“In 1931 all Buckinghamshire was scandalised by the
appearance, high above Amersham, of a concrete house in the
shape of a letter “Y”.
It was built for a young professor, by a young architect, Amyas
Connell . “I am the home of a 20th Century family”, it proclaimed,
“that loves air and sun and open country”
It started a style called moderne”
Sir John Betjeman – Metroland
In his usual wonderful epigrammatic style (in the video at the bottom of this article) the former British Poet Laureate sums up why High and Over is so important, the first and still the greatest English house in the Modern Style pioneered by Le Corbusier, an incredibly confident first commission for its 28 year old New Zealand born architect, Aymas Connell. I had not been down to see the house which is 12 miles from where I live in some years because, frankly, the vandalism of the setting by English planning philistines depresses me. When it was built the client, Bernard Ashmole, had acquired 12 acres from the Drake Estate of a bare hillside on the Station Road between the Metropolitan Railway’s Amersham Station at Amersham-on-the-Hill and the Old Amersham commanding views over the storied old town and the lovely Misbourne Valley. Soon 5 speculative “Sun Houses”, also designed by Aymas Connell, were built on the unpaved approach drive guiding visitors like pilotis to a servants lodge with a massive iron gate leading into the ten acre estate surrounding the house. This area contained a water tower, a fives court and 7 fish ponds connected by cascades.
During WW11 the entrance gate went and when Bernard Ashmole sold the estate in the early 1960’s it all went wrong. The context was destroyed by no less than 50 houses built in a crescent where the fishponds cascaded and High and Over was divided into two houses to successfully save it from demolition. This was the Britain of 80% tax rates and exchange controls and large houses were not in fashion. In front in the ironically named “First Avenue” more box live semi Ds were built to destroy the view which was the raison d’etre for the house being High and Over.
High & Over is widely considered to be the first and finest house to be built in the Modern style in Britain. Designed in 1929 by Amyas Connell (who later became part of the pioneering architectural practice Connell, Ward & Lucas), and I visited to renew my acquaintance with it as the Grade II* listed house is being offered for sale in its entirety for the first time since it was divided into two properties in 1962.
Modernism was an attempt by utopian architects to redefine the world after the horrors of WW1, by putting usefulness and social equality first. They used new industrial materials and craft techniques to create stark, functional spaces. Pioneers of the movement from the Bauhaus School in Germany included Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Art deco added a lightness of touch by including echoes of the ocean liner, motor car and aeroplane, and sometimes a dash of the exotic. Think glamour and cocktails.
“The last great British country house and the first modern house in the English countryside.” The House Book, Phaidon, 2001
Today at the entrance to High & Over the original chrome double front doors open into a large, circular, black marble floored hall with a circular balcony overlooking from the first floor. Leading off the entrance hall in one wing is a large triple aspect sitting room with French doors opening out onto a ground floor terrace. A striking dining room, decorated with gold metallic leaf, is in the second wing and in the third wing the kitchen and family room, again with French doors leading out onto one of the ground level terraces.
A stunning glass encased spiral staircase leads to the first and second floors where the original aluminium studded door frames and skirting, restored to their former glory, lead to the principal bedrooms. On the top floor a second sitting room leads out onto two spectacular, partially covered roof terraces – these inspired the locals to refer to High & Over as “The Aeroplane House” when it was first constructed – the terraces offer commanding views across to Amersham Old Town and over the Misbourne Valley. Today, High & Over is now set in landscaped grounds of 1.7 acres, principally laid to lawn and bordered with mature trees. To the south-facing rear of the property, steps lead down to the original circular swimming pool. To the east side is a pergola ornate with fragrant jasmine in the summer. To the west side a Garden Playhouse.
High & Over has been described by English Heritage, who first listed the house in 1971, as “of outstanding importance as the first truly convincing essay in the international style in England”, further pointing out the fact that is was “one of only two buildings included in the exhibition The International Style held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, under the curatorship of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932”. Alan Powers, the architectural historian has also described the house as “the first major house to be built in the style of the European Modern Movement” (‘The Twentieth Century House in Britain’, p.45).
