Capel Manor House
Capel Manor House is a house in Horsmonden, Kent, England. A simple glass-and-steel house in the style of Mies van der Rohe, it is seen as one of the most important examples of modernist architecture in Britain and Britain's answer to the Barcelona Pavilion. In September, 2013, English Heritage and Britain's Minister of Culture, Ed Vaizey, listed the house at Grade II*, joining just 5.5% of all listed buildings It became one of only 0.18% of postwar buildings to be listed.
Designed by the British architect Michael Manser and completed in 1971, the house was commissioned by John Howard, private personal secretary to Prime Minister Edward Heath, who wanted a modern labour-saving house to replace the existing 26-bedroom mansion. Writing in the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote described Manser's contribution thus: "Manser's own designs for houses, dozens of works of great modernist clarity throughout south-east England, showed what was possible – how modernism could be integrated into a seemingly resistant English landscape. His Capel Manor House is exquisite, a crystalline glass box atop the ruined podium of an old Victorian manor house."
Jane Austen’s forebears once lived on the same spot, near Sissinghurst in the Kentish Weald, as did her descendant Frederick Austen, who owned a 26-bedroom house built in the 19th century in the Italianate Gothic style. The grand country home is thought not to have been lived in after being occupied by an army unit during the Second World War, and was demolished in 1969 and a 2,000 sq ft steel and entirely glass-fronted house, intended as a weekend bolthole, shot up, phoenix-like, from the rubble-strewn site.
Manser's new house was revered as a modernist icon and featured in dozens of design journals around the world. It was featured in Vogue and House & Garden in 1971. A scale model of the house, kept at the Royal Institute of British Architects, has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Manser had been inspired by the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe’s elegant, boxy 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, and the two buildings share many characteristics. In contrast to their minimalist structure, both have interiors that featuring luxurious and high-quality materials. Their transparent facades aim to fuse indoors and out. Each building has a pool; at Capel Manor it’s where the old house’s colonnaded orangery used to be.
Capel Manor is a refinement of the 'Miesian' box – a glass envelope enclosing space with the lightest of touches. However Manser's interests were as much in Palladio and the Golden Section (a mathematical ratio in architecture) rectangle as they were in recent precedents. The house demonstrates Manser's interest in precise geometry and his acute awareness of the modern nature of his materials. The steel frame of the building is revealed both internally and externally, where the roof projects over the pavilion walls, and the glazing meets at the corners without the use of mullions. The sunken living area breaks up the large central space, without disturbing the views into the garden, which are maximised throughout the house with the simplicity of both the building's structure, and its floor plan. The garden thus feels exceptionally close and the house immaculate and precise in its Arcadian setting. The house was carefully planned to formally address the retained elements of the old Victorian Capel Manor which the new house replaced; the remains of the winter garden seeming like a crumbly Classical ruin juxtaposed with the razor-sharp modern classicism of the house. However, what is most remarkable about the position of the house is its elevation above the treed landscape which extends into the distance beyond it, providing, as noted in the Architectural Review: 'the emotional bonuses which this unique hilltop penthouse has to offer'. The diminutive scale of the house in relation to the surrounding landscape is also striking, and the way in which the current owners have increased the floor space through the addition of a detached annex, rather than a more traditional extension, has proved a sensitive and successful approach.
Capel Manor is noted by Neil Jackson in his book, The Modern Steel House (1996), and is significant in the British and international tradition of modern steel houses. Manser developed his interest in framed structures through a succession of houses, starting with a timber-framed house built for himself, and progressing on to steel. He became recognised as the most prolific architect of steel houses in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, and was one of the most important in the field. Capel Manor is arguably the most sophisticated of his houses and among the best known. Certainly it is Manser's personal favourite.
The building was proposed for listing at Grade II* in 2012 in recognition of the widely held view that this is Manser's best house. It was built at a time when he had honed his approach to framed-house building, resulting in a sophisticated and successful version of the type. In addition, the house was considered exceptional amongst its peers both because of its site, and in the way it responds to it. In a house with so strong and simple a concept, the sensitive replacement of internal and external finishes, and the careful reorganisation of internal space, has had no impact on the character and quality of the building.
Capel Manor was built in 1969–70, to the designs of Michael Manser (born 1929), working with the engineer Jack Dawson. The client was John Howard, an MP and Personal Private Secretary to Sir Edward Heath. He and his wife wanted a weekend house that could later become a permanent home upon their retirement.
Manser had first proposed a version of his design for a very different site suggested by John and Maisie Howard at Bodiam, but with adaptations it proved more dramatic on its final site because of its Victorian surroundings and greater elevation. The site chosen was formerly that of a mansion built in the 1860s for Frederick Austen, a descendent of Jane Austen's family who had made a fortune in Kentish broadcloth. By the late 1960s the house had been largely demolished, but Manser found that the house's cellars remained sound, as did the terrace and retaining wall around and above them. He retained the arcaded frontage of the retaining wall, together with the grand flight of steps that heads down the hillside, and perched a new steel and glass pavilion on top. To the side, he retained the colonnade and back wall of the former winter garden as a screen to a large swimming pool. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the position of the house is its elevation above the treed landscape which extends into the distance beyond it.
Although a much photographed house, it is only through first-hand experience that the surprising relationship between the diminutive scale of the house, and the vast scale of the landscape it surveys, can be appreciated. The size of the house was of course part of the brief, designed for a couple without children, who wanted a small home which was easy to run. This smallness, combined with the 360 degree architectural completeness of the building, led the owners in 2009–10 to find an innovative solution to creating additional space. A two-bedroom detached guest annex, designed by Ewan Cameron, was constructed to the west of the site. Carefully screened from Manser's house, it is a fine, award winning, piece of architecture in its own right, and is a fitting addition to the site. The house was also refurbished at this time, details of which are discussed below.
