Visual Culture

You Can Rent These 7 Stunning Modernist Homes by Famous Architects

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 13, 2018 10:07PM

MVRDV with Mole Architects, Balancing Barn, Suffolk. Photo © Jack Hobhouse.

Every deep, alabaster-white bathtub in the Dune House takes after a seashell. Their smooth, lustrous surfaces give way to cavities perfect for cradling warm water. It’s only natural, then, that bathing in one offers sweeping views of England’s blustery Suffolk coast, and the sea beyond it.

This setting might sound like the stuff of a billionaire’s home, but in fact, the Dune House is a vacation rental—one designed specifically with the goal of making daring, exquisite contemporary architecture accessible to more people.

The home is one of eight commissioned by Living Architecture, a company founded in 2006 by the renowned philosopher Alain de Botton. At the time, he’d recently penned a book titled The Architecture of Happiness, which mulled the impact of our dwellings on the human psyche. “An ugly room can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life,” he wrote in the introduction, “while a sun-lit one set with honey-colored limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us.”

It wasn’t enough for de Botton to simply write about the sundry ways in which design affects us, though; he wanted to bring his theories to life. And so he embarked on a mission to build rental homes commissioned by a number of the globe’s most forward-thinking architects. They would expose more people to contemporary architecture, he thought, and convince them of design’s power to make their lives better. “Our hope is that a holiday in a Living Architecture house will, in a modest but determined way, help to change the debate about what sort of houses we want to live in,” de Botton later wrote.

This past month, de Botton and his team completed Living Architecture’s final dwelling, the Secular Retreat. The company’s seven homes (one has been retired since erected) stretch across the United Kingdom, from Suffolk to Essex to Wales, and are designed by a range of international architecture firms, from Peter Zumthor to MVRDV, occasionally in concert with artists like Grayson Perry, Fiona Banner, and Hamish Fulton. Each can be rented for a relatively affordable £900 to £3,000 per week (the equivalent of around £50 to £200 per person per night, if a given rental is filled to capacity).

Below, we give you a glimpse into the homes, each marked with thoughtfully arranged details like sunken tubs, glass floors, biomorphic façades resembling dunes, and rooms designed specifically for quiet contemplation.

Secular Retreat

Architect: Peter Zumthor

Sleeps: 10

Location: South Devon


De Botton tapped Swiss, Pritzker Prize–winning architect Peter Zumthor to design this luminous home, situated on a hilltop plot purchased by Living Architecture some 10 years ago. Here, Zumthor’s creation puts the patchworked Devonshire landscape first: The glass-and-white-concrete structure has been positioned so that natural light floods each room, and its floor-to-ceiling windows and garland of terraces foreground views of sheep-studded farms and wooded knolls. “It has become rare to be able to sit in a house and look out at a beautiful landscape where no trace of another building interrupts the lines of the rolling hills,” wrote Zumthor. “I could not resist to try to create this house.”

The interior’s most charming details are made better by their proximity to large panes of glass. A writing desk tucked into a private nook looks out over a sea of verdure; so do each of the five beds, velvety pink stools, and an angular, deep-brown timber soaking tub. Furniture designed by Zumthor brings warmth to the space: It’s made from cinnamon-hued apple and cherry woods, or swathed in blush-colored fabrics. The loveliest, albeit subtlest facets of the house come in the form of the bedroom’s curtains, which are robin’s egg blue, to match the open skies surrounding the home.

Balancing Barn

Architect: MVRDV

Sleeps: 8

Location: Suffolk

A swing suspends from the bottom of this home, designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, half of which floats in in the air. The structure sits on the crest of a hill, in a bright-green meadow that once belonged to a farm owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. In committing to the project, the architects aimed to honor the plot’s history and its indigenous flora, while also adding their renowned playful spin.

The house’s balancing act—half suspended in air and half rooted in thick, swaying grass—emphasizes the rolling Suffolk landscape and allowed MVRDV to add some of the structure’s most charming details. The floating living room boasts panoramic windows and a glass floor, reminding inhabitants of their intimate position in nature. The swing hangs below, looking out over a glistening pond and a thick tumble of trees. The exterior of the home points to the site’s history as a farm; MVRDV encased it in reflective steel tiles recalling local metal-clad barns, which mirror the surrounding greenery. “One of the briefs was that this is a house for nature and in nature,” de Botton wrote of the project. Indeed, at certain angles, the dwelling looks green rather than silver, melting into the countryside.

