Built on a steeply sloping site, this private house was designed to exploit a sequence of classically Cornish views and reveal an architecture informed almost entirely by the topographies of its site. Looking south towards the broad sweep of the Fal Estuary, west towards a secluded creek and north along the valley above, its rooms fan out towards each of these different points. The house itself is organised around two routes. The first is external and visually divides the building in two, leading from the road access above, across a bridge to the front door and down a flight of steps to the waterfront. The other is internal, in the form of a toplit picture gallery. This internal axis follows the contours of the site and forges all the living spaces into a continuum, starting at the highest roof terrace and ending as a path to the underground garage.

Like other Foster projects of this period, Creek Vean mixes traditional materials - honey-coloured concrete blocks and blue Welsh-slate floors - with modern industrial components. Employing a similar formal vocabulary, a small gazebo ‘retreat’ is located near the house on a favourite riverside picnic spot. A complex, crystalline polyhedron, the glassy structure breaks the surface of the sloping bank and faces towards the sea like the cockpit of a plane or boat. The trapezoid concrete shell, partly sunk into the ground as the first in a series of dug-in Foster buildings, is splayed outwards to accommodate seating, a small cooker and a sink, and offers a secluded den from which one can take in commanding views of the estuary below.

Since their completion in the mid 1960s, the planting around both the main house and retreat has been allowed to grow relatively untamed, so that now both structures appear to have receded into the surrounding landscape. The house’s grass covered steps and roof – shades of the later Willis Faber building – have encouraged this process. Quite deliberate, this encroachment allows Creek Vean to play off the ambiguity afforded by its apparent, almost camouflaged, invisibility from the outside looking in, and the expanse and totality of the views it provides from inside its rooms looking out.

Sketches + Drawings

Quotes

Norman Foster

“The scheme started life as the conversion of an existing house but eventually the new work became so dominant that it threatened to bury almost every trace of the original building. I remember… concluding that the only way forward was to demolish and start from scratch. We then agonised about how to break the news to the clients.”

Rene Brumwell

“One important thing is that you don’t feel shut in, and getting older I don’t feel, ‘Oh, I must get out, because you can actually get exercise in the house too… Delivery boys who come to the front door, look at it and say ‘This is a marvellous place!’ they really like it and I don’t think it’s put on.”

Norman Foster

“We wanted to ensure that all the interior spaces maintained a connection with the landscape and, in particular, with the river running beneath the site.”

Brian Hatton

“In the history of English modernism, Cornwall occupies a special place, and, in Cornwall, the Creek Vean house sums up the feeling of a generation for that same place.”

Rene Brumwell

“What I really love about this house is that it is inseparable from the sea. You sit upstairs and you see the boats go by on the Fal, racing. That’s when you are in doors, but quite often you are outdoors – in the boats!”

Brian Hatton

“Like Jim Ede’s house at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, Creek Vean convenes a vivid museum of the modern in the setting of a private home. Better than Kettle’s Yard, though, is that the house is itself the main thing, and, of course. Is still lived in”

Extract from the jurors’ report for the RIBA Award

“In our opinion this small building is a work of outstanding quality. The architects have achieved an imaginative and highly original building without resorting to clichés or gimmickry. The design is carried through with commendable consistency using a self-imposed discipline in the choice of colours and materials. The general impression is that every arrangement in this design is an essential and significant part of the concept as a whole.”

1969

Norman Foster

“The building attempts to fit more snugly into its waterfront surroundings by generating a garden on the roof. As this starts to become overgrown, the house will recede into its creek-side Cornish setting.”

Arthur Batchelor lecture at UAE, 7 February 1978

Norman Foster

“The problems of quality control on straight-forward exposed blockwork seemed almost insuperable; I suppose it was a house that was built several times before it was left alone.”

lecture at Hong Kong University, 2 February 1980.

Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 1964
  • Completion: 1966
  • Area: 350m²

Award

  • Royal Institute of British Architects Award