“A house is a Machine for living in. A famous French architect said this a few years ago and a great many people did not understand him. They thought he must mean that a house ought to look like a piece of machinery – hard, shining, and certainly uncomfortable to live in. But he was quite right really. He wasn’t talking about what a house looks like. He was telling us what it is made for.” Geoffrey Boumphrey 1937
Geoffrey Maxwell Boumphrey (1894-1969) may not be a name many are familiar with, but back in the mid twentieth century it adorned the jacket of many a wholesome coffee table reference book. ‘The Shell Guide to Britain’ series, ‘Engines and How They Work’, ‘Along
The Roman Roads’, ‘Sea Farmers’, ‘Down River’ are all titles featuring Boumphrey’s wisdom. For a period he even sat in the editors chair at ’The Listener Magazine’ (Radio Times meets Points of View). ‘Your Home & Mine’, from which the above quote is taken, was an accompanying booklet for the BBC’s Broadcasts to Schools in the Spring of 1937. It aimed to educate children in the development of our homes, from the earliest settlements through to the present day modernist movement, and even speculate as to what changes might occur in the future.
The success of this particular project led him to expand the text into 1938’s full book ‘YOUR HOUSE and MINE’. 250 pages of easy to understand architectural basics charting the rise of the spaces we live in. To illustrate the striking differences between multiple eras of architecture plenty of glossy black and white plates are included. So when it came to showcasing ‘the modern home’, there could be no better example than his own minimalist mansion: Heatherdale.
Geoffrey was a keen out-and-out modernist. So much so that in 1933 he had gone into partnership with fellow author, and stalwart of the twentieth century design reform movement; Philip Morton Shand. Together they founded Finmar, importers of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto‘s groundbreaking pressed plywood furniture. Boumphrey waxes lyrical about the benefits of ply in YHaM: “Plywood never shrinks and so does not need to be held in a grooved panel, a form of construction that was invented purely to allow for the shrinkage in solid wood… Thick plywood can be built up of as many as thirteen laminations, and designers realised that they might use this new unshrinkable wood in a new way. Why should not a whole carcass be built of sheets of plywood, stiffened internally with battens where needed?”. He goes on at some length on this subject including photographs of items of furniture from his own abode.
Presumably looking for the perfect setting to showcase Finmar’s latest imports, in 1935 Geoffrey, with the help of consultant architect F.R.S. Yorke (one of the most celebrated modernist British architects of this period) set to work designing his own streamline masterpiece.
Completed in 1937, Heatherdale was Geoffrey’s home for about 10 years before he moved on. At some point, presumably fairly early on in its life, the name was changed to Conigree and now has a covenant preventing it from ever being called Heatherdale again. The house still stands and I was lucky enough to recently be shown around it by its fifth and current custodians.
Situated on the top of a hill in Bredon, Conigree overlooks the Avon and its surrounding common land. Looking West the views stretch almost as far as the eye can see with the Malvern Hills sitting proudly on the horizon. This exposed location works both ways, as the house is visible to passers by from miles around (you can clearly see it while travelling up the M5, look East between junctions 8 & 9, you can’t miss it).
It’s an imposing robust property with a flat roof. This comes as no surprise as again, Geoffrey talks enthusiastically about the benefits of flat roofs in ‘Your House and Mine’. “There is nothing experimental about flat roofs, there are examples up and down the country that have needed no repair for over 100 years. But it is only within the last few years they have become cheap as well as reliable”. He talks about the reduced stress on the walls, the option of overhead natural lighting, easy maintenance, and reduction of the ‘over turning effect of wind’. “A flat roof gives the owner an extension to his garden, where he and his family may sunbathe, play or rest without being overlooked. In the summer he can sleep out there, secure from interruptions”.
There are no fancy curves or towers that often feature in 1930s moderne houses, just clean lines and straight edges. Laid out in an L shape, it originally featured two single story sections at either end with tubular railings. Black metal framed ‘Crittal’ windows contrasted the smooth white render. Render that was unfortunately stripped off in the 1950’s exposing the bare bricks. Then followed a spell in pink, and then green masonry paint (what where they thinking?!). The current owners painted it cream in the mid 1990’s, but are considering a return to the pale render of its heyday.
While it’s clearly the same property Boumphrey designed in the ‘30’s, changes to its layout have taken place. The single story North balcony has been lost in a second floor extension, while a kitchen extension has been added in a matching style to the West. A further section has been added to the Northern single story area, but doesn’t feature railings. A modern conservatory also sits on the West side which was added a few years back to replace a crumbling mid-twentieth century lean-to.
The plot has also shrunk over the years with a row of bungalows sat in what was originally the lower reaches of the garden. Apparently responsibility for this is shared among the previous owners, each building a couple more to sell off during their tenure.
The most noticeable change on the exterior is the lack of original windows. Modern UPVC double glazing may add thermal efficiency and ease of maintenance, but fail to create the charm of the original metal frame casements.
Inside Conigree is a modern family home with little sign of its minimalist past. The original reinforced concrete staircase with tubular banister, some internal doors, and the fitted wardrobe and dressing table photographed in YHaM (now painted white with different handles) are the only original features remaining. That said, we can’t all live in museums, and it’s still a lovely space to be in. Should a future owner wish to revert to Geoffrey’s vision of clean smooth lines and ply, it could easily be done.
I’d like to say a huge thanks to current owners Roger & Di for taking time out of their Sunday afternoon to show me around and let me take photographs for my Streamline Worcestershire project.