A House for Essex by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture


Created by artist Grayson Perry in collaboration with FAT Architecture, A House for Essex is ‘a Taj Mahal on the Stour’, its interiors charting the life of Essex everywoman Julie Cope, and is her final resting place. Commissioned by Alain de Botton and joining Living Architecture’s portfolio of holiday lets, the building is not only FAT’s final work, but a suitably ‘bonkers’ addition to the north Essex landscape


Blueprint

Words Cate St Hill

Photography Jack Hobhouse

At the north-eastern tip of Essex in wide, flat Constable country, the river Stour weaves its way to the crane-dotted ports of Felixstowe in Suffolk on one side and Harwich in Essex on the other from the wet meadows of Dedham Vale. Here, at the end of a footpath leading down to the wide river, on the edge of an unassuming village called Wrabness, a curious golden temple sits like something out of Hansel and Gretel. Its jagged roof, stepping up in scale like a Russian doll, is topped with a resplendent, silver, pregnant woman, her arms open in greeting to anyone wishing to make the pilgrimage across the low-lying estuary. It's really the only bit of Essex bling for miles around.

Beyond the chapel-like entrance, the kitchen space is lined with ‘pub-green’ tiles, some bearing figurative representations of Julie.
Beyond the chapel-like entrance, the kitchen space is lined with 'pub-green' tiles, some bearing figurative representations of Julie

The house's creator, artist Grayson Perry, who collaborated on the project with the now disbanded FAT Architecture, calls it 'a Taj Mahal on the river Stour', a secular landmark in the tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels, dedicated to a fictional 'Essex everywoman' named Julie Cope. 'I thought I'm only going to get one chance to design a building, I might as well make it as bonkers as possible!' says the Essex-born transvestite artist.

A House for Essex overlooks the river Stour and Suffolk beyond
A House for Essex overlooks the river Stour and Suffolk beyond

Tapestries of Julie and her second husband Rob peek out from the house’s dormer windows
Tapestries of Julie and her second husband Rob peek out from the house's dormer windows

'A big influence on my work has always been religious architecture; I've probably had some of my most powerful artistic experiences in cathedrals and churches, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to build one. I like the idea of a total environment, I think of it like a Fabergé egg, I wanted it to be quite small and very rich.'

Grayson Perry?????????s initial sketches for A House for Essex

Grayson Perry’s initial sketches for A House for Essex

Grayson Perry’s initial sketches for A House for Essex
Grayson Perry's initial sketches for A House for Essex

The latest of Living Architecture's holiday lets, commissioned by philosopher Alain de Botton, A House for Essex is indeed a powerful, immersive architectural experience like nothing before. It's certainly no ordinary holiday cottage and locals, many at first against it (planning permission was initially turned down), have taken to calling it the Gingerbread House. The radical design is a rich amalgamation of decorative styles, from wooden stave churches and English baroque architecture, to Arts and Crafts houses and folk-art interiors.

The porch mosaic mourns the death of Julie
The porch mosaic mourns the death of Julie

Below the jaunty copper alloy roof, its shiny exterior is clad in some 1,900 'pub-green' and white terracotta tiles, rows of which depict repetitive, spread-eagled, naked Julies as mother and icon, bringing to mind the primitive temples of Angkor Wat. 'I'm trying to bring a little bit of delight to the country,' explains Perry. 'It's an exceptional thing, it's not just another modern building.' That said, he is hesitant to call it kitsch: 'I think minimalism has become quite kitsch, the Grand Designs' generation now is lame: put a big plate-glass window with a view and some strip wood, it's become beyond a cliché.'

Inside the ‘chapel’ space, an open-armed figure of Julie welcomes visitors
Inside the 'chapel' space, an open-armed figure of Julie welcomes visitors

Detail of the red screen and the welcoming ‘Julie’ figure, with the motorbike that killed her doubling as lighting
Detail of the red screen and the welcoming 'Julie' figure, with the motorbike that killed her doubling as lighting

For all its exterior fairytale-like splendour, A House for Essex is an inward looking building - a handful of red dormer windows and two formal entrances at either end give just hints of its content. Coming from the public footpath to the south, its typical, pitched-roof, house shape seems rather domestic in scale, but the entrance proper is actually around the other side, facing the river, as if you could be walking along the coastline and suddenly come across it.

One of the house’s two bedrooms features a tapestry by Grayson Perry depicting a scene from Julie’s life
One of the house's two bedrooms features a tapestry by Grayson Perry depicting a scene from Julie's life

Here, a gently sloping path, with a small, quaint, iron gate leads up to a flight of steps to the double-height, chapel-like living room, jam-packed with a riot of colour, textures and shapes - a real 'wow' moment. 'It is like a giant casket, or a mausoleum, which is appropriate because it many ways that's exactly what it is,' says FAT's Charles Holland, also Essex born.

