The Invis­i­ble Building

November 2020

What if we couldn’t see the build­ing on a site? This could be the task of archi­tects in the coun­try. Let’s make them invis­i­ble through dress­ing them in cloaks of green­ery. Like the mir­ror hous­es in Swe­den, where the green is reflect­ed every­where and seem invis­i­ble and yet are very obvi­ous­ly made of glass when they reflect the sun, or when the birds fly into them (observed by Jen­nifer Frewen). The house should be the tree perhaps.


The trees should take pref­er­ence with the land­scape, and birds and their nests, since we are tread­ing on their ter­ri­to­ry, rather than the oth­er way around. Why do we allow nature to be draped around the house as anoth­er com­mod­i­ty, just enough to bal­ance it with the square footage of the house itself.

Bur­wood, start­ing to merge with the landscape

The writer/​Architect Adolf Loos wrote: but the archi­tects have the wall.’ In a rant against design­ers and dec­o­ra­tors who obscured the wall with large fur­ni­ture items and dec­o­ra­tions. But now archi­tects have trees? Have archi­tects been afraid too long to rant and take sides and be moral­is­tic, rather than go with the flow? Has inno­va­tion and dar­ing tak­en over every­thing else?

I first wrote about hous­es and their place in the land­scape in 2015 and we are all mov­ing on: cli­mate cri­sis has prompt­ed an inter­est in sus­tain­able build­ing and solar pan­els and ground source heat pumps and oth­er alter­na­tives to fuel. How­ev­er, clients are still told to max­imise the m2 of the site. Scale, or lack of it is also an envi­ron­men­tal issue.

We need more aware­ness of the impact a build­ing has on its envi­ron­ment visu­al­ly dur­ing the day as well as at night. Before plan­ning per­mis­sion we encour­age clients to check the sight lines around their future home and con­sid­er the impact of it on the sur­round­ing land­scape. How much space is left around the build­ing for trees and nature? If not much one can reduce the space of the house per­haps: Could peo­ple sleep in small guest rooms? Could gue­strooms dou­ble as a study: does one need to have a large toi­let? Or is it more inter­est­ing to have a few large spaces that look larg­er because the sur­round­ing bed­rooms and loos are small­er. In the Alham­bra in Grena­da the Large Patios are con­nect­ed with small pas­sages: the con­trast makes the patios seem larger. 

The ear­ly mod­ern hous­es of Le Cor­busier, and E1027 by Eileen Gray and the Rietveld Schroed­er house were mod­est in scale. They explored a dif­fer­ent use of space: they dou­bling up func­tions, and used small­er fur­ni­ture in order to make the hous­es seem larg­er than they were. Eileen Grey used fold­able fur­ni­ture that could change in func­tion. Win­dows were used as an expan­sion of the inte­ri­or as well as to blur dis­tinc­tions between inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or. The Son­n­eveld House, for the direc­tor of the Van Nelle Fac­to­ry, built in 1933 by the firm Brinkman and van der Vlugt had all fur­ni­ture made: the fur­ni­ture is small and flex­i­ble and the house feels there­fore larg­er than it is. 



Tra­di­tion­al arts and crafts and cot­tages were also orig­i­nal­ly small and are blown up out of pro­por­tion to com­bine mod­ern wish­es; large pri­vate bath­rooms and kitchen islands, with the required arts and crafts look. The two don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly go togeth­er. Cot­tages are small by nature. Low thatched roofs look just right in a land­scape and don’t com­pete with the sur­round­ing trees. Scaled up, how­ev­er, they will always look wrong: too high, and odd­ly pro­por­tioned. [ Large coun­try hous­es were designed with the land­scap­ing around them and there were only a few. tra­di­tion­al­ly have enough land around them to bal­ance archi­tec­ture and nature.]

Tra­di­tion­al Cor­nish Cot­tage – new build, liv­ing in har­mo­ny with the sur­round­ings and with tra­di­tion­al materials. 


The last impact on the envi­ron­ment is light: make sure the win­dows have cur­tains at night. Dark­ness is nur­tur­ing for nature. Glow worms, bats and owls all thrive in the dark. 

After the cur­rent pan­dem­ic, where we had a glimpse of nature we hadn’t enjoyed in almost fifty years, peo­ple want to move to the coun­try­side. Please if you move to the coun­try try to not take too much of the city with you and look at the ele­ments of the coun­try you want to pre­serve and embrace before you com­mence building.