To build at Stowe is a challenge. Stowe House was the seat of the Temple and Grenville families from the seventeenth century to the Great War and the house and garden evolved together in the eighteenth century; Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Capability Brown developed the garden; John Vanbrugh, James Gibbs, William Kent, Robert Adam and John Soane successively added to the house. The result is one of the grandest combinations of classical architecture and landscape garden to be found in Europe.
It is considered one of the most culturally significant sites in Britain. But ostentation worked only for so long and the fortunes of the estate declined in the nineteenth century. The dilapidated house and gardens became the home for the new Stowe School, one of the new public schools founded in the years following the Great War. The vast mansion was utterly impressive but absurdly inappropriate for a school which lacked the means to maintain either the house or garden. Clough Williams-Ellis of Portmeirion fame built some extensions for the school west of the house - ungainly buildings, preoccupied with their facades to the park - and in 1927 Sir Robert Lorimer demolished Vanbrugh's Temple of Bacchus and replaced it with a very grand neoclassical school chapel. Thereafter, to the west of the house, the school built a sequence of contingent and chaotic buildings, each less inspired than its predecessor. In 1989 the school gave the landscape garden to the National Trust but could not find the endowment needed for the Trust to take on the house. Tensions developed between the school and the Stowe Landscape Committee, English Heritage and the National Trust as these bodies increasingly objected to the ways one of the jewels of English landscape was being eroded by school use and inappropriate development.
In 200I the school commissioned Rick Mather Architects to draw up a masterplan. which proposed a more ordered diagram for the sequential replacement of its buildings west of the house. The first element to be realised comprises new boarding accommodation for girls on a site somewhat separate from the main academic development area addressed in the masterplan. Two new interconnected buildings - Queen's House and Stanhope House - each provide rooms for 72 students and house staff and common rooms.
Rick Mather Architects writes:
We were commissioned by Stowe School to develop a masterplan for its 'academic zone'. Working closely with English Heritage and the National Trust, the two new girls' boarding houses are the first of future developments to be realised. The school site incorporates Stowe House and its renowned landscaped gardens which accommodate the largest concentration of grade one fisted buildings in England and reflect the history of landscape design. The brief identified the opportunity of increasing the schools' intake while enhancing its co-education balance. The new boarding houses, Queen ~ House and Stanhope House, accommodate 144 girls and nine staff dwellings. Situated west of Stowe House, the building responds to the shifting geometry of the historic gardens and the context of the surrounding buildings, defining routes and 'outdoor rooms'. It is integrated with the ongoing landscape restoration relating to the Bridgeman plan and makes sense of and enhances the setting of the chapel. The alignment and footprint of the building were selected to avoid overlying historic features and view corridors. The sire of the temple and the Bridgemanic arrangement of paths are recovered by the realignment of the existing path from the Roxburgh Hall to the chapel, re-creating the historic Bridgeman Walk axis, a lime walk that terminated on the site of the now lost Temple of Bacchus. This now focuses on the side window of Lorimer's chapel. Each house accommodates 60 boarders and 12 day girls, and comprises one-, two- and four-bed en-suite rooms, each with a window seat focusing long views over the grounds. The study bedrooms are the building blocks of the plan, and they are arranged around a double-loaded corridor, punctuated by shared facilities. The main entrances are articulated by stair towers that lead into the main common rooms. Coupled with the towers at each end are three-storey volumes containing the house mistress' accommodation. Other staff accommodation is located centrally, providing separation between the houses in conjunction with a third stair and a lift for disabled access.
The site was on sloping ground to the south west of Lorimer's chapel, and screened from the garden by a Williams Ellis' building. Rick Mather Architects' historical research identified the vestige of the line of the avenue that would have led to Vanbrugh's Temple in Bridgeman's original plan and re-established this axis to structure this and future developments with the chapel as its new focus.
The new building steps down the slope and curves around the corner in a most satisfactory way, naturally leading up into the school complex and down and out into the landscape. A long-term intention of me National Trust is to restore this western part of the garden. The building sits well on the site; its precise and strong form enlarges the scale of an essentially domestic building so it happily coexists with its monumental classical neighbour.
The ground storey is recessed, clad in Bath stone, while the three upper floors of rooms above are yellow render with box oriel windows. Above. a sharpened roof in dark zinc makes a strong cornice line. It is uncomplicated, direct, completely modern and very successful. The curved glass stair shafts at either end mark the separate entrances to the two boarding houses, with the simpler cubic forms for staff accommodation attached. Approached from either direction, the building is three dimensional, interesting but clear.
Mather is a skilful internal planner, as his previous student residences at Keble College in Oxford demonstrate, and he can manipulate a rational plan to create delight. The ground floor has communal spaces: study rooms for day girls. Music practice rooms. changing etc, and very stylish common rooms which have glass walls opening onto terraces and gardens on either sides. The girls' rooms on the upper three floors come in singles, doubles and four-bed spaces, depending on age, and all have bathrooms. The rooms are stacked, like upon like and, now in use, are not empty of possessions as they are in the photographs. Add hundreds of postcards, photos and furry animals and they become a young girl's bedroom, a home from home that the girls evidently really like.
The design of the rooms is beautifully considered and clearly demonstrates the advantage of architect-designed furniture and fittings. The spaciousness and uncluttered feel results from precise and minimal detailing in every part. The projecting bays consist of structurally-bonded fixed glazing with a solid side ventilator panel - clean and cubic. Lighting is concealed or incorporated in the furniture, skirtings are flush, service panels secret, blinds are concealed and pinboards integral...if only we could resolve how to make the joint between a timber door frame and a plaster wall. The building cost was about £2,100 per square metre. This is more than most boarding schools would invest in accommodation, but the standard of architecture and construction is high and the building must be seen as providing very good value for money.
Rick Mather has certainly met the challenge of building at Stowe. Some may find the language and colour of his intervention a touch too assertive and lacking in English reticence. But he has undoubtedly given the school its first good building since Lorimer's chapel in 1927. lt sets a standard for student housing design that will be a challenge for many schools and universities. The longer I stayed at Stowe the more I admired Mather's work - practical, strong and pleasurable, as Vitruvius would say. Stowe School has again found good architecture.