Long House

Architect: Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins

Sleeps: 10

Location: Norfolk

A medieval manor, complete with a moat, once sat on the site of Long House, designed by Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins. This long-gone estate, and the history of building in East Anglia, fed the architects’ plans for the contemporary home they’d erect here. Ancient barns, churches, and walled manors of the region inspired Long House’s most defining feature: an exterior wall built from a mosaic of tawny, ecru, and silvery-grey stones, sourced from a local quarry. Above it, a frieze of windows hints at the luminous, high-ceilinged rooms within. A sprawling central common area comes complete with a library, a fireplace, and a timber spiral staircase resembling a giant, intricate bird cage. Large glass sliding doors flank these details and give way to the surrounding salt marshes and farmland, with its occasional grazing horses. The Hopkins team dotted the mostly grey and umber interior framework with delicious pops of candy color: turquoise dining room chairs and freestanding closets, bright-red stools, and rugs patterned with purple teardrops.

A House for Essex

Architect: FAT Architecture’s Charles Holland and Grayson Perry

Sleeps: 4

Location: Essex

Turner-prize winning artist Grayson Perry teamed up with FAT’s Charles Holland to concoct Living Architecture’s most flamboyant retreat. Part–trippy playhouse and part–Baroque shrine, Perry has referred to the confection as “the Taj Mahal on the river Stour.” The comparison is apt for several reasons. Like the Taj, A House for Essex stands gloriously out of the surrounding landscape. It’s also an extravagant mausoleum—albeit to a fictional character.

Perry and Holland, who both originally hail from Essex, worked from an unusual prompt. They envisioned a home dedicated to the memory of an imagined “Essex Everywoman,” Julie Cope, whose story they used to reflect the character and landscape of their homeland. “It is like a richly encrusted and highly decorated barn, with a healthy dose of Essex bling thrown in,” explained Holland. “Ultimately, it is a built story with something of the qualities of a fairy tale.”

There is a devotional quality to the building: Holland and Perry looked to age-old pilgrimage chapels as they planned its exterior framework. Tall roofs and a long façade are encrusted with ornamentation—including sculptures and tiles depicting Cope’s likeness—honoring the architects’ secular patron saint. Inside, a colorful cacophony of sculptures, paintings, floor mosaics, and furniture tells the story of one woman’s long, colorful life in Essex. Charming, eccentric details reflect Cope’s imagined proclivities, while offering vacationers an architectural playground. Upstairs, two bedrooms come with secret walk-through cupboards that lead to balconies perched above the home’s lofty, kaleidoscopic chapel.

Shingle House

Architect: NORD

Sleeps: 8

Location: Kent

In summer, violet blue flowers, called Viper’s Bugloss, carpet the area around Shingle House, situated on Kent’s Dungeness beach. The Scottish architecture firm NORD drew inspiration from their blooms, making the floors from plum-brown Purpleheart timber. In this and many other ways, the structure responds to the surrounding landscape, which is marked by the ocean, traditional cottages, lighthouses, and the track of a miniature coastal stream train.

NORD looked to train carriages and local fishermen’s huts when designing the home’s slatted façade and cozy, compact interior. Bedroom and dining room windows double as folding doors that open straight onto the pebbly beach, while a bathroom skylight sends a flood of sun over a deep tub. But a bath house adjacent to the main building might be Shingle House’s single greatest perk: Here, visitors can lower themselves into a black, polished-concrete sunken tub with a view of the ocean vista.

Life House

Architect: John Pawson

Sleeps: 6

Location: Wales

Japanese design and the architecture of Benedictine monks informed this Welsh retreat, devised to optimize relaxation and contemplation. Motivated by a frenetic, anxiety-riddled contemporary world, de Botton and architect John Pawson envisioned a space conducive to quiet, which they hoped would minimize the risk that “we will forget to make time for ourselves, and omit to understand our own minds,” as de Botton has explained.

Every inch of Life House was conceived with tranquility in mind. The structure is situated on a remote, rolling plot in the Welsh countryside. Its minimalist façade of smooth black bricks fluidly gives way to large, paneless windows and barely visible doors. The palette here is limited, ascribing to a yin-yang concept of balance. In contrast to a dark exterior, white and cream materials cover the interior. Couches, tables, and beds generally lie low, chosen for their smooth, uncluttered lines and soft palettes. Even the books and music that fill the structure have been chosen for their therapeutic and transcendent powers, while artist Hamish Fulton curated paths around the house specifically for walks aimed at soothing the mind.

Dune House

Architect: Jarmund/Vigsnæs

Sleeps: 9

Location: Suffolk

The faceted, pitched second floor of Dune House indeed resembles the sand mounds that gave the building its name, along with other nautical elements like horseshoe crabs and ship hulls. Those aren’t the only design elements inspired by the North Sea and its surrounding landscape, however. An orange-tinted, steel-alloy roof reflects the mercurial movements of sea and sky, while a wall of first-floor windows gives the impression that there is no barrier between house and sand. Inside, an upper-floor library connects to a terrace, where an afternoon of reading can be accented with occasional ocean-gazing. And of course, there are the tubs: one in every bedroom, where you make like a sea creature by submerging yourself in water while simultaneously watching the roiling waves below.

Alexxa Gotthardt