NZ architect reshaped UK 7 Mar 2012
It’s more common to hear about the impact of British architects on New Zealand than vice-versa. This is surprising, as it was a New Zealander, Amyas Connell, who was responsible for the first significant modern house in Great Britain. High and Over, still standing in Buckinghamshire, was celebrated in its time and influential afterward.
Brought up in Taranaki, Connell studied architecture under Stanley Fearn in Wellington moving to London in 1925, winning a scholarship to the British School at Rome in 1926. It was here that Connell met Sir Bernard Ashmole. Connell left his studies in order to design Ashmole’s house in 1929.
High and Over, as the house was named by Ashmole’s wife, sits atop a hill chosen for its view over Amersham. The house is unusual in the UK even now and it’s hard to imagine how alien it must have seemed in rural England when completed in 1931.
High and Over has a ‘Y’ shaped plan in order to take advantage both of sunlight and of the view. It rises as if a wall of white reinforced concrete and glass and is topped by roof terraces. The verticality is dizzyingly enhanced by the narrowness of the wings that make up the ‘Y’.
The doors into the house are chromium and open onto a double story circular entrance foyer. The walls, ceiling and first floor balcony are again white reinforced concrete. The floor and staircase are black marble, adding to the streamlined appearance. This staircase spirals upward, encased in glass, showing a panorama of the countryside.
In 1931, the building’s significance was recognised immediately. British Pathé made a short film about it, dubbing it “the house of dreams”. Country Life described it as “architecture pure and unalloyed by sentiment, reminiscence or claptrap”.
High and Over evokes certain parallels with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both were constructed in white reinforced concrete. At both houses, the emphasis is on the view. Villa Savoye was famously raised on piloti, while locals spoke of High and Over as “the aeroplane house” for the way it hovered over the landscape.
Both High and Over and the Villa Savoye were constructed at the same time, begun in 1929 and finished in 1931. Sadly, too, in both cases new development around the houses has compromised the views they were built to celebrate. In the case of High and Over, development in the 1960s also resulted in the demolition of Connell’s striking water tower.
High and Over, however, seems more influenced by Connell’s upbringing in New Zealand than it is by Le Corbusier.
After finishing school in 1918, Connell worked for a summer on a building site in Eltham, his home town. At this point Taranaki was in the midst of a building boom. JW Rough and J Duffill designed over 100 dairy buildings in the area. Many of these were among the first industrial buildings in the world to make use of reinforced concrete, a material that dominates Connell’s work in the United Kingdom.
In 1973, John Betjeman’s ‘Metro-land’ documentary described High and Over as “the home of a twentieth century family […] that loves air and sun and open country”. These qualities, perhaps with the addition of water, define growing up in New Zealand for many. It’s hard not to think that this environment must have been conducive to Connell’s ability to make the most of the countryside.
Those interested in seeing Connell’s work for themselves will find it spread across Britain. High and Over is in Amersham, conveniently positioned on the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. Less convenient, however, is that it’s a private home now screened by a large hedge. The Twentieth Century Society has, in the past, included a visit inside on an itinerary of significant buildings in North London commuter villages.
Easier for those around Amersham to see (from outside) are Connell’s other works on the same road, Highover Park. Shortly after completing High and Over, Connell built five houses, named Sun Houses, on the approach to the estate. These houses, in varying states of repair, similarly illustrate Connell’s clean lines, flat roofs, white reinforced concrete and glass.
High and Over put Connell’s name on the map, but he continued to work in Britain. Amongst his followers were some of the biggest names in British architecture, including Alison and Peter Smithson. The influence of Connell’s New Farm, built in Sussex in 1932, can be seen in the large planes of glass and thin walls of the Smithsons’ 1954 school in Hunstanton.
Soon after this, Connell began working with Basil Ward, another New Zealand expat. In Camden, London, stands Connell and Ward’s 1934 Kent House, an early example of modern social housing. In 1935, the pair designed Concrete House in Bristol, a smaller house that retains the angularity of Connell’s earlier work. Concrete House can often be visited on Bristol’s annual Open Doors Day.
Usherwood, in Guildford, finished in 1936, is softer, balancing flat planes with a curved room in the front of the house.
Amyas Connell, along with Basil Ward and their later collaborator Colin Lucas, won a medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1964. High and Over was listed Grade II* by English Heritage in the 1970s. Subsequently, most of Connell’s other buildings in the United Kingdom have achieved the same listing status.
Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London.Further work can be found at her blog – dispatches from Europe
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