HOUSE WORKS, A Trilogy of Films by Emily Richardson

TT Journal, ISSUE 5, 20th January 2023

By Emily Richardson

3 Church Walk, 2014

3 Church Walk is a film made with writer Jonathan P. Watts and sound composer Simon Limbrick about the modernist architect H.T. ‘Jim’ Cadbury-Brown’s Suffolk house that he and his wife Betty Dale designed and built in 1962 on a site originally earmarked by the composer Benjamin Britten for the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts’ first opera stage. Cadbury-Brown was a British architect best known for his contribution to the design of the iconic Brutalist development of the Royal College of Art in London and earlier work on pavilions for the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951.

3 Church Walk is a journey through the house in its abandoned state as he left it when he died in 2009. The soundtrack is composed from recordings of the objects, surfaces and materials of the house being played as though so many instruments, not unlike the way Britten played car springs or tea cups for his compositions The Burning Fiery Furnace and Noye’s Fludde.

3 Church Walk, film still, Emily Richardson, 2014

Beach House, 2015

Beach House is a film about a unique example of rural modernism built on the UK coast of Suffolk by the architect John Penn. As well as an architect, Penn was a painter, musician and poet. Beach House is one of nine houses Penn built across East Suffolk, each of which features designs of uncompromising symmetry, adhering to the points of the compass in their positioning in the landscape. Using a limited language of materials and form, they were influenced by the time Penn spent working in California with Richard Neutra, and might be regarded as Californian modernist pavilions in the Suffolk landscape.

Beach House is John Penn’s most uncompromising design. The film combines an archive 16mm film made by Penn himself on completion of the house with his experimental sound recordings made during the same period and material more recently filmed in the house to explore a convergence of filmic and architectural language. Together, the material invites the viewer to piece together Beach House in its past and present forms.

Beach House film still, Emily Richardson, 2015

Spender House, 2018

The Spender House in Essex was designed in 1968 by Richard and Su Rogers (Team 4) for photographer and artist Humphrey Spender. The film is a biographical portrait of both architecture and inhabitant.

Spender died in 2005 but his spirit is still very present in the house and studio. The film explores the unique architectural qualities of the house and studio and provides a glimpse of its former inhabitant’s life and work as a painter, textile designer and photographer of British life in the 1930s for Mass Observation.

Spender House is a temporal exploration of place, an exploded portrait of architecture and inhabitant aided by the use of archival sound recordings of interviews made with Spender for the British Library.

Spender House, film still, Emily Richardson 2018

House Works, reFraming the Modern House.

Emily Richardson

“A house is not a machine to live in” asserted Eileen Gray in defiance of Le Corbusier’s famous declaration. “It is,” she continued, talking nonetheless in gendered terms, “the shell of a man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.”

A politics of the interior of the house – as both psychological and physical space – is lacking in historical accounts of modern architecture. The overwhelming narrative of the heroic aesthetic icon is in opposition to the quietly radical ways these buildings were inhabited, which offer up alternative readings of space and ways of life that were culturally connected, creative and unconventional.

The narrative of the house is a filmic narrative, the house a collection of objects, memories and images, an archive and in some instances a private museum. It’s these narratives that emerge in this trilogy of films. The stories of each house are embedded in the surfaces, objects and materials found within the domestic interior: reactivating these spaces lost to architectural history, the films express aspects of the potential stories held there.

With each of the films a house is reconstructed as a film, reactivating the architectural space as filmic space. The three houses are: H.T. ‘Jim’ and Betty Cadbury-Brown’s 3 Church Walk, Aldeburgh, Suffolk (1962) John Penn’s Beach House, Shingle Street, Suffolk (1969) and Richard and Su Rogers’ Spender House and Studio, near Maldon, Essex (1968).

Spender House, film still, Emily Richardson, 2018

The structures themselves represent an intense period of experimentation in the 1960s with the very idea of what it is to be a house and represent a utopian vision of the artist’s retreat. Each house is a remote, private zone of creativity, self-contained and connected to the rural landscape rather than metropolitan life. The films expand a representation of a moment in time of each of the houses they depict. While each is significant for its architectural history, equally significant are the biographies of their architects/owners.

Fifty years on, these houses represent generational shifts towards ideas about architectural space, from H.T. Cadbury-Brown’s Festival of Britain era of picturesque modernism to John Penn’s unlikely marriage of Californian ideals with the Suffolk landscape to Richard and Su Rogers’ younger generational view to a future of hi-tech building.

The links between this period of architecture and the importance of its photographic representation and the filmic quality of its rectilinear geometry were initial starting points of research. These 1960s modern houses are all small, single storey houses that are seemingly simple in plan and design but very rich visually and in terms of narrative.

