The Davidson Prize is an annual design ideas competition recognising the transformative architecture of the home which aims to celebrate innovative design ideas, to encourage multi-disciplinary collaboration and to promote compelling visual communication. Yearly, entrants are asked to consider a different aspect of the home, the theme of the second annual prize was ‘Co-Living – A New Future?’. In this Interview we spoke with Charles Holland of Charles Holland Architects whom, in collaboration with Quality of Life Foundation, Verity-Jane Keefe and Joseph Zeal-Henry, developed the winning entry “Co-Living in the Countryside”, a project which is sited on a typical site allocated by the South Downs National Park Authority and combines owner-adaptation, customisation and personal choice with a community-based governance model, allowing for individuals to co-exist while sharing resources, skills and spaces.
KOOZ What prompted the participation in the Davidson Prize?
CH The prize and its theme of co-living offered the chance to bring together a number of ideas we have been thinking about for a while to do with the rural, the paucity of new housing in rural areas, and the relationship of rurality to modernism and contemporary culture. Both the practice and the studio that I teach at the University of Brighton have been researching an alternative history of experimental rural housing and this seemed a chance to put some of that research into practice. Moreover, the competition offered the opportunity to work with people we admire and who have complimentary interests which led us to initiate a team that included: urbanist Joseph Zeal-Henry, artist Verity-Jane Keefe and the Quality of Life Foundation.
KOOZ What is for you the value of design competitions centered on the power of ideas?
CH We like buildings but we also like ideas. We are practising architects but this felt like a space to speculate on an architectural brief that doesn’t exist in the reality of the housing market right now. This is a chance to say; in what other ways can we design rural houses? How can we significantly improve what’s currently on offer? What is a rural architecture today? Only an ideas completion allows you the chance to speculate beyond the kind of briefs an architect can conceivably work on right now.
How do we build new communities in the countryside? How can the architecture of those communities help to enable a more diverse, richer way of life?
KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?
CH The central question we are asking is: how do we build new communities in the countryside? How can the architecture of those communities help to enable a more diverse, richer way of life? Our proposal addresses a number of issues that feel very pressing today: sustainability, ecology, affordability, loneliness, car-dependency and diversity being the most obvious. The current model of rural housing leads to small, atomised communities on the edge of existing settlements that offer very limited choice, are expensive and based on increasingly redundant demographic structures.
We are also interested in how housing can better reflect a plurality of lifestyles and tastes, offer residents more control and input into their environment and share facilities such as child care, garden spaces, home working spaces and transport.
KOOZ What references (projects, texts etc) informed the project and how did these inform your approach to co-housing?
CH We have looked at a number of experimental housing models including co-operative schemes such as The Ryde in Hatfield, plotland communities, the ‘wild siedlung’ of interwar Europe, Tayler and Green’s rural social housing from the 1950s and 60s, self-build schemes as well as more conventional suburban and rural typologies. We are interested in exploring the radical qualities of the rural as much as the bucolic, the fact that historically it has provided a space for experimental ideas and ways of living. Colin Ward’s writing on Plotlands and allotments has been an important source of reference and we have drawn on the research into Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes (CPUL) by colleagues at the University of Brighton Andre Viljoen and Katrin Bohn.
We are interested in exploring the radical qualities of the rural as much as the bucolic, the fact that historically it has provided a space for experimental ideas and ways of living.
KOOZ Through what tools does the project approach and address issues of community, character, governance, affordability, sustainability, employment, health and wellbeing?
CH Our proposal is concerned with both spatial/design issues and the economic and organisational policies that underpin them. So spatially we have developed a flexible and adaptable housing typology that facilitates the sharing of spaces and activities such as cooking, home working and gardening. Different units can be adapted in different ways allowing families to expand, friends or relatives to come and stay or small businesses to start up. But we are also interested in addressing the underlying development models of how such a typology can be funded and managed over time.
KOOZ How do you imagine the shared facilities informing the way the community interacts and develops over time?
CH We imagine an organic, semi-wild architecture that adapts and evolves - the way that rural architecture has done historically - responding to circumstance, need and opportunity. Governance is also key so that shared facilities are managed and stay shared. Simple ideas such as an additional unit that allows relatives and friends to stay easily are provided along with the ability to expand and adapt individual units. So it offers a combination of individual freedom and collective responsibility, an open-endedness combined with a cooperative shared governance structure that maintains certain fundamental principles: a kind of collectivised anarchy.
KOOZ How does the architectural language act as a facilitator for this?
CH The language is initially simple - timber framed single storey units offering 2/3/4 bed housing - but allows for adaptation, addition and embellishment over time. We see a simple structure that gets richer. Much of the countryside is already like this - a hybrid landscape of businesses, homes, agriculture and industry - but our proposal condenses this into a new, rural typology.
There is an ecological underpinning to this too. We are very interested in the types of landscape described by Colin Ward in his writing on the early twentieth century plot lands. This is a landscape of gardens and small holdings, a slightly messy but productive landscape very different to either the bucolic rural idyll of popular imagination or the reality of highly mechanised agri-business. The landscape we are interested in is one where different uses co-exist, where habitats and eco-systems are preserved and enhanced. It is neither a sanitised nor an obliterated version of nature.
Architects can imagine new worlds and propose alternatives linked to how architecture can enable and give spatial expression to new ways of living together.
KOOZ What is for you the power of the architectural imaginary?
CH Architects can imagine new worlds and propose alternatives to current practice and reality. For us these alternatives are not purely formal but are linked to how architecture can enable and give spatial expression to new ways of living together. It is easy in a sense to summon up a seemingly convincing picture of something that doesn’t exist but we are interested in the political, economic and cultural circumstances of how you can make it actually happen.
Charles Holland Architects is an international architecture and design studio.Their work is multi-disciplinary in scope and includes buildings, exhibitions, public art and urban design as well as teaching and research. The studio works at a variety of scales from that of the the city masterplan to the domestic interior and for public, private and residential clients. They have worked for clients including the National Trust, the British Council, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the London Borough of Croydon. Current projects include a major new public space in south London, a number of new houses, a public artwork on the North Downs Way and a forthcoming exhibition at the RIBA.
Alongside his practice activities Charles is involved in teaching, writing and research. He is a Professor of Architecture at the University of Brighton and a Visiting Professor at the ABK in Stuttgart. He is a member of Design Review Panels for Harrow and Design South East and is an External Examiner at University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury. He writes regularly about architecture and design and contributes to numerous other publications and industry forums.