Home For Life
Roger Dean has designed a house for the new millennium: artistically beautiful, environmentally kind, but cheap and quick to build. It began as a college project to design a child’s bed and grew into a radically new form of architecture for a world awakening to the damage done by post-war housing and office development.
Dean’s paintings and album covers are known around the globe, and his futuristic style has been much imitated. The mythical beasts and dazzling clarity of light and colour are his trademark, but at the heart of much of his work are the wondrous buildings that mushroom into his cobalt skies. Fantastic as they may look, these are architectural drawings of structures that can be built.
The starting point of this new architecture was that child’s bed. Dean’s research for the project highlighted one central theme that became the basis for all his future designs. He questioned dozens of children about what they liked or disliked about their beds and bedrooms. Again and again, when they spoke of discomfort they were referring not to the softness of the mattress but the “feel” of the room. They said they were afraid of spaces under the bed, where monsters might lurk, or shapes made by clothes hanging on the back doors or highly patterned wallpapers. When asked what they would like, the children described caves or tent-like structures. They wanted to be enclosed; hidden from view but able to see out. In other words, in order to feel comfortable they had to feel safe.
In adults this primeval instinct to seek security is blurred by the sophistication of taste. But it is still apparent in the way we behave in our daily lives. When you go to a restaurant you tend to choose a table in a corner with your back to the wall, so you know what is happening around you and no one can approach unseen from behind.
When Dean came to design a bed for adults he added steps up to it. By chance, he built them with a clockwise rise. “I didn’t realise for a while that if I’d made them go the other way it would have felt dreadful,” he says. “I subsequently found that in Chuku Jujitsu fortress design in the middle ages that the accommodation is reached by staircases that rise clockwise. So that anyone attacking with pole arms or swords would all be off balance.” The threat of military attack may have declined but the need for security and privacy is, if anything, more important in the late 20th century.
The key to Roger Dean’s architecture is this strategic control of space. To be comfortable in a house, it must make you feel at home. This led Dean to design his womb-like rooms which can be arranged in clusters to form house, flats, hotels, office towers, or multimillion pound entertainment centres.
His buildings are also ecologically sound in their use of materials and designed to enhance rather than spoil the surroundings: in some cases it would be appropriate to enclose them in the earth. Although he sees the environmental spin off as secondary, Dean holds strong views on the role of his structures within the environment. “For example, I love timber but would use it very sparingly in a house, even if it came from a renewable source. All kinds of architectural groups are calling their buildings environmentally friendly, but there isn’t such a thing. You’ve hurt the environment by building on it. There is a concept in Feng Shui that we are spiritual gardeners.”
These radical shapes required new building techniques and materials if they were not to remain art on the page. The key to their production is the use of gunnite, or sprayed concrete. A 1cm layer of plaster and hessian is laid over a reusable fibreglass mould of the interior of the room, divided into three or four pieces per room which are then assembled. One huge advantage of this technique is the short time it takes to assemble: as little as six hours to complete a one-storey four bedroom house. Wiring is then installed into this as yet delicate structure.
The strength comes when steel rods and gunnite are added, with pumice beads for insulation. A team of three to four people could “build” such a home within a day, adding ceramic vents, chimneys and spires to taste. The infrastructure, however, takes some three to four weeks to cure. The cost of producing a Dean house compares favourably with conventional units of similar specification. The process could save 10-20 per cent on materials alone.
A further 40-50 per cent can be saved on labour. In order to make these substantial savings there have to be moulds in existence. These moulds cost about a million pounds to produce. But, once made, they can be used to fabricate thousands of buildings.
Text © Evadne Lucas