Art + Architecture : Sunday Times Feature 10 September 2017
SUNDAY TIMES HOME : How a wartime bunker inspired a modernist home on the Isle of Wight
September 10 2017, The Sunday Times
The bunker has been transformed into an avant-garde home, sculpture garden and gallery
photo; JULIAN WINSLOW
During the second world war, more than 50 Chain Home early-warning radar stations were erected on Britain’s coast to keep the Luftwaffe at bay. The radar station at St Lawrence, on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, was built in 1941 and buried in the earth; it helped to detect V-1s, but was closed in 1947 and fell into ruin.
Like so many neglected historical or industrial buildings in this country, it has been saved by creative types embarking on a property project: in this case Lisa Traxler, an Isle of Wight-based artist, and her husband, the designer Lincoln Miles. They have transformed the abandoned RAF bunker into an avant-garde home, sculpture garden and gallery.
After the war, the Ministry of Defence had given the land back to its owners, whose descendants hired Lincoln to build a house in 2011. His proposal was granted planning permission, but the owners had second thoughts about the whole project, so in 2014 sold up to Lincoln and Lisa, who were looking for a new home and were captivated by the bunker.
Artist Lisa Traxler and her husband, Lincoln Miles, architectural designer
“It had a sense of monumentalism, like a Mayan temple coming out of a tropical rainforest,” Lincoln says, referring to the sloped walls that descend on one side. He and Lisa moved to the Isle of Wight in 2003, fleeing the trendiness of Shoreditch and Ladbroke Grove, and converted a 1950s bungalow that was featured in a 2010 episode of Grand Designs. It became a tourist attraction, so, when the bunker was offered to them, the fortysomething couple retreated to its secluded acre overlooking the south coast.
“The site was completely overgrown,” Lisa recalls. “It was forgotten. Gradually it was unearthed and you could see the form, the geometric shapes and the beautiful brutalist architecture.”
To keep the planners on side and preserve history, they kept the bunker virtually intact: they use the double-height concrete fortress as a gallery, with shafts of light poking through two apertures, and they’ve kept the weedy jungle on the roof. For housing, they’ve built a three-bedroom brutalist-style home next door, linked to the bunker by a passage. On top, a grass roof seemingly merges the two structures. Camouflaged by greenery, they are hardly visible: the MoD beat the earth-shelter home by 70 years.
The interiors have a raw feel photo:PHIL YEOMANS/BNPS
At the front, the house opens up with panoramic windows — “Ben-Hur vision”, as Lincoln calls it. Lisa clad the exterior in vertical steel fins adorned with wonky angular shapes, another form of camouflage. “It was partly a response to the bunker’s geometric shapes,” she says. “Also, it’s an unruly, raggedy landscape, with rocky outcrops and bits of concrete sticking out. I submerged myself in Second World War history and discovered that the building had been covered in camouflage, steel netting. I started reading about dazzle ships, and that informed the shapes and patterns of the fins.”
The contextual references persuaded the planners. “The building is roughly the same dimensions, and has a similar language,” Lincoln says. “Both buildings are quite secretive.” Good thing too: the house lies in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and could only gain planning permission under Paragraph 55, a clause that permits architecture of “exceptional design”. “It’s got to be groundbreaking, so have a conversation about why it is,” Lincoln advises. “If it is a heritage asset, all the better.”
The bunker is a historical curiosity. A book published last year, Churchill’s Last Wartime Secret by Adrian Searle, posits that 12 Nazi soldiers came ashore here in a dinghy in August 1943, intending to steal secrets from the radar station. They were expecting to encounter Dad’s Army, but were surprised and repelled by a crack team of British soldiers. The incident was allegedly hushed up by Churchill so as not to damage morale at home.
The bunker has been turned into a gallery, artwork: Lisa Traxler photo: JULIAN WINSLOW
“Some people say it happened, some say it didn’t, but I’m going to go with it,” Lincoln says. “It is thought that the Hitler Youth came here on holidays in 1938 and took photographs for reconnaissance. I want a film made, with Brad Pitt as the lieutenant on the German rubber boat. Michael Gambon could be Churchill and Tom Hardy would fly the Spitfires.”