This stunning house was something of a sensation at the time it was completed in 1931 and it continues to be a widely celebrated example of Modern architecture to this day. Rather surprisingly the house was commissioned by a professor who specialised in archaeology and ancient history, Bernard Ashmole (who later went on to become director of the British Museum). Despite Ashmole’s academic interest in the past, however, the house designed for him by Amyas Connell (1901-1980) looked firmly towards the future. Ashmole met Connell, a New Zealand-born architect, at the British School in Rome, where Ashmole was lecturing. Connell is well known to have been an admirer of the radical ideas of Le Corbusier, and High & Over (Connell’s first house design) shows a great debt to the Swiss architect whilst still offering a more English appearance of eccentricity. It was a fortuitous meeting for when Ashmole and his wife Dorothy returned to London they wanted to build a country house where he could commute to London and the site below Amersham Underground Station allowed that. I suspect the Ashmole’s came into an inheritance for this was a very expensive undertaking on a young professor’s salary. As for the Modern style being a reaction to the horrors of war Bernard Ashmole was both a survivor of the Battle of the Somme and a very brave man, as you must be to be awarded the Military Cross. Indeed he served in the RAF in World War Two and was honoured for bravery by the Greek Government.
Bernard Ashmole, CBE, MC (1894, Ilford, Essex – 1988, Peebles, Scotland) was a British archaeologist and art historian (M.A., B. Litt., Oxford 1924), who specialized in ancient Greek sculpture. He was Professor of Classical Archaeology, University of London, 1929-1948. He was a collateral descendant of Elias Ashmole (1617–92), eponymous benefactor of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where he was briefly assistant keeper of coins.
Amyas Douglas Connell (23 June 1901 – 19 April 1980) was a highly influential British architect of the mid-twentieth century. He achieved early and conspicuous success as a student, winning the Rome Prize in Architecture in 1926. Having been impressed by the work of Le Corbusier at the 1925 Paris Exhibition and that of fellow French Modernists Andre Lurçat and Rob Mallet-Stevens, Connell effectively launched the Modernist architectural style in Great Britain.
The house is situated on a prominent hillside with spectacular views over the old town of Amersham and the Misbourne Valley on land that was originally part of the estate of the Tyrwhitt-Drake Family who lived at the nearby Shardeloes. The house was part of a larger scheme that included a gardener’s lodge, water tower and generator house set in a garden that combined Cubist elements with the English landscape tradition. It was later joined by a group of speculative houses in similar style – the “Sun Houses.”
A contemporary article
The house has a splayed Y-shaped plan with three wings radiating from a central hexagonal hall. This arrangement gives High & Over a very distinctive shape (so distinctive, in fact, that it is said that German pilots used it as a marker for their flight routes during the Second World War). The construction of the house is reinforced-concrete frame, in-filled with cavity wall construction externally of brick and with concrete block internally. All windows are metal, many in steel plated soffits. The site, on a hill in the Misbourne Valley, afforded the house plenty of light, air and views of the Chilterns. High & Over is built in the shape of a “Y”. Whether it is an urban myth or not I’m not sure, but I have been told that High and Over during World War II had to be camouflaged as the distinctive shape of the house gave directions to German bombers on their routes to their targets in Britain.
The original house was joined shortly after by similar “Sun Houses”. When the houses were built they were in the open with fine views over the Missbourne valley. Since then trees and vegetation have grown around the houses. High and Over has appeared on several TV programmes, and was the centre stage of an LWT produced Poirot.
Sun House One
This is first on your right as you go up Highover Park and is well looked after with its original frontage and roof terrace but it has been extended (in the same style) at the rear. It has a “Mackintosh” style sign saying “First Sun House.”
Sun House Two
This is No. 6 Highover Park and is original condition except for the room added over the garage which has an unfortunate splayed support detracting from the purity of the façade. It does have the original style blue/ green patination on the Crittal windows.
Sun House Three
This is the only one in entirely original condition but unfortunately two large trees in front obscure the elevation. It is rented out by the owner so the interior is pretty scruffy.
Sun House Four
Fourth House on the right which has had several extensions and replacement glazing which is near enough but not quiet right. Exterior is not well maintained.
This is the only one on the left in the splay created by Highover Park and the public footpath. It is currently undergoing a full restoration by a new owner who is also adding on a low one storey pavillion in the same style.
This was the original Gardner’s Lodge which housed the couple who were the Housekeeper / Cook and Driver / Gardner which is why there were no servant’s accommodations in the main house. Today its appearance is execrable with totally inappropriate uPVC glazing ruining the elevations.
