With summer just around the corner, many of us are still on the prowl for the ultimate vacation rental property — a getaway that’s charming, comfortable and in a location that can’t be beat.
Of course, there are certain attributes and amenities that truly help seal the deal.
Maybe it’s a Jacuzzi tub that fits eight. Or perhaps a flat-screen TV in every bedroom and a Wii to keep the kids merrily preoccupied. Perhaps said rental property is just a quick Uber ride away from a boardwalk, nightclub and/or outlet mall. Or maybe it’s cheery Key West colors and a casual, beach-y aesthetic that ultimately wins you over.
You’ll find absolutely none of this at Life House, the latest for-hire holiday house from Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture program. Tucked away amongst the mist-shrouded hills of the Welsh moors, Life House, or Tŷ Bywyd, is isolated, austere, unplugged. A riot of neutral colors — think: grey and beige and white and more grey — Life House is a luxury vacation property reimagined as a hermitage.
And indeed, the unadorned dwellings of Benedictine monks served as a direct inspiration for the overall design of Life House, a design helmed by lauded minimalist maestro John Pawson in collaboration with de Botton, the Swiss-born philosopher and bestselling author who serves as Living Architecture’s creative director.
Founded in 2010 by de Botton, Living Architecture is a British nonprofit that rents highly distinctive holiday homes as a way to “promote, educate and influence discussion about modern architecture.” While there are hundreds upon hundreds of stunning and architecturally significant modern homes scattered throughout Great Britain, few are accessible to the public. Living Architecture was founded, in part, to change that by enabling ordinary holidaymakers, usually resigned to aging or nondescript rental cottages, to not just visit a singular contemporary abode but to spend a few nights in one.
Each Living Architecture vacation rental — with the addition of Life House, there are now seven listings — is designed by a noted (and not necessarily British) architect or architecture firm. The most well known of the properties is Balancing Barn, a cantilevered curiosity in Suffolk executed by Dutch firm MVRDV. After a quiet spell, a new Living Architecture property, a House for Essex, was unveiled in 2015 near the small village of Wrabness.
Lavishly decorated and bursting with color, the unabashedly bananas House for Essex — celebrated transvestite ceramist Grayson Perry, in collaboration FAT architecture studio, oversaw the design — looks like something imported straight from a fairy tale — a habitable folly, a gingerbread house come to life.
Life House, the first Living Architecture property to be built in Wales, offers a stark aesthetic contrast to the jubilantly eccentric House for Essex. It’s a sleek, modernist abbey for Generation Stressed rendered in polished concrete and handmade Danish bricks (painted black on the outside, white on the inside, natch).
Yet they are both escapes, through and through. Located at a significant remove from the hustle and headache of modernity, these are destinations in which to truly lose oneself. Yet whereas the escapist appeal of House for Essex is firmly rooted in fantasy-making, Life House is more centered around solace, introspection and a bit of good, old-fashioned naval-gazing. Uncluttered and largely liberated from distractions, Life House is envisioned as a place for quiet contemplation, a place where renters can enter “a zone of extreme calm” and reemerge a few days later “re-invigorated to resume their responsibilities in the world.”
“Zone of extreme calm.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
The super-chill retreat, which can sleep up to six super-chill overnight guests, includes several key features that allow those residing within to achieve Zen — or something like it.
For one, there’s something called a “contemplation chamber,” which is basically a sunken room located at the end of a dimly lit corridor “where one is invited to lie down in a blank cavernous zone and purify and train the mind on true essentials.” For those who prefer to combine their deep thoughts with fresh air, there’s also an outdoor contemplation zone.
As far as the all-important bedrooms go, there are three. The Music Bedroom includes a “suitable generous music system” along with a “carefully curated selection of transcendent and calming music from all ages and genres.” Down the hall, the Library Bedroom is filled with books — that is, books described as some of the “most therapeutic works of Eastern and Western literature."
Finally, the Bathroom Bedroom centers around a “room-based bathing platform in which to lie and reassess existence with the help of views onto a Welsh valley.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it sounds lovely.
For when guests aren’t cloistered away in their private chambers reading Thoreau, zoning out to Clannad or, umm, bathing, spacious common areas, including a large modern kitchen and dining room, promote “sociability and communion.”
Explains de Botton in a press release:
With Life House (Tˆy Bywyd), we were looking to reinvent the monastery for a secular modern age; based upon the concept of a retreat; to take us back to the earliest days of Buddhism in the East, and of Stoic philosophy in the West. In both cases, the busy city was held to provide certain opportunities while at the same time, cutting us off from others. Chiefly, the risk is that we will forget to make time for ourselves, and omit to understand our own minds — and our need for calm and perspective”
While Life House is a study in monastic minimalism, it isn’t without high-end bells and whistles. Like the other Living Architecture properties, this is a luxury rental — with a price tag to match — so guests needn’t worry about lumpy pillows, oil lanterns or needing to laundering their undergarments in a nearby creek. The pared-down, L-shaped abode comes outfitted with Miele appliances (washer and dryer included), premium skincare and bath products and Egyptian cotton everything. You know, the necessary trappings of a discerning 21st-century eremite. There’s also WiFi, but the hosts warn in advance that access “can be intermittent.”
I suppose that whether Life House ultimately invokes tranquility and calm or a mean case of cabin fever really depends on the mindset of those who enter it. One has to be willing to let go. And it would seem that in this kind of share house type scenario, you really have to get along with your housemates.
Similar to other Living Architecture properties — save for the temporarily closed London rental, which is basically a wooden houseboat plopped atop a rooftop on the South Bank of the Thames — Life House is located deep in the sticks. It’s isolated. In this instance, the home, situated deep in the pastoral heart of mid Wales in the historic county of Radnorshire, is several miles away from a train station or population center. It's far away enough so that no one can hear you scream. Or om.
Inset interior photos: Gilbert McCarragher