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A meeting of minds creates an architectural gem

Revealed by TV’s Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud as the 2015 winner of the coveted Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) House of the Year Award, Flint House resembles an Aztec temple sitting in the landscape it was designed to reflect. We meet the architect behind this stunning building.

The success of any architectural project hinges on the relationship between the client and the architect and this is even more crucial when it is a personal, rather than a corporate, scheme. Within a couple of minutes of talking to Charlotte Skene Catling, it is apparent that her alliance with Jacob Rothschild on the building of the Flint House was a true meeting of minds; not only creative and productive but also very trusting and collaborative.

As a scion of the great Rothschild banking dynasty, the fourth Baron is, of course, no stranger to either commissioning new buildings or restoring and revitalising old ones. Prior to Flint House, he had already won a RIBA award for The Windmill Hill archive on the Waddesdon estate and played a major part in restoring London’s Somerset and Spencer Houses.

A leading figure in the arts, as well as having inherited a vast collection, he is a collector, an art patron and has been Chair both of London’s National Gallery and the Pritzker Architecture Prize Committee. Although he is inevitably closely associated with the so-called ‘goût Rothschild’ and is well-versed in Old Masters, he loves to be adventurous and has a passion for a wide range of artists, from Chardin through Giacometti to Richard Long.

Charlotte Skene Catling

Charlotte is co-founder, along with her partner Jaime de la Peña, of the architecture firm SCDLP Skene Catling de la Peña but her route to this point was far from conventional. She first of all was going to train in medicine at Westminster and secured a place at Guys before giving it up to become an illustrator in New York where she also did some writing. Back in London she created the brand for Agent Provocateur.

Currently she collaborates with an architectural practice in Berlin as well as teaching in at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. She is evidently someone who does not believe in boundaries and is also exploring ideas both with Mark Springer on a musical art project and with the artist photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, who is a reader in Urban Aesthetics at the Royal College of Art.

Building Flint House into the natural bowl of the landscape

Skene Catling de la Peña originally came to the Flint House project through the architectural historian Colin Amery and their first encounter with the proposed site was on a bleak mid-winter day.

Charlotte tells us that it was not the most immediately promising prospect as it was a long narrow stretch of land with trees at either end which had originally accommodated a farmhouse and various barns knocked down in the 1970s.

What immediately struck her, however, was the way in which the ploughed field had thrown to the surface shards of flint. Although the exterior layer of these cherts is usually a creamy white, inside the nodule it can be a mix of b ways in which it had traditionally been used and the position of Waddesdon on a chalk seam that dissects the country from the Norfolk coast to the South Downs and the White Cliffs of Dover, Charlotte and team set about thinking how she they could use the flint to build into the natural bowl of the landscape.

Finding the right team

Her first task was to find the skilled craftsmen who not only could work with this material but would also be open to her new and innovative design. After much trial and error, Charlotte found David Smith through West Dean College and he and his young team worked alongside John Lord, a master flint knapper who has produced most of the hand-worked stone at his workshop in Norfolk.

Between them, they wrought graduated layers rooted in roughly hewn flint boulders at the base through to lighter flint, climaxing in perfect white planes of chalk at the summit.

Drawing on a range of architectural references

The finished house draws on a range of architectural references from Neolithic earthworks to Greek amphitheatres and Mayan ruins via the stepped silhouette of Casa Malaparte, the Modernist villa on Capri as seen in the 1960s cult movie Contempt by Jean-Luc Godard.

In terms of mood and surface, Charlotte also referred to the impasto-laden paintings of Frank Auerbach and Anselm Kiefer, combined with the richly romantic tones of a Rembrandt etching.

Flint House is situated on the Waddesdon Manor Estate, the focal point of which is the manor house built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild between 1874 and 1885 to display his outstanding collection of arts and ‘to delight a small circle of the Baron’s friends’.

Later generations have added their own touches to both house and landscape and now, managed by the Rothschild Foundation on behalf of the National Trust, the house and its collection welcomes nearly 400,000 visitors a year.

Visitors who, with the addition of the award-winning Flint House to the estate, will have yet another reason to come to this wonderfully rich heritage site.

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