Laura Cartledge pulls back the curtain on ‘theatrical’ architecture, and finds substance in the style.
Despite being the architect, and owner, of some of the countries most innovative and ground-breaking buildings - if you ask Matt White what he does the answer will be ‘I haven’t got a clue’.
“One of the great things for me is I don’t know what I do,” he confesses. “It is very varied. The first project we did was fantastically out there modern build in Shepherd’s Bush which was for me and won awards for being the most innovative house in the UK that year and then we did a Georgian building in Suffolk which won best Georgian property.”
When pressed to pin his work down, the best Matt can do is the word ‘theatrical’.
And when you start too look closer the sense of magic, wonder and clever technology behind his projects reveals it to be a very apt description indeed.
“Our office is in Leicester Square so I watch premieres unfold from my desk,” explains Matt, who reasons ‘technology is like magic when you first see it’.
“Can you remember when the first iPhone came out and everyone was like woah! You can touch the screen?! And now I see my children trying to zoom in and out on the TV,” he laughs. “The story of architecture is the story of technology. Greece was all about pillars then the Romans added arches and they came up with concrete.
“Skyscrapers are only made possible by steel beams and the introduction of elevators,” Matt insists. “If you make a building that is the same as the last one then there is no story to tell.”
There’s no risk of that at MATT Architecture, the firm he set up in 2011, with work ranging from a 15 storey proposal near the Tate Modern to his current home - a 400sqm house extension for a Victorian gate lodge in the South Downs National Park.
The latter, also known as ‘Danny Lodge’, appeared on Grand Designs last year.
With its black zinc cladding, sustainable technology, James Bond-style ‘escape pod in the roof’ and secret passageways - to name just a few of the features - the Hurstpierpoint home certainly lives up to the programme’s title.
However, Matt reveals, it wasn’t always going to take this form.
“When we were doing the original designs of Danny Lodge we tried to take the existing lodge and mirror it,” he recalls, “but what became most obvious was the we couldn’t do very much before it stopped looking like a lodge and started to look like a footballer’s palace.”
Instead the design soon changed direction, taking inspiration from properties on the same road which combine ‘small houses next to big barns’.
“Barns don’t scare people,” he reveals, “people know what they are so by calling it that people were able to understand it.”
This understanding, and communication, is something Matt states is key - especially with neighbours.
“If everyone wants it to happen it makes it a lot easier,” he says simply. “We went in to the process with letters of support because we gave them lots of wine - I mean, we talked to them.”
So how does Matt find being architect and client?
“If you are a megalomaniac narcissist it is fine,” he grins. “I was very aware I was the client but also that I am only 20 per cent of the family living there, there are four other people who have views on what they want that house to be.
“My job was getting the permission and laying out the spaces so they related to each other - small things like being able to get from the bedroom to the kitchen quickly in the morning to make that cup of tea.
“It is about getting things in the right place and light rooms - I think that is important.”
However, after the serious things like strong foundations and right flow had been plotted out, there’s little doubt the White family had a lot of fun.
As Matt excitedly lists things like the dens in the eaves to a pull-out stage in the playroom, you can’t help think that it has both his inner child and the couple’s three children in mind.
“The Scooby Doo door was me,” Matt confesses, it just means I watched it as a child.
“I also spent a lot of my childhood in National Trust properties so like the secret passageways but the fireman’s pole was Arthur.
“We have had a huge amount of fun with this and I do have to pinch myself,” he admits. “I am very appreciative of that, I am lucky and I am going to enjoy it. It has been a pleasure and a delight.”
And it isn’t over yet.
Work has begun this weekend to refurbish the old lodge and spring will see the link built between it and the extension.
“The door I am working on looks like a door to a cathedral, within that you will have double doors and then a smaller door which is child’s size - when they can’t fit through it anymore they have to go and get a job,” Matt laughs. “And then a smaller door for the cat or whatever, it will be like a Russian doll of doors.”
There are also plans for a Star Wars storm trooper to meet visitors, which Matt describes as ‘the knight’s armour to a 1970s kid’, when they enter.
What is poignant however is the features which will mean the family can grow old, or rather still feel young, in the home for years to come.
“The staircase behind the fireplace is the perfect size so if we suffer something tragic or just get old it can be taken out and a lift can be put in, we have planned for the future,” Matt enthuses. “I think we will be here for a while because I want the children to have that sense of place, of home. But I suspect there will be a holiday home to design soon...
“Having children gives you a grasp of your own mortality,” he reasons, “it gives you a sense of urgency and I am excited about what I have to do before I shuffle off this mortal coil.”
To find out more about MATT Architecture and the projects including Danny Lodge, visit www.mattarchitecture.com
Pictures: Will Pryce
This feature first appeared in January’s etc Magazine