Words by Amin Taha

Photos by Edmund Sumner

Originally published in Architecture Today

It’s 6am, still pitch black, raining, and I’m about to step off the kerb for my cafe when the headlights of a nearby car flash. A pork-pie-hatted silhouette opens the passenger door and beams with an energy I find hard to muster at this time of day, but which I later realise is the ‘right stuff’ needed for visiting mountainside architecture. Will Foster – one half of Foster Lomas – has kindly offered to pick me up for London City Airport, en route to see his latest project on the Isle of Man.

It’s a short flight to the island in a tube sandwiched between what appear to be the remaining front portions of two Spitfires, but before we land Will shouts through the full back story to the house, Sartfell Retreat. It was enabled via a contradictory tangle of planning and economic development policies requiring legal clarifications post-planning approval. My stomach seems to know all about that, as we bank and rise into dawn. A wholly new home is verboten, continues Will, and a domestic extension permissible but limited to a fractional proportion of existing dwellings, while employment-generating visitors’ centres and retreats are positively encouraged.

The house at Sartfell sits in a restored landscape and will later be joined by a visitors’ centre and artist’s studio. New structures must not attract the eye and should respect the buildings to which they attach. Sartfell Retreat extends a Victorian cottage – albeit one whose twentieth-century white cement render paradoxically makes it visible from miles around. It’s known locally as ‘Cloud 9’ as it’s occasionally swallowed by them.

Carole and Peter Lillywhite, the clients, greet us at the airport and within minutes we’re winding up into quiet hills, past the ruins of stacked stone-walled houses and barns that Carole explains are known as ‘tholtans’.

Peter was a research scientist in neurobiology before moving to Sydney as a management consultant. The death of his daughter brought him back to England, where he later met Carole. Their mutual interest in bird-watching took them for a week-long tour of the Isle of Man where they fell in love with the wild west coastline. Before leaving they bought the cottage and its river valley with the purpose of setting up a new home and wildlife retreat.

As with dragons in north Wales, the island’s triskelion symbol (three rotating legs) is all about, on petrol stations, pubs and decorative signage. It dates back 6,500 years to Sicily and Malta, later moving along the Iberian and Atlantic coasts, accompanied with triplicities in myth and theology. Consciously or not, Sartfell is a story of recurring threes: a home, retreat and visitors’ centre, a three-spoke plan, a triangular triple-height library atrium and clerestorey, and the intense partnership between client, architect and builder.

So how did they meet? At Grand Designs Expo, where Foster Lomas’ booth – next to a noisy demonstration of drill-proof ceramic tiles – had as its backdrop a rubble-walled artists’ retreat on the Italian coast looking out to Sicily, a project halted by the financial crisis. The similarity of brief and visual appearance struck the new client even before it was realised these islands had shared culture in building and triskelion symbolism.

We pause some miles away. A white spot is indeed visible on the mountainside, but I struggle to find anything new. As we move on a long glint of reflected sunshine betrays what must be a huge picture window. On we go, dropping, winding then rising, the new works visibly coalescing around that window sliced horizontally into the mountainside. Paul Virilio’s Atlantic Wall comes to mind – the watchman with a view across the Irish Sea.

Arriving at a broad driveway leading to a triple garage making up one spoke of the new plan, the cottage is down slope and, now shorn of its later lean-tos, allows hints of the new stacked stone walls behind. We drop under millimetre-thin expressed steel supporting the rubble wall above our heads and are greeted by two Schnauzers who lead the way sharp right from the wind lobby and across a light-filled triple-height atrium library.

Precision-engineered perforated steel steps, gantries and bookshelves span the void to maintain its sense of volume and draw us to the dramatic panorama beyond. A glazed slot, the full width of the house, is created from and framed by board-marked in-situ concrete, interrupted by very discreet tempered steel support blades. A stainless steel kitchen hugs the rear wall, whose external stones shelter a memorial garden to Peter’s daughter beyond.

Handed a much-needed coffee we’re seated looking out. The height and depth of window heads and sills create a sheltered intimacy despite it being the sort of elevation from which you can watch the weather. Light-trapping clouds tumble rain over Scotland to the right and sunbeams track up and down the green hills below while the tree branches outside are without movement.

Telephoto lenses, cameras and at least three sets of binoculars are scattered across the deep window reveals. Of course, I turn my head and there are Peter and Carole snugly seated next to one another facing outward. I can see how their first meeting in a remote bird-watchers’ hide is recreated in the intimacy of this space, even if it is now a spectacular mountainside version with warm hunkered-in bedrooms below and a 360-degree-view study above – a nest for lovers.

Will suggests I spend some time walking through the river valley below to gain better views of the building. A lazy rambler at the best of times I find myself again too ashamed to resist his boundless energy and decide to pocket some bread crusts from the five-metre-long single piece stainless steel kitchen worktop to fortify me for the expedition.

Clambering over and under several lines of barbed wire I am ankle-deep in the acid bog that Peter has allowed to return from sheep pastures with such success that wild orchids have returned, and with them invertebrates and in turn birds. Leaping what I assume are streams of acid I can only imagine whatever lives here appreciating these views, but when I’m not busy trying to avoid wet trousers I look up and am rewarded and humbled.

Virilio contrasts the sublime locations of Fritz Todt’s Atlantic Wall with the pain of the forced labourers attempting to complete it. How did a youngish pair of architects, and a first-time client do it here? Will – ahead and now in a Russian fur hat to block out the cold wind – confidently strides up the boggy hillside as he explains the arduous tendering of separate packages, importing materials, specialist labour and so on.

I follow, onward and upward. He is Gregory Peck, I am Anthony Quinn in our ascent to the Guns of Navarone. Hang on, doesn’t Quinn get riddled with bullets? Or was that Anthony Quayle? Quayle was the traitor… no, that was in ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. “No! Pheasants!”, shouts Peter. We are back at the door and watch a pair criss-cross the grounds. Was I mumbling ‘quail’ out loud?

We are interrupted by the arrival of another Peter, the second builder and ultimate enabler of the project after the first fell away. He and Will survey the grounds below and begin to set out the next two phases of the retreat. Peter corrals them back on budgetary matters over the distracting sound of Schnauzers barking at the ever-closer wildlife outside, and there is the successful tripartite dynamic in action. Carole, who has brought down some books on local buildings, looks up and informs me of the island’s motto found underneath the triskelion: quocunque jeceris stabit – ‘whichever way you throw it, it will stand’.