Manser was the most prolific architect of steel houses in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, and one of the most important in the field. Manser became interested in the material as a student, when carrying out a project under the supervision of Ove Arup, and steel houses subsequently became the key element in his professional practice. He built a timber-framed courtyard house for himself at Leatherhead, and this was followed by a house outside Godalming for the assistant art editor of Home, David Papworth, in which he was assisted by the engineer Jack Dawson. This was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted for over a decade. Manser was noted for his refinement of the Miesian box (a term used to describe buildings inspired by the immaculately detailed, pared-down, steel-and-glass buildings of Mies van der Rohe), and his houses demonstrate his interest in precise geometry and his acute awareness of the modern nature of his materials. He went on to become President of the RIBA in the years 1983-5
Since January 2001 it has been the country home of TV Entrepreneur Remy Blumenfeld. In 2009 the architect Ewan Cameron was commissioned to design a new guest pavilion in glass which was completed in 2011 and won the Glasgow Institute of Architect's award for best small building in November 2011  and in the [Architects' Journal]] award for best small building it was given a special commendation. The New York Times quoted Mr Cameron in their coverage of the new pavilion: "There’s a level of consideration to the garden design and architecture there that I’d never seen before, a subtlety and softness to the relationship as well as an incredibly rigorous attention to detail and material." Wallpaper (magazine) described the new pavilion thus: "with its low, pared-down, glass-enclosed design, the new structure references the glass envelope and clean lines of the original Manser building. It holds two bedroom suites and sits about 50 yards from the main house on the same raised plateaux, next to an orangerie engulfed in foliage."
The house is the subject of a chapter in David Heathcote's book The 70s House (Academy Press, 2006). Mr. Heathcote, quoted in the Telegraph, described Capel Manor as the house he most coveted: “It's the one that I want... It has a wonderful quality of being out of time, neither new nor old. Just itself." An entire episode of the BBC TV programme Living with Modernism was devoted to it, and in 2009 it was used as the dream setting in the film The Good Night, starring Penélope Cruz and Gwynneth Paltrow.
The house has an exposed steel frame, painted brown, resting on a reinforced concrete podium, supported in turn on the stone walls of the Victorian basement. The external walls are entirely glazed with bronze-tinted glass in aluminium frames, and there is a flat timber roof spanning between the steel purlins.
Plan and setting
The house is single-storey with a rectangular plan. It has a central sunken living area that gives on to an adjoining kitchen and dining area to the east, and the two bedrooms and bathrooms to the west. The plan is very simple, and its sense of freedom is maximised by the continuously glazed walls which meet without corner mullions. Beneath is a basement, formed from part of the basement of the earlier Victorian Capel Manor.
The house is positioned to the north of its site, at the most elevated part, so its principal vista is to the south, looking across the treed landscape as it drops away. Carefully planned to formally address the retained elements of the Victorian Capel Manor, the centre of the south elevation aligns with the wide stone steps which lead down to the lower terrace. From the bottom of these steps the flat roof of the house floats just above the arcaded stone retaining wall of the earlier house. The wall is composed of a blind, earth-retaining, stone wall, in front of which is a round-arched arcade formed of rough-faced ashlar blocks with an impost band, topped with a stone balustrade, now covered in creepers. To the west, the house aligns with the remains of the winter garden of the earlier house, which now surrounds the swimming pool built as part of Manser's scheme. This earlier fabric consists of a blind stone wall of rough-faced ashlar blocks to the north, and a colonnade of square stone columns carrying an entablature to the south and west.
Each elevation of the house is a side of the building's rectangular glass envelope. Although approached from the east, there are points of access on all sides, the facades differentiated only by their aspects. The structure of the roof projects beyond the external walls on all sides, forming a wood-lined canopy over the tiled podium.
Interiors are simple and open-plan. Internal walls are of dark-brown facing bricks or painted render. Ceilings are wood-lined. Floors are tiled or carpeted, with under-floor heating. The glazed external walls mean that the garden is effectively incorporated into the house.
In 2010 the house underwent a major refurbishment, with the floor and ceiling coverings being renewed to match the originals closely. The bathrooms and kitchen were refitted, and the latter reconfigured to incorporate what had been a small study in the north-east corner of the building. The roof was recovered with a rubberised material to replace the bitumen felt, and photovoltaic panels were installed on top. These works saw the renewal of original fabric with like-for-like, or near like-for-like, replacements without harming the building's special interest. The special interest of this house rests not in the intrinsic historic interest of the original fabric in material terms, but in the design of that fabric, and the way in which it has been used to express a sophisticated and carefully conceived architectural concept: an exemplar of its period and genre.
- "The Architect's Journal" 17 November 2011 by Richard Waite
- "The Sunday Times" 17 March 2013 by Hugh Graham
- English Heritage http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/brutal-and-beautiful
- "The Financial Times" Nov 5, 2010 by Edwin Heathcote
- "The Daily Telegraph" 20 June 2012 by Dominic Lutyens
- "Wallpaper Magazine" March 2013 by Ellie Stathaki
- GIA Awards 2011
- "The New York Times" February 28, 2012 by Caroline Ednie
- "The Telegraph" February 18, 2010 by Chris Arnot
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00bfycj Living with Modernism, Episode 6