In the case of 3 Church Walk, the documents, Notes on an Opera House for Aldeburgh and Cadbury-Brown’s Architectural Association address of 1959, Ideas of Disorder, were formative in the development of the idea for the film. Cadbury-Brown’s conception of the experience of architecture as an enforced choreography and his belief that architecture is better described, not as frozen music but as the framework for a dance, informed the approach to the film as the framework for a dance and a choreography.

Penn and Cadbury-Brown both had strong connections to music. Cadbury-Brown was perhaps the influence behind Benjamin Britten’s experiments with brutalism, sound as found, and Penn, who although an untrained musician, had formed an experimental music group with friends and colleagues. In the case of Beach House it was this discovery of Penn’s metaphonics recordings and a 16mm film that he made in 1971 that led to the approach taken of combining archive materials with newly shot material, bringing elements of past and present together and showing how the building has changed since Penn’s film was made.

There are strong links between Penn’s houses and the Spender House in the influence of Richard Neutra (with whom Penn had spent an eighteen-month period working, following his graduation from the Architectural Association) and his Los Angeles Case Study Houses, which led me from Penn’s Beach House to Richard and Su Rogers’ Parkside and then to the overlooked Spender House in Essex.

With the Spender House, a relationship to photography and photographer in both the architecture and the remains of Humphrey Spender’s studio became key in developing an approach to the film. The photographic images available of this house and studio construct an iconic, aspirational view of the modern architect-designed house, but the place I encountered when I first visited the house and studio in 2016 did not adhere to this view of perfectly ordered minimal living.

The films constitute a mode of experience of the houses they represent. 3 Church Walk attempts to communicate the experience of discovery of a significant semi-abandoned modern ruin and the subsequent piecing together of a first impression with detailed research into the biographical history of the architects and their ideas made manifest in the architecture they designed and inhabited until their deaths.

3 Church Walk film still, Emily Richardson, 2014

Beach House creates a different mode of experience in that it combines the architect’s own film of the house at the time of completion, which is clearly dated by the youthful looks and 1970s clothing, with contemporary footage that marks the change from an almost makeshift feel to a considered, composed interior with mid- century furniture and owners of an older generation. Penn’s metaphonics recordings thread past and present together, giving an acute awareness of time.

The experience of Spender House marks a shift towards an inhabited mode from an uninhabited and partially inhabited mode of the two previous films respectively. The house is deeply inhabited, made clear in the shots of the interior full of books, furniture and belongings and in the treatment of the artist’s studio and Spender’s output as a photographer, painter and textile designer. In this film, also partly due to the use of Spender’s voice, an explicit connection is made between place and person, between architecture and inhabitant.

Architecture struggles with its static nature as film struggles with its two-dimensionality. Film, taken literally, is a projected surface, lacking in depth and form, while architecture is solid and unable to move, but in these aspects film is able to provide architecture with something that it lacks and vice versa. They complement each other in that film can activate space through movement and architecture can provide film with spatial depth.

Movement and the dynamic relationship between film and viewer is evident in Giuliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (2002, pp.15-17) where she posits the idea of a voyageur, rather than a voyeur, suggesting an active, moving subject engaged in the filmic space through the architecture of the screen. However, it is not only the architecture on-screen and of the screen that engages the viewer in film but also the spatial possibilities and the emotive nature of sound. Now that the screen is carried on our person this idea of the voyageur is even more relevant. We are the screen. It has become an extension of the body in a way that alters both our relationship to the moving image and potentially also the architectonics of film.

Eisenstein’s essay, Montage and Architecture (1929), sets out a clear and definite link between film and architecture and creates a mobile spectator by using a walk around the Acropolis to describe the montage principle (Eisenstein, Bois and Glenny, 1989, p.110). This movement of the body in space describes how when shots are put together they create movement in space, walking to construct meaning. This is an embodied spectator, not a detached gaze and as Bruno points out, in this view “film is architectural and architecture is filmic” (Bruno, 2002, p.56).

The activation of both architecture and film requires a subject, a person, a body engaging with it and where this occurs is where these films are focused, not by putting people in the film or populating the architectural image with ‘users’, but by navigating through the architectural and filmic spaces with the camera to create narrative. This geometry of passage, a movement through architectural space in time is a narrative in the sense of a personal journey, a narrative of the everyday.

This is evident in 3 Church Walk as the house is seen in its semi-abandoned state with many traces of the lives lived within it. What has been left behind in the house is significant in that Cadbury-Brown specified in his will (and the family have used small green stickers to indicate these objects) that certain pieces of furniture and objects should be left with the house for its new occupants on his death. This includes the Anglepoise lamps, the Breuer style chair as well as all his records, a record player and other personally significant items with little monetary but much personal value attached. The house is deeply rich in narrative as it was designed by Jim and Betty Cadbury-Brown and lived in until their deaths. Every aspect of the space, light play in the rooms, tiles chosen for the floor and the design and layout of the space reflect their ideals and way of life, some of which are communicated through the film and further interpreted in the book made with Jonathan P. Watts and Occasional Papers, Ideas of Disorder: 3 Church Walk by Cadbury-Brown (2017).

