The Pragmatics of the Ideal Villa

During the Easter break, I revisited a house that I was familiar with from my childhood at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. As a teenager, I had a morning newspaper round and this particular house was at the far end of my round. At the time, I knew nothing at all about it, although it was clearly a little different from all the other suburban houses that I delivered to. It was the only house that had a flat roof and it reminded me of the newly built middle school that I had recently started at (and which I later realised was inspired by the CLASP/SCOLA system built schools of the 1960s).

Several years later, as a student at Portsmouth, I stumbled across an article on the house in the architecture library. It turned out to be an early published project by James Stirling and James Gowan that had been designed and built between 1955-57 for Gowan's brother in law, who was an artist, and his family.

(source: James Stirling: Buildings and Projects)

Stirling and Gowan were famously described by Ernesto Rogers as "the teddy boys of English architecture" and they exemplified the new confidence and increasing significance of a young generation of English architects in the 1950s. During this period, exploratory studies of a wide range of housing types formed an important aspect of their work. Although the Isle of Wight house was in fact designed by Gowan, without Stirling's input, and then brought into the newly formed practice to be published alongside their Ham Common project, it clearly demonstrates many of their shared preoccupations.

The single storey house is located on a long, rectangular plot, with the road to the west and a golf course at the rear to the east. An existing stone wall which marked the former boundary of the substantial estate of Northwood House runs along the west boundary. The house is positioned about half way back on the site, well behind the building line of properties on either side, and occupies almost the full width of the plot. It is based on a symmetrical H shaped plan, creating two small courtyards, with the sides of the H facing the front and back gardens. The elevational treatment is characterised by simple brick panels alternating with full height windows.

In publications of the time, the house was described as being 1,600 sq ft (149 sqm). However, this figure is misleading as it includes the two courtyards and obscures the very compact scale of the house. The internal floor area is actually only 1,005 sq ft (93 sqm). No rooms have a width of more than 10ft and corridors are a minimal 2ft 6in (0.750m) wide.

(image © Russell Light) downloadable model

The house has been described by Mark Crinson as an "essay in Palladian modernism". In an interview in 2008 with Ellis Woodman, Gowan has indicated that the main inspiration was Wittkower's 'Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism' and the concrete block houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. Another key influence would have been Colin Rowe's 'The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa', which had been published in the Architectural Review in 1947. Rowe had been Stirling's tutor at Liverpool University and remained an important mentor throughout Stirling's career. His radical essay had demonstrated the similarities that existed between the modernism of Le Corbusier and the classicism of Palladio in their use of geometric proportioning systems, despite being separated by 400 years.

A regular 5ft by 10ft grid creates the underlying order to the perfectly square plan, with a wider bay of 8ft 2in (10ft minus twice the wall thickness) on the central axis of the two courtyards. The floor to ceiling is 7ft 6in giving a ratio of 3:4 with the width of the rooms. Externally, the height of the 5ft bays is based on the golden section, which determines the geometric proportions of the brick piers and windows. The golden section similarly determines the fixed glazing of the windows, with narrow opening vents between. A quick calculation reveals that the relationship of the grid dimensions of 8ft 2in to 5ft, is also very close to the proportions of the golden section.

The house, which was to be built as cheaply as possible, also demonstrates an interest in the use of very simple constructional elements and a restricted palette of materials. Stirling and Gowan made much of the fact that the house would be easy for any local builder to construct, but they were also concerned that the visual logic of the construction was explicit. This can be seen in the elemental fireplace, which is formed from a brick surround and pairs of exposed in-situ concrete lintels, which hold up a cylindrical concrete flue made from sections of standard pipe.

Surface finishes were almost completely avoided. The pale sandlime brickwork of the external walls was exposed inside and out. Internal partitions were of bare fair-faced concrete blockwork. Timber floors, ceilings, windows and doors were all left unpainted and simply treated where necessary with a clear matt varnish. This meant there was no distinction between the internal and external surfaces, creating a strong continuity between the main courtyard and the internal spaces that opened on to it.

A detail that made a particular impression on me as a student was the waste pipe of the kitchen sink that was positioned symmetrically to one of the full height windows, so that it was deliberately expressed externally and became part of the overall composition. A similar preoccupation can be seen in the obvious determination with which the boiler flue is placed on the central axis.

