Mindfulness was a popular buzzword of 2019. But is it really possible to unwind whilst surrounded by the hustle and bustle of modern city life? We're not entirely convinced, so we took a short break last December to explore a new-ish architectural addition to the rolling hills of Llanbister, Mid-Wales.
Life House is designed by John Pawson and was completed in 2018 for the non-for-profit organisation Living Architecture. The organisation promotes the advantages of living in a properly conceived modern home, by offering a range of contemporary holiday properties around the UK, designed and created by leading Architects and Artists.
Although ourselves and the other guests on our break travelled from different parts of the UK, we all had the same thought on the way... Why are we disturbing our peaceful Christmas holiday to travel to a house in a remote hillside location? As soon as you open the front door all becomes clear: A high quality minimalist environment like this has the power to lift your mood instantly. With no adornments or visual clutter, your eyes are left to appreciate pure material quality and space.
Inside Life House, lengthy contrasting brick corridors, with floor-to-ceiling doors, connect generous living spaces; consisting of a living/dining room, library bedroom, music bedroom, bathing bedroom and a contemplation room. A limited palette of John Pawson's favourite materials are used throughout all the spaces. Floors are made from a warm tone terrazzo, which gently radiates heat from underneath. The external and interior walls are constructed from 80,000 handmade Danish bricks in a dark charcoal (exterior and interior) or light beige tone (interior only). Both the terrazzo and bricks are cleverly extruded in multiple directions to form new uses and spaces: A bath surround, seating areas, sinks, consoles and even a place for your shampoo in the shower - to name a few. The application of a clear gloss sealant to the bricks in 'wet' areas adds another understated finish.
Doors, ceilings and the bespoke joinery throughout the house is exclusively crafted from solid Douglas Fir wood. A subtle white oil finish maintains a freshly cut aesthetic and stops it from darkening with age. Douglas Fir has a very characterful grain and brings an unpredictable contrast to the homogeneous terrazzo.
To soften the palette of hard materials, delicate sheer curtains diffuse the view through the windows. When darkness is required, luxuriously thick felt curtains overlap them. At dusk, picture windows frame the sky and the sun paints the house interior in deep orange ethereal light. Ambient natural light is also brought into internally facing bathrooms through roof windows, which washes down the wall and is complimented by artificial illumination from the same source point. The combination ensures dramatic and dynamic light and shade at all times.
As a new day dawns, thoughts turn to enjoying the outside landscape. Although this can easily be done from the comfort of a bath, the Welsh hills are scarcely interrupted by buildings and invite exploration. The setting of Life House is as important as the building itself and the house orients its key vistas towards the valley floor below.
At the start of a small track leading to the house entrance, stands a small engraved slate monolith with simply the words 'Life House' and below 'Tŷ Bywyd' for Cymraeg speakers.
It doesn't take long to realise that this is free-roaming sheep country. Officially there are 3.7 sheep per person in Wales. In Llanbister we found it more like 20 to 1. It took over an hours walk to find another human: A hotelier, who we convinced to open up for a few afternoon beverages.
Although most of the area is farmland, there are also large swathes of the landscape left to its own devices. It's easy to imagine the rough grasslands are teeming with life.
As the Winter sun fast disappears, it's time to retreat to the comfort of Life House and watch Red Kites gracefully hover in search of careless rodents. Changes in farming practices and environmental protections have helped this bird recover from near extinction only 20 years ago. We were lucky enough to spot 4 pairs directly from the living room windows.
Now it's two years old, Life House has started softening into its landscape. The environment is gradually applying a muted natural patina to the austere exterior. Small unintentional flourishes like moss covered masonry, help the house take on the true spirit of its title.
The contemplation room at the end of the dark corridor completes the homage to bricks. Mainly buried into the hillside, the room is furthest away from the entrance and provides a quiet place of reflection. There is one large window in the roof which opens up to reveal the night sky. Two brick 'beds' appear to hover off the ground, on which you can lie with pony hide pillows and blankets. It's best to keep the hides on the beds - we found it didn't take long for a comfort craving stealthy sighthound to sniff them out.
We'll leave it there, as we want to keep some of the house a mystery. Why not make your own visit and enjoy a bit of tranquillity yourself.
If there's one key design takeaway from this minimalist home, it's that less is more. Or at least ensure you have enough closed storage to convince yourself of your monastic principles! A dwelling with an outlook this alluring deserves furniture and objects which are quiet and beautiful.