess, like the equivalent of the kid's bedroom, so when you visually tidy up, the effect is remarkable.'

To this end, Graham's home is like a very big house of cards – a series of planes that seem to balance on each other. It's light in appearance, but technically complex, with the reinforced-concrete chimney breast providing a structural spine that supports the open-plan space, and everything based on multiples of 60x60cm, so that the walls and tiles and built-in storage all sit flush, with no irregular shapes. The result is a house that feels much bigger than its 250 square metres. 'Most people who come to Skywood think it's light and airy,' says Graham. Oddly, though, some say they couldn't live there. 'It mustn't strike them as being very conducive to living, because it's got a huge glass wall with no curtains.'

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The trick, he says, is to use more lighting outside (by the trees, and concealed in the louvres above the terrace) than inside, so that the glazed wall seems to disappear at night. But his favourite experience is returning to the house at night.

As you drive through the gates, there is a clearing, where the lake and house spread out before you. With the red column in the living room illuminated, soft blue uplighting, and a globe light on the ground resembling a mini-moon, it's like his very own Joan Miró painting in 3D. 'I'm telling you, there's nothing like it in the world,' Graham says.

Alan, who’s a tutor at Queen’s University in Belfast, has been studding the local landscape with modern buildings since returning to Ireland from London with his family in the late Nineties. He bought this plot for £55,000 and spent the next two years, and £250,000, creating what can only be described as an architectural anomaly. As fellow architect and friend Patrick Lynch says, ‘It’s completely bonkers.’ The house hovers, dark and menacing, over the landscape. Its arrow-slit windows and jagged profile conjure up thoughts of armour, battles and even Darth Vader. Despite this apparent nonconformity, it also sits comfortably within its landscape; at night, it almost disappears. ‘In scale it matches the front elevation of the neighbouring Masonic hall,’ says Alan, ‘while the form, with its pitched roof and gable presented to the road, follows local traditions.’

The graphite-blue fibre-cement tiles that clad the exterior are indigenous to the area, appearing on a number of pub extensions and a police station in Belfast. ‘I was impressed with the way the material dappled with age,’ says Alan. ‘Our tiles have only a 10-year guarantee. We could repaint, but I like the idea of them fading, as if the building will shed its darkness as it becomes more accepted within the community.’ The house has the air of an impenetrable fortress yet, in common with many of Alan’s projects, there is a complete contrast between the exterior and interior. Stepping from the porch through the large glass front door, you are struck by the light, airy and playful interior. The ground floor consists of a large open space, roughly dissected into a formal living room, dining room, kitchen and TV area. The room partitions vary in height and angle, allowing views through the entire length of the interior and also providing blind spots for privacy. If the communal aspect gets too much, the TV area can be completely shut off from the kitchen, thanks to discreet built-in doors. ‘Spatially, my work has become a lot less formal since my days in London,’ says Alan. ‘The spaces were very precise, whereas here it’s as if you’ve taken the architectural tray and given it a good shake.’

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