A space for quiet reflection

Seek refuge from the hustle and bustle in a whimsical house in Wales designed by John Pawson

Designed by John Pawson, Ty Bywyd (above) - or Life House in Welsh - has a minimalist aesthetic (top).
Designed by John Pawson, Ty Bywyd - or Life House in Welsh - has a minimalist aesthetic (above).PHOTO: LIVING ARCHITECTURE
Designed by John Pawson, Ty Bywyd (above) - or Life House in Welsh - has a minimalist aesthetic (top).
Designed by John Pawson, Ty Bywyd (above) - or Life House in Welsh - has a minimalist aesthetic.PHOTO: LIVING ARCHITECTURE
A dining area (above) and a corridor in Ty Bywyd.
A dining area (above) and a corridor in Ty Bywyd.PHOTO: LIVING ARCHITECTURE

Different place, different person

The living room of Ty Bywyd fills me with awe and terror.

Awe because the room is museum- huge, with pale timber beams and a wall of windows overlooking picture-book Welsh hills, with bouncing lambs.

Terror because although the furnishings are minimalist, everything - from the marble-topped coffee table to the draped-glass floor lamps - looks exquisitely breakable.

As someone who sloshes mugs of tea and spreads sticky blue ink from broken biros, I'm more than capable of doing serious damage here on my own. But I've got my wrecking crew with me: seven-year-old twin boys whose energetic chasing game in the last place we stayed at ended with me writing a cheque to replace a shattered table.

A dining area and a corridor (above) in Ty Bywyd. PHOTO: LIVING ARCHITECTURE

That was a traditional holiday let: tin jugs, faux fur throws and a stack of board games.

Ty Bywyd (it means Life House in Welsh) is different.

Designed by John Pawson, it is the latest building in the Living Architecture organisation, set up six years ago by philosopher Alain de Botton, as a modernist answer to the Landmark Trust.

Instead of letting lighthouses and follies, it deals in spectacular modern buildings such as the Balancing Barn in Suffolk and Grayson Perry's gingerbread House for Essex.

A simple structure of black brick that merges into the dark trees around it, Life House is far from the flashiest of seven Living Architecture buildings around the country, but it has hidden charms.

As I'm nervously clocking the nubuck leather of the elegant dining chairs, one son shouts: "Mum! Have you seen the prison?"

Let me explain. Ty Bywyd has two long corridors at right angles to each other, with rooms leading off. There's that big kitchen/living room with beams and three bedrooms, each designed for a different form of contemplation: reading, music and bathing.

At the end of the darkest corridor, a pair of tall wooden doors opens onto a small room that's empty but for two brick platforms and a stone set into the floor carved with this quotation from Pascal: "All of man's misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room."

High above is a skylight, so that - this being Wales - you can enjoy the sound of rain falling as you lie on your varnished brick bunk. It feels half-cell, half-tomb.

We soon make ourselves at home in the rest of the place, however.

I lie in the bath reading a book and listen to hip-hop artist Kanye West's dark twisted fantasies through sternum-thumping speakers.

We watch an old Bond movie on a television whose picture is so pin-sharp, we can count the hairs on actor Sean Connery's chest.

From white brick (Danish, handmade) walls to polished terrazzo (hand-poured, heated) floors, the comfortable simplicity speaks of much thought and money.

The house begins to work its magic.

Removed from the messy reality of everyday life, I feel lighter, calmer. My obsessive mental inventory recedes - I know it's vulgar to obsess over the £350 (S$690) saucepans when I am meant to be contemplating Life - and I begin to relax.

We take a walk up the hill opposite the house and lie in the spring sunshine, cloud spotting and watching kites circle. The boys dig holes, throw stones and run higgledy- piggledy down tussocky slopes.

We lunch in the friendly, faded spa town of Llandrindod Wells and are happy afterwards to swop its peeling 1950s shopfronts and steamy tearooms for our Ballardian barn.

The boys play roly-poly over the modular sofa, flood the walk-in shower in their room and wonder at the number of dead flies. We buy bags of fresh, local food and cook a splendid roast in those fancy pans.

For entertainment, the last place where we stayed had Mrs Brown's Boys: the boardgame.

Ty Bywyd has a "conversation starter": a sheet of lightly philosophical posers designed to trigger high-toned table talk.

We ask the boys if they agree with the proposition that you are a different person in different places, and which most influences their everyday mood: art, literature, music or architecture. It beats our usual dinner-table pastime of coaxing them to finish their broccoli.

One of the main draws of Ty Bywyd is its lonely location. But it's easy enough to hire bikes or make day trips into local towns.

We linger in Ludlow's extraordinary church, learning about St Laurence, who was roasted on a gridiron, and choosing our favourite carving from the mediaeval mermaids and owls.

There's something precious about Life House in every sense. I can't pretend that any of us really warm to Pawson's mausoleum/wet room, but there is something about this architectural cross-dressing - about living, if only for a few days, in a house entirely different from your cluttered, inner-city home - that feels liberating.

On the last night, the boys pull on wellies and jumpers over their pyjamas and we head outside to see the stars. The air is clean the sky unpolluted by orange glow.

Space. That's what Life House offers you. Space to think, to be someone different - to be the kind of person who reads Pascal and Thoreau and doesn't worry about how much the kettle cost.


•Accommodation was provided by Living Architecture (living-architecture.co.uk). Ty Bywyd sleeps six and costs from £3,200 (S$6,300) a week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'A space for quiet reflection'. Print Edition | Subscribe