Why are some of the biggest names in architecture queuing up to build on flooded Cotswolds gravel pits?
By Steve Rose
Home to roost … Sarah Featherstone’s design for the Lower Mills Estate
As proprietor of Britain’s first residential nature reserve, Jeremy Paxton has worked wonders with the wildlife: “We’ve been able to attract 11 pairs of breeding nightingales, we’ve got two families of otters. We’ve just hatched five barn owls, before that four tawny owls. We’ve got 14 roe deer, the largest bat project in the country, the largest housemartin project in country, breeding kingfishers, grebes, ringed plovers, oystercatchers, egrets and the bittern, which is Britain’s rarest breeding bird.”
No less remarkable, though, have been Paxton’s achievements with a breed even harder to spot in the English countryside: the cutting-edge architect. So far he’s got Richard Meier, Will Alsop, Piers Gough, Eva Jiricna, Roger Sherman, Sarah Wigglesworth, Sarah Featherstone and many more, all signed up to build luxury houses on his land. How did Paxton entice these architects? By letting them design whatever they wanted - and in an idyllic setting to boot. Lower Mill Estate, a 550-acre development on the edge of the Cotswolds, was formerly scarred with gravel pits, which have now flooded to form a picturesque landscape of lakes, waterways, woodland and meadows. And, apart from a few farm buildings, it was as near to a blank slate as any architect could wish for.
As a result, the architects seem to be eating out of Paxton’s hand. “You just dream,” says Piers Gough on the promotional video. “There are no constraints. There’s nothing to stop you building the very, very best house you can possibly imagine, and it must be the only place in the world you get that opportunity.” Richard Meier, high priest of hygienic modernism, sent Paxton a one-sentence email: “When do I get started?” “It’s their chance to do something a little crazy,” says Paxton. “I probably get two or three architects a day saying they’d like to be involved.”
If all goes to plan, 46 architects will be realising their bluest-sky designs, officially termed “Landmark homes”, on Paxton’s field of dreams. Twenty-two have already been commissioned, not all of whom are strictly household names - more a mix of rising stars and old masters. Eight of the designs have been completed, and they’re striking stuff: Gough’s is a three-storey coil of overlapping loops, clad in weathered cedar and culminating in a rooftop swimming pool. Featherstone’s camouflaged Orchid House is modeled on a rare local flower, and unfolds in a series of petal forms to a lakeside deck. Alsop goes even further, with a vast timber-clad arch from which bedroom “pods” will be suspended. The whole ground floor can slide out into an adjoining “winter garden”, or, on a really fine day, it can be extended even further, so the sitting room is hovering over a lake. Similarly, California’s Roger Sherman opts for a houseboat-like bungalow with bedrooms that can slide out like piers over the water. Prices should be between Â£2m and Â£5m, Paxton says.
These Landmark houses are not the only structures on the site. They will sit among some 530 more modest nest boxes, from one-bedroom cottages under Â£100,000 to five-bedroom, Â£2m mansions. About 130 houses have been completed. They’re strictly second homes, though, and the emphasis of the project is firmly on leisure. A host of supporting facilities are either in operation or in the pipeline: an organic farm, a restaurant, a spa resort, sports facilities, luxury wildlife hides. “It’s a similar sense of community to what you’d get in a marina,” Paxton says. “It’s somewhere you don’t just exist, a contrast to your normal life; somewhere you can build memories. You might want to go into a hide and drink wine with your friends and spend all night there watching what’s going on. It’s very therapeutic stuff. Better than a week at the Priory.”
All of this suggests that he stands to make a mint, but 45-year-old Paxton is no fast-buck property tycoon: “The nature side came first. I’m not a developer tolerating nature conservation because it’s been forced on me. All of it has been undertaken because I wanted to. My investment now is well over Â£1m in nature conservation.”