The significance of High & Over in the history of British houses was recognised early on as Country Life magazine devoted a large feature to it in 1931. “Here is architecture pure and unalloyed by sentiment, reminiscence or claptrap” wrote Christopher Hussey, the then editor, who also remarked that the building had unfairly “come in for a good deal of hostile comment”.
Hugh Pearman, the renowned architecture critic, visited High & Over in 2005 and noted in The Sunday Times that “despite the fact that some outbuildings, including a water tower and a fives court, have gone, it is still amazing… Here is a house built by two people [Ashmole and Connell] with immense talent and energy”.
The house has also featured in numerous other publications, a selection of which are listed below:
“One of the first houses in the country to accept the style of Le Corbusier”. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner
“[High & Over] looks both seminal and fashionable. Connell not only introduced England to the Corbusian vocabulary of flat, white walls, horizontal windows, roof terraces and glazed staircases, but understood it… The house… exudes health and vitality – like Corbusier’s Maison Cook or Maison Guggenbuhl transplanted to Bucks.” Peter Wylde, The Twentieth Century Society Journal
“[High & Over] quickly compels interest greater than that elicited for any traditional building, and ultimately pleases by the sheer beauty and simplicity of the synthesis of purpose with construction. Here is architecture pure and unalloyed with sentiment, reminiscence or clap-trap. One goes away with a fresh and fertile mind.” Christoper Hussey, Country Life (1931)
“High & Over is regarded as Britain’s first Modernist and in important example of the International in the UK” 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die.
In this early and impressive design, Connell utilises his deep understanding of Roman architecture in a complex reworking of Corbusean modernism, attempting a fusion that would connect the classical and modern worlds. While some British critics interpreted this as muddled formalism, it was a beacon to a younger generation of architects including Alison and Peter Smithson. In 1962, it was divided into two separate dwellings in a (successful) effort to save it from demolition.
THE HOUSE OF A DREAM
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Click on picture to play the British Pathe video
In 1931 British Pathe produced a short film about High and Over in its recently completed state, entitled “The house of a dream”. The film is introduced with “For centuries houses have been built to meet the needs of each age. Today, we dream of houses open to sun and air, embodying everything that modern science can offer.” and it features excellent shots of the interior and exterior.
In the 1960s a large part of the grounds of the house were sold off to developers and the drive was re-used to make an adopted road, Highover Park, serving approximately 50 1960s detached, semi-detached and town houses. This development had no connection to Connell but the houses do share certain allusions to the modernist style, however they have not worn well and today you see cluttered driveways, wheelie bins and weed ridden patches of gardens. They effectively bore into the back of High and Over ruining its privacy and its setting. This development and other in-fill developments around High and Over during the last 40 years have had an impact on the house’s immediate environment and aspects, and new developments still generate considerable public attention and protest about their impact on High and Over. In a recent development the route of HS2 – the High Speed Rail Line to Birmingham is due to be built in a tunnel under First Avenue in front of the house.
But the biggest loss has been the garden. There used to be 10 acres of it, complete with a concrete water tower, squash courts and the fish ponds giving the house seclusion with internal and external vistas. Now, the 1960s housing is there instead. A row of concrete posts fanned out from the house, but were chopped down to make way for the garage. So the garden is much reduced with the circular swimming pool in front of the house and the garden pergola. I think High & Over was lived in nicely until the Second World War but afterwards in austerity and high tax Britain of the 1950’s became less of a joy.
It is not just the gardens which have been altered but also the interior. If restored, the ground floor could be one of the most staggering interiors in England. The chromium-plated front door used to open onto a hexagonal hall. It was a glamorous space to sail through, with a fountain in the middle that reached up to the ceiling. The three main rooms that opened off the hall had doors that could be folded back to turn the ground floor into one large space. When it was subdivided the wing with the service stairs became a separate house so that today there are too many bedrooms (8) and what was the splendid library reaching into the garden has now been subdivided with a modern kitchen. The gilded Art Deco Dining Room which had double doors (as did the Living Room and Library) opening into the Hallway to give a grand entertaining space is now entered from a side corridor.
There is now a unique opportunity for a rich benefactor to acquire and restore this one of a kind property to its original state, the first and greatest Modern house in Britain.
Savills (www.savills.com) and The Modern House (www.themodernhouse.net ) have it on sale with a guide price of £2,350 k which may seem a lot but for say 3 million restored you would get a modern work of art (and public approval) for less than the cost of an OK painting. Any takers – If you are interested there is an “Open House” on 15th May 2010.
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