The house was reviewed by J.M. Richards in the AJ in July 1958, as part of his regular series 'Criticism'. The article praised the unity of the design and "the forthrightness of expression that obviously appeals to these architects - the idea of everything being no more and no less that what it seems to be..."

Richards also discussed the merits of using a modular system in such a small scale domestic project and the orientation of the main courtyard to the north, rather than south. At a detail level, he questioned the simple butted junctions of the timber ceilings and floors to the brick piers, which gave the unintended impression that the brickwork sat on the floor boards and was terminated by the ceiling.

The format of 'Criticism' allowed the architects to respond in the following week's edition of AJ. Stirling and Gowan used this opportunity to point out that:

"the design was not based so much on a modular system as he described, but on a very simple structural technique; brick pier, timber trimmer and standard roof joists in conjunction with a series of repetitive window and door elements."

Highlighting their interest in the aesthetics of the details and junctions, they did acknowledge that further refinements might be necessary where the ends of the ceiling boards ran straight into the brickwork, suggesting "the remedy may be to curtail the ceiling boarding or to introduce a transitional element so that the brickwork is distinct and primary."

Stirling and Gowan's practice was short lived, as in 1963 they decided to go their separate ways, when the creative tension that characterised their working relationship became something more destructive. However, Stirling's continuing affection for the Cowes house (or possibly his willingness to appropriate Gowan's work) is evident in his project for the Roma Interrotta competition of 1978. Stirling's entry shows the continuing influence of Rowe, who had by then just completed his enormously influential book 'Collage City'. The submission deliberately recycled many of Stirling's built and unbuilt projects, juxtaposing them as uncompromisingly modern urban elements against the historic Nolli plan of 1748. In contrast to the large scale and dense urbanism that characterises much of the project is a more pastoral landscape, located outside of the historic city walls. In the middle of a lake, around which are placed some of the Stirling and Gowan housing studies, is a miniature Isle of Wight on which the distinctive H plan of the Cowes house can be clearly identified. Stirling even seems to have taken one of J.M. Richard's criticisms on board, as the main courtyard now faces south.

James Stirling - Roma Interrotta competition entry, detail.

Sadly, in recent years the house has been substantially altered and extended, almost beyond recognition, with the addition of a pitched roof, dormer bedrooms and rear extension. The repositioning of the front door also suggests that the unusual fireplace in the living room, which Gowan has described as constructivist, must have been removed. Whilst the small size of the house, the large plot and its location in a desirable area, meant that it was almost inevitable that the property would be enlarged, it could surely have been done with a greater sympathy for the original intentions.

All one can now discern from the present building is the fact that architectural ideas and drawings can often be more durable than mere bricks and mortar...

(photo © Russell Light, April 2011)


C. Rowe (1947) - 'The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa', in 'Architectural Review', March 1947 (also available on AR website). Republished in C. Rowe (1982) - 'The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays', MIT.

J. M. Richards (1958) - 'Criticism: House near Cowes, Isle of Wight designed by James Stirling and James Gowan', in 'Architects' Journal', 24. July 1958, pp 119-122.

J. Stirling and J. Gowan (1958) - 'Criticism: The Architects Reply', in 'Architects' Journal', 31. July 1958, p 157.

A. Korn (1959) - 'The Work of James Stirling and James Gowan', in 'The Architect and Building News', 7 January 1959, pp 8-23.

D. Boyne and L. Wright (1962) - 'Architect's Working Details 9', Arch. Press, pp 70-71.

M. Graves (ed) (1979) - 'Roma Interrotta', in 'Architectural Design', Profile 20, No.3-4, 1979.

P Arnell and T. Bickford (eds) (1984) - 'James Stirling: Buildings and Projects', Arch. Press, pp56-56.

M. Crinson (2007) - 'Picturesque and Intransigent: 'Creative Tension' and Collaboration in the Early House Projects of Stirling and Gowan', in 'Architectural History: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain', Vol. 50, pp 275-276.

E. Woodman (2008) - 'Modernity and Reinvention: The Architecture of James Gowan', Black Dog.