Best in Class: Tilty Barn by John Pawson

Our series ‘Best in Class’ sees us cast a spotlight on some of our favourite pieces of residential architecture, from contemporary RIBA Award winders to Modernist gems. Here, we’re looking at Tilty Barn by John Pawson.

The 1990s saw hordes of urbanites flocking out to the countryside on the prowl for disused agricultural buildings, which, after decades of rural decline, were in abundance.

Favoured for their expansive lateral space, high ceilings and industrial heritage, barn conversions were a natural extension of what was happening in the city: just as east London’s warehouses were being converted for open-plan living, so too were their countryside counterparts.

The best of its ilk, Tilty Barn in Essex, is a sensitive reimagining of a series of farm buildings by architectural designer John Pawson. The complex had grown intermittently and disorderly from the 18th century onwards, to comprise a string of loosely connected structures, ranging from the original 1700s barn to a contemporary stable, arranged in a quadrangle with one side missing.

With a minimalist approach now synonymous with his name, Pawson’s intervention was restrained and sympathetic, so as to celebrate the existing structures, rather than to muffle them. The elaborate lattice of the main barn’s ancient timber frame, for example, backdrops the crisp, orthogonal bulk of an added fireplace with pleasing textural tension.

Even the spatial configuration was designed to avoid spectacle. The volume and intricacy of the original barn was determined to be the natural nucleus of the house, but its potential dominance over the other areas was muted by the positioning of the front door, which dictated that you access the barn via the other spaces first. The resulting effect is one of discovery and surprise, rather than initial, short-lived awe.

Elsewhere, material choices are commendable for their discretion, such as the unimposing concrete floor that covers the entire lateral space. The only exterior additions were large expanses of glass to cover the exposed sides of the original structure. Edge- and frame-free, they disappear rather than appear, especially when facing outwards to the landscape, while also suspending the roof, as though it was floating.

In its elegant modesty and lack of spectacle, Tilty Barn is a paragon of architectural restraint. With honest, appropriate materials, a spatial arrangement defined by a lack of showmanship and a respectful relationship with the original structure, it proves that modern architecture transcends being ‘contemporary’; despite being finished over 20 years ago, the house hasn’t aged a day.

Converted to conversions? Explore our collection of barns, warehouses, factories, schools and chapels reimagined for modern living

Read more: My Modern House: interior architect Fiona Naylor on converting industrial buildings in Dungeness

Best in Class: The Modern House’s dispatch from Alvar Aalto’s house and studio in Helsinki