Added to which, he doesn’t really need the money: Paxton already made a mint in magazine publishing. Born in Hackney, he grew up in the New Forest (his grandfather was a poacher, he says) before getting into water-skiing and becoming a “beach bum” in Florida. That led to him starting a series of water-sports magazine titles, which he sold to United Newspapers aged 28. With the proceeds, he developed some luxury properties, including a marina, before snapping up the Lower Mill land in 1996. “I lived here for 18 months, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would,” he says. “You can get pretty bored. The biodiversity is very interesting but it’s a more fascinating experiment to see how you can combine wildlife, people, architecture and countryside, as a sort of thing that hasn’t been done before. I’m quite interested in doing things for the first time. I’m a bit project-motivated I guess.”
Considering this is the heart of Gloucestershire, with Prince Charles’s Highgrove estate just five miles up the road, you’d have expected the green welly brigade to be up in arms at such untraditional fare, but Paxton has had unanimous support from the planners, he says. This is, after all, a brownfield site, not a historic village. Still, seeing as he laid out his own model village of Poundbury as a monument to architectural nostalgia, you can imagine Prince Charles choking on a Duchy Original when he saw what was going up in his own back yard. Paxton is more sympathetic to HRH than appearances suggest. “What he’s doing with Poundbury is a step in the right direction,” he says. “He’s completely not in the position that I am. I’m a private figure, strutting my own funky stuff on a piece of land that I own. He’s using more trust-type funding, I think, in a development that has to make money. He doesn’t have a building company like I do, so it has to be carved up between six or seven hairy-arsed house builders, and they’ll all pop down to the builder’s merchants. They don’t want to look at concave structures with suspended bedroom pods.”
The first “village” of 80 homes at Lower Mill, which was completed three years ago, is possibly closer to Prince Charles’s tastes than the cutting-edge modern flagships planned later. To put it bluntly, they are postcard pastiche; the type of new builds you might find trying to blend in with any of the surrounding villages, clad in still-new Cotswold stone, with pitched and even some thatched roofs. Paxton has clearly gone through something of an architectural learning curve since, though. The second, current, phase is a more design-conscious fusion of reassuring traditional housing types with more contemporary interventions, such as large, punched-through windows, full-height sliding glass doors and fully glazed gable ends. Externally, they come in a variety of finishes, from timber boarding to coloured render. This second phase was designed by Richard Reid, an academic-turned-architect who is now master planning the rest of the project, and whom Paxton describes as “an inspiration”.
“While it’s very tempting to get a standard house and make some money on it, we realised if we did do that we’d make it look like a housing estate,” Reid explains. “And we wanted to make it something other than that. We wanted to have it animated in a way that you imagine places that have developed over a period of time are.”
Reid has clearly been an influence on Paxton’s vision. His expansion of one of these “standard” houses, at the request of the client, resulted in what became the fi rst Landmark house, a generous, three-storey modernist box perched over the water. From there, Reid helped Paxton draw up a list of architects they should approach.
Reid’s Sundance Villa is also one of the eight Landmark designs on the slate: a circular, 1960s-looking modernist eyrie, whose entire top storey will be able to rotate 360 degrees. “We believe these are the equivalents of the mansions of the old traditional village,” says Reid of the Landmark homes. “Or the big boats in the marina. They create a sense of changefulness that is part of the character of the English village in a way. Of course, it isn’t a village, but it is a community.”
Which raises the question: if Lower Mill Estates isn’t a village, then what is it? If you were feeling uncharitable, you could describe it as a rural gated community, that’s tailored to the weekend migration patterns of city types. Or even an idealised rural theme park - all the benefi ts of the countryside but none of that awkward interaction with the people who actually live and work there. Then again, developments like this could be a solution to the problem of second-home buyers pricing up and killing off rural villages, or a way of balancing the demands of farmers and conservationists. However it turns out, in architectural terms, Paxton is taking a bolder leap than possibly any other property developer in the country, and the risks are entirely his. Perhaps one day, Lower Mill Estate will be a pilgrimage site for Britain’s architecture fans, as well as its birdwatchers.
Lower Mill Estate, 01285 869 489, www.lowermillestate.com