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Richard Parr: “We are responsive to the subtle changes in crafts, materials, traditions and local vernacular that make each site and each project unique”

Alyn Griffiths
July 5, 2024
6 min

“I strongly believe that if you want to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve come from,” says architect – and time traveller – Richard Parr. Shuttling between the past and the present, he crafts innovative contemporary spaces that display clear connections to their architectural antecedents. By thoroughly researching the history of a site, he is able to create homes and hospitality properties that feel rooted in their context, yet are clearly designed to function far into the future.

For example: a traditional farmstead reimagined as a high-end boutique hotel. Or, a modern interpretation of a traditional manor house, topped with a flowing 21st-century thatched roof. Parr has labelled his approach ‘modern traditionalism’ and he is on a mission to apply it to projects ranging from his own studios in London and the Cotswolds to new-build chalets in the Swiss alps. Evading any one singular definition, it’s better to see Parr’s approach as a thesis that evolves to suit each project.

Richard Parr in his studio. Photography © PHILIP SINDEN for QP Magazine UK

Fundamentally, Parr and his team look to borrow the best bits from the past while creating solutions that respond to modern lifestyles. This often means referencing the appearance of vernacular architecture when designing a new building for a sensitive site, or utilising traditional construction methods in innovative ways. “This doesn’t mean that we’re a backwards looking practice,” says Parr, who is now firmly established as one of the UK’s most sought-after architects for clients seeking to breathe new life into unloved or undervalued buildings. “Rather, we are responsive to the subtle changes in crafts, materials, traditions and local vernacular that make each site and each project unique.” This philosophy is based on his belief that architects have a social and environmental responsibility to create buildings that will last for generations rather than being demolished and replaced in decades to come.

He talks about the idea of “legacy projects” that are carefully crafted to fit their context and designed to fulfil the specific needs of their users, rather than being driven solely by the bottom line. Whether the project is a new build or a renovation, Parr always seeks to make the most of a site and uses local materials wherever possible – to ensure the legacy he creates links back to what came before. Parr’s appreciation of history and geographical context was honed during his time studying architecture at Newcastle University and the Architectural Association in London. Following the AA, he spent several years working for architect Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra in Seville, whose work he describes as “startlingly contemporary” yet “employing building forms that are deeply rooted in Andalusian tradition.”

This formative experience required him to develop solutions in response to southern Spain’s extreme climate, helping him to learn the value of “always being very sensitive to conditions and sites.” Parr returned to the UK in 1994 to found his own studio, Richard Parr Associates (RPA), and began to engage in a wide range of residential and retail projects in the UK and internationally. He bought and restored a Georgian farmhouse in the Cotswolds where he moved with his family, all the while steadily building a reputation for his progressive, urban-influenced approach to designing new properties and restoring traditional country houses. He later moved to his current home at Easter Park Farm, where he converted a collection of 19th century Arts & Crafts buildings to create accommodation alongside a series of workspaces that he describes as a “multi-use hub” for his team.

Parr has a reputation for his progressive, urban-influenced approach to designing new properties and restoring traditional country houses. Photography © PHILIP SINDEN for QP Magazine UK

Parr was at the vanguard of the move toward rural live-work spaces at a time when improved internet access first made it possible to run a business remotely rather than relying on face-to-face meetings. Looking back, he says he had to battle to create a viable workplace away from London, but adds that the experience “was very formative because it helped establish us as a practice of extremes, with roots in the city and the countryside.” Easter Park Farm embodies many of the ideas Parr has honed throughout his career – most notably his interest in transforming historic built fabric through modern interventions. This process, commonly referred to as ‘adaptive reuse’, has become increasingly popular with urban dwellers keen to relocate to the countryside. A shortage of outstanding country houses has resulted in a need to convert farmsteads and other unusual properties into modern homes.

At Easter Park Farm, many of the existing structures are retained and fitted out with contemporary interiors incorporating plenty of luxurious details and mod-cons. Expansive openings frame spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and a cohesive material palette creates a relaxing atmosphere for the studio’s staff and visiting clients. It’s a blueprint for modern traditionalism that is implemented across all of RPA’s projects. One such endeavour was the full-scale renovation of a historic farm hamlet on the grounds of The Newt in Somerset: now 17 rooms, a restaurant, pool and spa, in which the restored Georgian farm buildings contrast with distinctly modern ‘pods’ containing essential amenities.

The concept of modern traditionalism is also evident in Parr’s new-build projects, which include homes built under the UK’s Paragraph 80 planning clause that permits the construction of outstanding one-off designs in sensitive landscapes. One example is a house in Surrey, featuring interconnected organically shaped wings inspired by medieval manors and built using locally sourced materials including oak, stone and thatch. According to Parr, the project highlights how a hyperlocal approach can benefit a building’s ecological credentials as well as its sense of authenticity.

“Using materials that exist right under your nose cuts down on build miles and therefore improves the project’s carbon footprint,” he points out. “It also roots this building in its context, even if it doesn’t look anything like a typical tile-clad vernacular Surrey house.” RPA’s commitment to contextually responsive architectural solution extends to its work in urban environments and is encapsulated by its own London studio, which is housed in an iconic 19th century building in Holland Park called The People’s Hall. Here, Parr and his team retained many of the building’s original features while adapting the existing spaces to create a welcoming, open-plan studio.

Richard Parr Associates has worked on dozens of projects in both urban and rural locations. Photography © PHILIP SINDEN for QP Magazine UK

Roughly one third of the space contains workstations, with the rest housing features like a large, tiled bar and a communal dining table where staff regularly congregate to eat and discuss ideas. There are also shower rooms, a library and a luxurious kitchen that enhances the studio’s domestic feel. As with all of Parr’s projects, it’s a space that makes the most of what was already there, while adding modern touches to meet the needs of its current users. Almost 30 years on from its founding, RPA has completed dozens of projects in urban and rural locations throughout the UK and beyond that enact the principles of modern traditionalism in myriad ways.

According to Parr, the studio remains committed to creating spaces defined by luxury, longevity, landscape and locality for its growing roster of high-profile residential and hospitality clients. “Our aim is to continue applying the latest technologies and ideas to legacy projects that are responsibly crafted and built to last,” he adds. “If we can get that right, our buildings won’t need touching for hundreds of years.” It’s a worthy ambition, and one that could just help lay the foundations for a bolder, and more sustainable, future.