A coastal house by Tonkin Liu Architects reflects and enhances its clifftop setting, finds Charles Holland
St Margaret’s Bay lies a few miles to the north of Dover, on the east Kent coast. It is a small, seaside village set on the White Cliffs with a single, narrow road running steeply down to the shingle beach. Dotted against the cliffs are a higgledy-piggledy selection of houses, their large windows and balconies opening onto views across the English Channel to France.
The houses are a mixed bunch but a few are worth noting. High Gaut is reputedly the last house completed by the Arts & Crafts architect Charles Voysey. It is not much more than a remodelled bungalow and in the ‘Buildings of England’ for East Kent, John Newman describes it as Voysey’s style distilled to its absolute essentials: white rough-cast walls, slate roof, stone window mullions and a sharp sense of proportion.
Down on the beach itself and alarmingly exposed to the waves is a trio of white rendered Art Deco houses and a mittel-European-looking bungalow. These were all once owned by Noël Coward who lived in the bungalow and bought the others to avoid having any neighbours. He later rented his house to James Bond author Ian Fleming, who set most of the action of his novel ‘Moonraker’ up on the cliffs overlooking the next bay.
Into this very English setting, the architect Tonkin Liu has dropped Ness Point, an unashamedly modernist new house. With its undulating white-rendered walls topped by a sloping green roof, Ness Point can be read as an abstraction of the white cliffs on which it sits. Indeed, it is named after the prominent prow of cliff that sticks out into the channel and forms the closest point to France. It also clearly references the practice’s own previous work on Dover esplanade, where it designed a series of gently billowing steps and concrete retaining walls that wobble along the seafront like melting ice creams.
Ness Point has a similar wobble so that, on plan, it resembles a snake that gets fatter towards one end. The house is entered in the middle, from the cliff side, from where a narrow top-lit hallway is overlooked by a long, first-floor landing. It can also be entered from a garage that forms the ‘tail’ of the plan and opens onto a junction with a steeper road coming up from the beach.
The main rooms face towards the views and have large expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass and sweeping balconies. The views are fabulous and the snaking plan means that each room has a subtly different aspect. Stylistically the interior might be a bit too contemporary-chic for my taste – almost everything is white, or very pale, and the detailing is minimal – but the plan has been put together with skill.
The architects describe the house variously as like a castle and a bunker and the exterior walls have a palpable thickness evident in the deep window reveals. They also cite Ernest Gimson’s Stoneywell cottage in Leicestershire (1899), which has a similar undulating plan though as an object it is more rough and ready, without the slickness of Ness Point’s smooth rendered finish.
The emphasis on the view and the cliff-face metaphor means that the elevation most visible to the street offers a slightly clumsy garage door flanked by a pair of downpipes. A standard-issue timber fence that obscures much of the ground floor doesn’t do the house any favours, though this will eventually be replaced by high hedges.
Ness Point is a house best seen from afar, either from the footpath that runs immediately below it or from the beach. If that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t. From the beach in particular the curving, white facade comes across as an enigmatic sculptural object. Viewed from higher up, the house’s resemblance to the landscape around it is particularly effective.
Ness Point fits cleverly into its context, a confidently contemporary object that isn’t overly demonstrative or aggressively out of place. It makes a good counterpoint to Voysey’s modest white cottage on the clifftop opposite too. While High Gaut sits demurely behind a hedge, giving only half an eye to the view, Tonkin Liu’s Ness Point embraces it. The contemporary attitude to landscape is to have as uninterrupted view of it as possible. More interestingly, Ness Point consciously places itself into this view, forming an abstracted representation of the landscape around it.