3 Church Walk, film still, Emily Richardson, 2014

In Beach House the house is seen through the lens of the archival material, the architect’s footage, Shingle St 1971 shot soon after its completion, and in the free improvised metaphonics recordings made by Penn and his musician friends. These elements combined with my own footage, shot in 2015, giving a glimpse of its present-day inhabitants, create a view of the house that sits between museum and lived space, past and present. Whereas in Spender House the house and studio are presented as a living archive. In the years since Spender’s death little has changed and the past remains visible, tangible in all the objects, books, artworks and personal effects that are left behind.

A room being readable is linked to an intellectual activity of imagination, in deciphering meaning in elements that make up a space, but conjuring an experience of space is more closely linked with an emotional connection and feeling that can be imagined in a more filmic way with images and sound, smell and touch. When a space is entered, whether physically or through an experience of space on film, the readable, the experiential and the haptic come into play and we are able to project ourselves into the image. It is this ability to project ourselves into a space, whether real or imaginary that interests me. In this way, the spaces of the houses that I describe through the films can become spaces that the viewer occupies momentarily.

When empty of people but still populated with objects or furniture, the space has the greatest readability. There is a connection made with ‘remains’, however slight and the imagination is stimulated in a poetic way to attempt to piece together a narrative from the fragments. The objects left behind take the place of absent inhabitants in a way that would not be possible if the image were populated and the sound in each of the films accentuates this absent presence.

The idea of sound as a haunting, a spectral presence is taken up by David Toop in Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (2010) and by Mark Fisher in Ghosts Of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014). Toop writes about spectral uncanny sounds and their relationship to memory and the spirit world. Hauntology, a term that Fisher points out is Jacques Derrida’s pun on ontology, is used in connection with a vein of electronic music and a particular cultural moment at the beginning of the twenty-first century to symbolize lost futures but could also be seen as a new nostalgia. Fisher claims “everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences that precede and surround it” (Fisher, 2014, p18). This sense of the uncanny, its link to memory and an absent presence are key to understanding how sound is used to reactivate empty spaces.

Beach House, film still, Emily Richardson, 2015

In film the frame is a key concept in defining the image, containing it, in a similar way to the structural frame of the house. The frame allows for composition of views in both film and architecture. Within the frame there can be harmony, compositionally or spatially. All three houses (Spender House, Beach House and 3 Church Walk) are frames for living, for viewing, for inhabitation, for the construction of images. Perhaps it is the exposure of the frames of each of these houses that lend themselves to articulation with the camera in this way.

The interior space and all it contains in terms of experience, the richness of familial relationships, the patterns of the everyday, the traces of changing lives becomes, as Bachelard said, ‘readable’ (1994, p.14). These transcend formal spatial descriptions to become phenomenologically active. These films transform the house to an artwork, framing it as such. Through this process the architecture acts as a frame for the life it contains. Moving from the exterior to the interior in Spender House reflects this as once inside the significance of objects, the archive, the collection and the arrangement of a personal space as a reflection of a life comes to the fore.

Together sound and image have the ability to define place and the human qualities of architectural space by translating and enabling embodied qualities of experience to film. Rather than simply creating an instrumental architectural simulation, these films expand a representation of a moment in time of each of the houses they depict.

Emily Richardson is an artist filmmaker whose practice examines relationships to our physical environment. In her films she is interested in how the spatial, sonic and temporal structures operating within artists’ film can translate atmosphere and lived experience of time and place.  Her films have been shown in galleries, museums and festivals internationally including Towner, Eastbourne; Focal Point, Southend; National Portrait Gallery, London; Tintype, London; Tate Modern and Tate Britain, London, Pompidou Centre, Paris, Barbican Cinema, London and Venice, Edinburgh, BFI London, Rotterdam and New York Film Festivals. Her work is distributed by Lux, London and Light Cone, Paris. Instagram: @emilyrichardsonfilms

Ideas of Disorder: 3 Church Walk by Cadbury-Brown
Edited by Emily Richardson and Jonathan P. Watts
180 × 200 mm, 107 pp.
ISBN 978-0-9929039-2-3


Bachelard, G. (2014). The Poetics of Space. New York: Penguin Books.
Bruno, G. (2007). Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.
Eisenstein, S.M. (1989). Montage and Architecture. Assemblage, (10), p.110.
Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Hants: Zero Books.
Richardson, E. and Watts, J.P. (2017). Ideas of Disorder: 3 Church Walk. London: Occasional Papers.
Toop, D. (2012). Sinister Resonance: the mediumship of the listener. London: Continuum.