The bunker certainly has gritty authenticity: stained, unfinished walls, rusted cables, a plinth where a diesel tank once sat. (It recently hosted a 21st-birthday party for the couple’s daughter, Ellie.)
Outside, Lisa has fashioned concrete detritus into “found” sculptures. Even in the new home, the feel is raw: surfaces are cross-laminated timber and pockmarked concrete. “We polished the floors ourselves — you can tell I was rubbish at it — but we don’t want it to be too perfect,” Lincoln says. “We didn’t want to see our face in it. Everything here has a patina.”
A few steps down in the sunken living room is a vintage brown leather sofa so scuffed, it redefines distressed. Salvaged pendant lights come from an oil rig and a submarine. Unconventional midcentury coffee tables have psychedelic patterns, a far cry from Egg chair conventionality. “Midcentury has almost become too high-street,” Lisa says. “I bought this table 30 years ago for £2 at a car-boot sale in Glasgow.”
Shafts cut into the kitchen ceiling let in light photo: JULIAN WINSLOW
Another one-off is the living room’s speckled feature wall: from afar, it resembles pebbles; up close, it’s aluminium foam full of holes. “You find this behind bumpers on buses and trains,” Lincoln says. “We got it in sheet form. It softens the acoustics, it reflects the sea beautifully — moonlight loves it.”
Moonlight and sunlight pour through towering shafts carved into the kitchen ceiling. The couple stargaze from the master suite, which has a bed facing the sea through trees. “The tree protection officer said to keep them. We said, ‘Too right!’” Lincoln says. “We want to frame the view, we want the noise of the leaves, we want that windbreak. If you had the whole view presented to you, you’d take it for granted.”
The warped and windswept trees echo the distorted shapes in Lisa’s abstract paintings and sculptures, including a staircase adorned with shard-like shapes and an amber enamel worktop with jagged shapes that bring a bit of Kandinsky into the kitchen. A glazed door to the bunker is also amber. “Amber and the Second World War go together,” Lincoln says. So do Nissen huts. There are two here, which used to house troops; they’re now the couple’s work studios. “We’re not ones for commuting,” he says.
The paper composite cladding was inspired by dazzle ships: Lisa Traxler photo:JULIAN WINSLOW
Some people argued that the bunker should have been made into a museum. “But nothing was done with it for 70 years,” Lincoln says. “This would have decayed and been vandalised. As a house, it’ll be looked after.”
The couple vow to share it with the public, sort of. They will open it for exhibitions and arts groups, and welcome applications; they’ve already hosted a theatre troupe. This autumn Lisa is showcasing her camouflage-inspired art. She’s the 21st century’s answer to a war artist, then, finding beauty in old military symbols and creating a pop-up gallery at home, with a spot of property development thrown in.
BUILD by Lisa Traxler will be at Surface Matter, the London Design Festival from Saturday 16th until 24 September (londondesignfestival.com)
hand painted vitreous enamel on steel work surface: Lisa Traxler photo: JULIAN WINSLOW
Get the look
• Hand-painted vitreous enamel on steel kitchen work surface by Lisa Traxler; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Feature wall in living room, aluminium foam by Surface Matter; surfacematter.co.uk
• Factory enamel light shades in kitchen by Dowsing & Reynolds, from £45; dowsingandreynolds.com
• Bay 5 BX woodburner by Charnwood, £1,686; charnwood.com
• Salvaged lamps and pendants from Antiek; antiekiow.co.uk
• Custom glazing and rain-screen cladding by Lincoln Miles Architecture; lincolnmilesarchitecture.com
Lincoln Miles Consider how your build can respond to landscape and history. If a bunker was trying to be camouflaged in 1942, the build next to it should be camouflaging it. I got planning permission by declaring the bunker as monumental, so anything next to it had to be monumental, not subservient.
I didn’t want a sedum roof. The roof is planks of wood, then membranes, then 300mm insulation, membranes, fleeces, mats and half a metre of earth on top, with grass seed. I could plant a tree on it.
Lisa Traxler Everything had a reason, everything had a story.