The Art Barn review – from agricultural shed to sublime studio

Sometimes architecture gets called “sculptural”. It’s a loose adjective, often translating as “big, lumpy and/or oddly shaped”. It ignores the ways in which, apart from being three-dimensional and quite heavy, buildings are not like sculptures: they are usually made for use, for a start, and to the brief of a client, and have to obey such things as building regulations. The people who design them are not usually those who make them, and all sorts of contractual layers lie between the concept and the finished object. There are exceptions to these distinctions – sometimes sculptures are made to commission and sometimes not by the sculptor’s own hands, for example – but they are still significant.

The Art Barn, in the Teign Valley in Devon, is designed by an architect for the use of a sculptor – by Thomas Randall-Page, a former employee of Thomas Heatherwick now set up on his account, for his father, Peter, a Royal Academician, who has lived and worked in these parts for 34 years. It is a place for making, storing and displaying art – essentially three rooms: a big, light-filled hall for the works, an elevated drawing studio and an air-conditioned archive. And although the building work looks not much like a sculpture, being mostly quite linear and skinny, it takes pleasure in weight and gravity, and in the ways that materials are worked, that could actually be called “sculptural”.

It is the conversion of a barn – not of some venerable old oak-framed thing but of the type of 20th-century prefabricated structure that sits unremarked all over the countryside. Off-grid, it gets its power from solar panels. Clad externally in new timber boards, it sits unfussily in the luscious landscape of Dartmoor national park. Lined inside with clean white surfaces, it gives an airy, calm, practical volume, with big doors for getting multi-tonne pieces of stone and bronze in and out, and opportunities for daylight to come from different directions.

Then it is brought to life, most obviously by moving parts – concertina shutters, sliding doors, a piece of wooden wall that magically folds up to form a balcony – more subtly by the variety of the interior. The floor drops half a level on one side, following a natural slope in the ground. The drawing studio is a cabin, raised on four legs above this lower level (“a beast”, Thomas Randall-Page calls it, in honour of the quadrupeds who used to inhabit the barn). It creates just enough headroom underneath for a place to sit around an iron stove – an inglenook, you could call it. Flights of steps offer alternative routes between the levels.

A gamut is run of exposure and enclosure. The main space feels half-outdoors, with views out to the landscape through wide glass walls and doors, the thin fabric of the converted barn providing just enough protection from the elements. The drawing cabin, on the other hand, is doubly wrapped, a building within a building, timber-lined inside and cork-clad outside.

Views connect indoors to out, and different parts of the interior to each other, creating multiple combinations of near and far and open and enclosed. You can look through glass doors to the horizon, or down the slope as it continues outdoors, falling steeply through trees towards the River Teign below. You can look from the main space into the cabin, which is lit up inside by its own roof light, and out from it into the main space.

The materials run gamuts too, of heavy and light and warm and cold. Some elements seem carved from the ground, others floating in space. There are many materials – stone both rough and worked, an oak block floor, several other kinds of timber, steel, concrete, cork – their differences unified by a consistent reddish-greyish range of tones, and by the details where they meet. A timber column is nicely notched, for example, into its granite base.

A stone wall, about four feet high, runs from outside to in, retaining an external terrace and the raised concrete floor of the main space, then wrapping around three sides of the inglenook. It is made of rough pieces of granite – waste material from the local Blackenstone quarry, which once supplied the stone with which Edwin Lutyens built the monumental nearby house of Castle Drogo. Here, it was assembled with skill and thought by the mason Jeremy Greaves. There is art in the ways the big and little pieces go together, and in which the marks of cutting and working are offered to view. At one end the stone wall becomes a flight of six sturdy steps, which is then continued by galvanised steel treads, as light as can be, hanging it the air from a cantilevered wooden spar.

Much of this is quite simple, but it makes you aware of what it is to be both sheltered and next to nature. You can see the work of the building – what is holding it up, what is keeping you dry, what actions built the wall and cut the wood. It is direct. What you see is what you get. But it is not just blunt function; there is rhyming of the parts with each other, and wit in the ways they go together.

This project owes many of its qualities to the way it was built, which was by employing craftspeople and builders directly, under the direction of Peter Randall-Page’s former studio manager, PJ Dove, rather than through a main contractor. This made it easier to make decisions on the spot, to respond to the properties of a material or a space as they presented themselves. The Art Barn’s design also benefits from the fact that, as a place of storage and work, it doesn’t need to be as warm as a private house, which means that its spare lines don’t have to be muffled by thick layers of insulation.

The Art Barn is a singular and secluded project, a hut in the woods serving an exceptional purpose. It offers some freedoms from the usual constraints of building, which the younger Randall-Page has intelligently used. The result is architecture – the creative bringing together of materials, making, space, light, site and use. It would, of course, be nice to see such qualities in less rarefied situations, in the everyday buildings of British cities, but, meanwhile, they should be appreciated for what they are.

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