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Capel Manor House, Including the Remains of the Winter Garden and the Arcaded Retaining Wall with Ba, Tunbridge Wells

Description: Capel Manor House, Including the Remains of the Winter Garden and the Arcaded Retaining Wall with Ba

Grade: II*
Date Listed: 18 September 2013
Building ID: 1413746

OS Grid Reference: TQ7133140019
OS Grid Coordinates: 571326, 140031
Latitude/Longitude: 51.1339, 0.4474

Locality: Tunbridge Wells
Local Authority: Tunbridge Wells Borough Council
County: Kent
Postcode: TN12 8BG

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Listing Text


Capel Manor House is a private house of 1969-70 by the architect Michael Manser, and the engineer Jack Dawson. The remains of the winter garden, and the arcaded retaining wall with balustrade and steps, are remnants of an earlier ltalian Gothic house of 1859-62 by T H Wyatt. These earlier features are not of intrinsic special architectural or historic interest, but are included in the listing by virtue of their contribution to the unusual setting of the house; the high grade at which the house is listed, is in part a reflection of the way in which it relates to this setting, but the high grade relates to the Manser building alone.

Reason for Listing

Capel Manor House, a steel-framed house of 1969-70 by Michael Manser, including the C19 remains of the winter garden and arcaded retaining walls with balustrade and steps of an earlier house, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* Structural interest: the house is an important and rare example of the English modern steel-framed house;
* Architectural interest: the house achieves an absolute refinement of plan and form, executed with precision and a high quality of detail;
* Historic interest: it is the best known and most well-regarded steel-framed house by Michael Manser, a key architect of the genre;
* Relationship to setting: the building gains dramatic value from its elevated position and the juxtaposition of its crisp modern classicism with the built and natural elements of its Arcadian setting (these are included in the listing but the high grade relates to the Manser building alone).


Capel Manor was built in 1969-70, to the designs of Michael Manser (1929-), working with the engineer Jack Dawson. The client was John Howard, an MP and Personal Private Secretary to Sir Edward Heath. He and his wife wanted a weekend house that could later become a permanent home upon their retirement.

Manser had first proposed a version of his design for a very different site suggested by John and Maisie Howard at Bodiam, but with adaptations it proved more dramatic on its final site because of its Victorian surroundings and greater elevation. The site chosen was formerly that of a mansion built in the 1860s for Frederick Austen, a descendent of Jane Austen's family who had made a fortune in Kentish broadcloth. By the late 1960s the house had been largely demolished, but Manser found that the house's cellars remained sound, as did the terrace and retaining wall around and above them. He retained the arcaded frontage of the retaining wall, together with the grand flight of steps that heads down the hillside, and perched a new steel and glass pavilion on top. To the side, he retained the colonnade and back wall of the former winter garden as a screen to a large swimming pool. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the position of the house is its elevation above the treed landscape which extends into the distance beyond it, providing, as noted in the Architectural Review: 'the emotional bonuses which this unique hilltop penthouse has to offer'.

Although a much photographed house, it is only through first-hand experience that the surprising relationship between the diminutive scale of the house, and the vast scale of the landscape it surveys, can be appreciated. The size of the house was of course part of the brief, designed for a couple without children, who wanted a small home which was easy to run. This smallness, combined with the 360 degree architectural completeness of the building, led the owners in 2009-10 to find an innovative solution to creating additional space. A two-bedroom detached guest annex, designed by Ewan Cameron, was constructed to the west of the site. Carefully screened from Manser's house, it is a fine, award winning, piece of architecture in its own right, and is a fitting addition to the site. The house was also refurbished at this time, details of which are discussed below.

Manser was the most prolific architect of steel houses in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, and one of the most important in the field. Manser became interested in the material as a student, when carrying out a project under the supervision of Ove Arup, and steel houses subsequently became the key element in his professional practice. He built a timber-framed courtyard house for himself at Leatherhead, and this was followed by a house outside Godalming for the assistant art editor of Home, David Papworth, in which he was assisted by the engineer Jack Dawson. This was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted for over a decade. Manser was noted for his refinement of the Miesian box (a term used to describe buildings inspired by the immaculately-detailed, pared-down, steel and glass buildings of Mies van der Rohe), and his houses demonstrate his interest in precise geometry and his acute awareness of the modern nature of his materials. He went on to become President of the RIBA in the years 1983-5. Capel Manor is arguably the most sophisticated of his houses and among the best known. Certainly it is Manser's personal favourite, and a model of it is held by the Royal lnstitute of British Architects.


MATERIALS: the house has an exposed steel frame, painted brown, resting on a reinforced concrete podium, supported in turn on the stone walls of the Victorian basement. The external walls are entirely glazed with bronze-tinted glass in aluminium frames, and there is a flat timber roof spanning between the steel purlins.

PLAN AND SETTING: the house is single-storey with a rectangular plan. It has a central sunken living area that gives on to an adjoining kitchen and dining area to the east, and the two bedrooms and bathrooms to the west. The plan is very simple, and its sense of freedom is maximised by the continuously glazed walls which meet without corner mullions. Beneath is a basement, formed from part of the basement of the earlier Victorian Capel Manor.

The house is positioned to the north of its site, at the most elevated part, so its principal vista is to the south, looking across the treed landscape as it drops away. Carefully planned to formally address the retained elements of the Victorian Capel Manor, the centre of the south elevation aligns with the wide stone steps which lead down to the lower terrace. From the bottom of these steps the flat roof of the house floats just above the arcaded stone retaining wall of the earlier house. The wall is composed of a blind, earth-retaining, stone wall, in front of which is a round-arched arcade formed of rough-faced ashlar blocks with an impost band, topped with a stone balustrade, now covered in creepers.

To the west, the house aligns with the remains of the winter garden of the earlier house, which now surrounds the swimming pool built as part of Manser's scheme. This earlier fabric is comprised of a blind stone wall of rough-faced ashlar blocks to the north, and a colonnade of square stone columns carrying an entablature to the south and west.

EXTERIOR: each elevation of the house is a side of the building's rectangular glass envelope. Although approached from the east, there are points of access on all sides, the facades differentiated only by their aspects. The structure of the roof projects beyond the external walls on all sides, forming a wood-lined canopy over the tiled podium.

INTERIOR: interiors are simple and open-plan. Internal walls are of dark-brown facing bricks or painted render. Ceilings are wood-lined. Floors are tiled or carpeted, with under-floor heating. The glazed external walls mean that the garden is effectively incorporated into the house.

In 2010 the house underwent a major refurbishment, with the floor and ceiling coverings being renewed to match the originals closely. The bathrooms and kitchen were refitted, and the latter reconfigured to incorporate what had been a small study in the north-east corner of the building. The roof was recovered with a rubberised material to replace the bitumen felt, and photovoltaic panels were installed on top. These works saw the renewal of original fabric with like-for-like, or near like-for-like, replacements without harming the building's special interest. The special interest of this house rests not in the intrinsic historic interest of the original fabric in material terms, but in the design of that fabric, and the way in which it has been used to express a sophisticated and carefully-conceived architectural concept: an exemplar of its period and genre. For a building of this progressive and structurally a-typical type, it will be necessary for fabric to be renewed or upgraded periodically; when done with care and sensitivity for the original character and concept of the building, such upgrading can be carried out without compromising the special interest of the building.

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.