A simple yet functional kitchen is largely tiled on the walls, with a dark herringbone wood floor
A simple yet functional kitchen is largely tiled on the walls, with a dark herringbone wood floor

As bonkers as the architecture is, the story behind it is even more bizarre, playful and just a little bit disturbing. Julie's life is depicted in the artworks displayed inside, from the comic-book, black and white wallpaper that covers the ceiling, to Grayson Perry's famous tapestries and handmade ceramic pots.

The exterior of A House for Essex is clad in white and ‘pub green’ tiles designed by Grayson Perry, bearing symbols of Julie’s life in Essex
The exterior of A House for Essex is clad in white and 'pub green' tiles designed by Grayson Perry, bearing symbols of Julie's life in Essex

There's even a tombstone in the garden. The story goes that Julie Cope, an ordinary, somewhat thwarted female, born in 1953 at the time of the great floods in Canvey Island, migrated along the Essex coastline, climbing up the rungs of the social ladder on the way.

She grew up on a housing estate in Basildon (as did Perry), married, had children and settled in a tick-box starter home in South Woodham Ferrers, where the streets are named after characters from Lord of the Rings. Leaving behind her first husband's infidelities she moves to Maldon and meets Rob, an IT consultant.

All goes swimmingly, with exotic holidays to India and Kazakhstan, until Julie is hit by a speeding curry delivery bike and dies aged 61 in Colchester. Upon her death, Rob fulfils a promise to grieve as deeply as Shah Jahan and build a Taj Mahal on the Stour.

For Perry, it's his most personal public work, directly inspired by his life and the people he grew up among in Essex. 'All religions have a kind of narrative, but I didn't want a mythical one, I wanted a very prosaic one that a lot of people could identify with, particularly women,' he says. 'I wanted Julie's biography to reflect Essex, I wanted to go beyond TOWIE.'

The exterior of A House for Essex is clad in white and ‘pub green’ tiles designed by Grayson Perry, bearing symbols of Julie’s life in Essex
The exterior of A House for Essex is clad in white and 'pub green' tiles designed by Grayson Perry, bearing symbols of Julie's life in Essex

For Perry, it's his most personal public work, directly inspired by his life and the people he grew up among in Essex. 'All religions have a kind of narrative, but I didn't want a mythical one, I wanted a very prosaic one that a lot of people could identify with, particularly women,' he says. 'I wanted Julie's biography to reflect Essex, I wanted to go beyond TOWIE.'

Internally, the chapel-cum-living room is intentionally theatrical. Visitors are greeted by a bright-red screen - an altarpiece - which connects, via a dark-green tiled fireplace, to the kitchen and rest of the house beyond. It nods to Frederic Leighton's Middle Eastern-inspired house in Holland Park as well as John Vanbrugh's ornate oak screen at Audley End near Saffron Walden, while the use of mirrors and hidden doors - to give a moment of surprise on entering - is borrowed from Sir John Soane's own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. There are also hints of Edwin Lutyens' country houses and the bold colours of Adolf Loos' early interiors, while the religious language of the space is heightened by yellow banquette seating either side of the room.

Mimicking a stage set, the screen is further brought to life with two round balconies that lead off from the two bedrooms and a giant goddess-like, ceramic Julie that looks over the room, 'welcoming the world and embracing death'. From the ceiling hangs the motorbike that killed her, doubling as a chandelier to light two huge tapestries that chart her life and loves. Part of Perry's own journey involved taking six, real-life Essex women - his 'Julies' - on a pilgrimage from Julie's birthplace to the house for a Channel 4 documentary. 'For all the joy and colour of this in the Essex landscape, like everything I do, it's pleasurable, decorative, playful, yet it's about serious issues, about ordinary lives and being aware of what matters, celebrating our relationships and our connections with people... this is a temple to that,' he says. 'Sometimes I think what I've been doing for the past three or four years is rewriting my mother's life as I wish it had been.'

Charles Holland, of FAT Architecture, inside A House for Essex with Grayson Perry dressed as Julie. Photo Credit: Katie Hyams
Charles Holland, of FAT Architecture, inside A House for Essex with Grayson Perry dressed as Julie. Photo Credit: Katie Hyams

Yet this isn't just Grayson Perry's story, it is also a homage to FAT, as the last building in its 23-year history. With its mash-up of unconventional styles and motifs, the weaving together of conceptual narratives and the crossing over of disciplines, A House for Essex is the ultimate FAT project. It plays with how architecture can engage and relate to culture and society, from Julie's life in post-war New Towns and later in suburbia, to her final resting place in Wrabness. For FAT alone, what a way to go out with a bang.





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