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The house that Tetra Pak built - Lucinda Lambton

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | Jan 08, 2024

The hall at The New House

The Swedish packaging king commissioned John Outram to build him a post-modernist house in Kent in ‘blitzcrete’. By Lucinda Lambton

Here’s a surprise.

The New House near Tunbridge Wells in Kent is inspired by the architecture of an industrial warehouse between Heathrow and Slough. It’s a rare and exquisite example of an English country house in the post-modernist style.

I write ‘exquisite’ because, despite there being barely a single window on its marble façade, every inch of the building is quite beautifully executed.

The façade

It is a startlingly original design for a dwelling, incorporating a glorious use of materials with their variety of textures and colours – yes, colours. Reigning supreme is its most satisfying attention to detail, applied both inside and out.

It was designed between 1983 and 1986 by John Outram, my particular hero of the post-modernist movement. He also created the dazzlingly polychromatic Temple of Storms pumping station on the Isle of Dogs between 1982 and 1988. He was responsible too for the brilliant-with-many-hues Egyptian House – Sphinx Hill – on the Thames at Moulsford in Oxfordshire; as festive a house as you are ever likely to see!

Why has post-modernism been so often damned, mocked and derided? It is true that a good deal of pure copying has many a time been rampant. With its determined reaction against the austerity of modernism, it has often turned out to be uncomfortably giddy in its eclecticism. You could even say that it sometimes cheapened the noble art of architecture.

Mies van der Rohe declared, ‘Less is more.’ Architect and urban planner Denise Scott Brown rightly responded, ‘Less is a bore.’

Generally, though, recognition of the style has gained acceptance, in that these buildings have all been listed Grade I* or Grade II by Historic England. HURRAY!

The New House was commissioned to produce a house that was not a historical pastiche. It was created for an industrialist who was concerned that industry had had a bad name. He was particularly pleased to be able to build a dwelling made of industrial components, such as steel framing, concrete cladding and, for good measure, asbestos roof. The plans took five years to develop, going through all manner of construction systems and designs.

Hans and Märit Rausing were the discerning pair who commissioned the building. He had been the co-developer, along with his brother Gad, of the food-packaging company Tetra Pak, founded by their father Ruben, which was eventually to become the most successful food-carton company in the world.

Good at packing: Hans and Märit Rausing

Far from being a monster marketing man – Hans Rausing’s family fortune was worth $12 billion when he died, aged 93, in August 2019 – he was also as sensitive a character as you could ever wish to meet. For good measure, he was the gentlest and most loving of husbands; hence the delicacy of his decorative vision.

Heritage England described the design as being built in ‘highly creative and idiosyncratic architectural language, executed with absolute consistency of vision and meticulous quality of detail; an exceptionally unusual example of a post-modern country house’.

And so it most certainly is, with Outram’s innovative ‘fancy concrete’. He calls it his blitzcrete of crushed brick and rubble, ground up and polished to expose great chips of terracotta. He also designed three other coloured concretes.

What with an abundance of marquetry and polished plasterwork, creativity and craftsmanship running through the very fabric of the building, it was, as Outram says, ‘built like a factory and finished like a palace’.

Inside, the hall shines brightest of all, with polished walls of stucco lustro banded with burr elm and aluminium. There is inlaid trelliswork on the doors and a travertine floor laid as the footprint of a gigantic column.

Ornate floor

Stucco lustro is crushed marble and lime put on with a hot trowel, mottled with a sponge, left to dry and then, some months later, beeswaxed to a lustrous shine. The doors are of avodire wood, inlaid with trelliswork of 2,500 strips of pale and dark grey-dyed sycamore, all giving the strangely soft effect of moleskin. There are splendid views outside of a deer park stocked with over 1,000 creatures.

The New House has an atmosphere through which you float with delight. Strange to say, considering its grandeur, there is an air of considerable cosiness.

The Orangery – big, bold and built of red brick – was the last vestige – albeit a gargantuan vestige – of Wadhurst Park, a house of 1884 that had become ruinous in the early-20th century. An early plan had been to build the house within this shell, but Outram successfully suggested that the old building should stand alone as a splendid ruin.

So it remained until, to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, as well as to celebrate the millennium, the Rausings transformed it into a quite beautiful ballroom with a spectacularly domed and glazed rectangle of a roof and a further wealth of coloured blitzcrete.

The Millennium Pavilion, as it is called, is a triumphant addition to The New House.