The Living Memory of Cities: Tony Fretton, 8 November 2022

By Bailey Rawson-Spink
Posted 6 March 2023 in Reviews


Tony Fretton Architects, Faith House. Photo: Hélène Binet

Tony Fretton presented a lecture in the third season of the online seminar The Living Memory of Cities, a series convened in collaboration between Eric Parry Architects and the Centre for Urban and Built Ecologies: CUBE at London Metropolitan University. His focus was on three rural projects undertaken by his practice, Tony Fretton Architects. Two of these are completed and one unrealised; each project has a distinctive character, a belonging with its surroundings and its inhabitants. The series also invited each speaker to select a quote or statement that resonates with their lecture’s message. Fretton’s chosen quote is from Romano Guardini: ‘Nature begins to relate to us only when we indwell in it, when culture begins in it.’ I found this quote rather fitting within the context of projects presented; this sense of fit or sentiment is one that I’m sure wasn’t lost on the speaker. It is a connection we dwellers and creators have to nature. It exists among our architecture, but is only expressed once sought, a feeling I believe that is enhanced in each of the three projects presented.

Tony Fretton’s architecture weaves threads of encounter, interaction and memory into each individual project. This is a merit has been constant throughout his career, present in each of the projects that he and his practice have completed. Our occupation of a space, physically and physiologically inherently defines our understanding of how one approaches, arrives, enters, pauses, contemplates, and interacts. In these projects, these dimensions of occupation have all been crafted by the designer. These elements are additions to what has existed long before our creation. It is this coming together of landscape, nature and us that these three projects explore.

Monastery, Holy Island, Scotland

Competition, Unrealised (1993)

A rugged outcrop in the western isles of Scotland, hours from major centres, Holy Island can only be accessed by boat when the tide permits. This dominance of landscape on people restructures the balance of power. An island with few dwellings of notable size warrants the respect of any new object placed upon it or within it, among the dimensions of its landscape.

The competition asked for the design, on this remote island, of a Tibetan Buddist Centre. Two buildings, with communal refectories, yoga studios, and cells for retreating members, would house the activities and belonging of its occupants.

The design morphs to the landscape, shape shifting at multiple points and adjusting its elevations to suit. Materials have been chosen to blur the distinction of new and existing, with stone and timber used to complete these structures. It’s not just the massing that forms a bond and connection with the landscape, but the positioning of key rooms. By facing the communal refectory towards the sea, it poses the occupants to contemplate their connection to the landscape, the sea defines their island status.

Faith House, Holton Lee, Poole

Completed (2002)

Situated within an extensive country estate sits Faith House, a space for non-denominational meditation, congregations and displays. Perched on the highest point of the estate, amongst vegetation and trees separating itself from the existing vernacular, the architecture allows the object to form a singular connection to the landscape.

The structure is an assemblage of two volumes, with additional volumes gesturing the interior plan to connect with the exterior landscape. A plan consisting of a lobby, assembly room and meditation space, each framed to focus on locality and posturing of the architecture to the landscape. Exterior treatments have matured and silvered, giving the simple structure a visual veil of stone, an undefined reference to early buildings of faith.

Starting with no defined locality to situate the building, its Tony’s understanding of being present amongst the landscape, that Faith House is perched at the top of the hill. Its this vantage perched high, large windows that provides the visual connection to the landscape, a calming space internally devoid of weather and noise, yet charged be the presence of them beyond.


Tony Fretton Architects, Art Museum Fuglsang

Art Museum Fuglsang, Denmark

Completed (2008)

A flat landscape gives prominence to things that rise above it. Fuglsang Kunstmuseum sits at the start of such a horizontal landscape, located on the edge of the Fuglsang Estate. The setting was deliberate, as Fretton noted, turning the building to create an informal courtyard to arrivals, yet directing dwellers through the plan towards the endless horizon framed by a large picture window; to the landscape that stretches off into the distant woodlands.

A low structure is arranged in a horizontal plan reflecting the horizontal nature of its setting. A series of gallery spaces spur off the main connection space, at its end. A space set at equal level with the fields beyond. Flanked by large windows, blurring the feeling of inside and out and secure and open. As a space amongst the rest of the building, it is secondary, yet its profoundness is a great. It serves as an ever-changing painting, amongst the permanent collection.

Each project employs threads of connectedness and cohesion between user and landscapes. There is an emphasis on occupation of spaces for rest, contemplation and engagement at both group and individual level. There are distinct levels of consciousness in Fretton’s work, with emphasis on the dweller as they encounter not just the architecture of the given building and space, but of the landscape that said objects preside upon and in which they are located.

Through all these projects, landscape has played a central role in the occupation and recreation of spaces. It is Fretton’s experience, and encounters with the landscape, that has helped shape theses individual pieces of architecture. As always, it was a privilege in this lecture to listen, to learn, and to reflect upon his work, to hear in his own voice his thoughts and responses to audience questions.

About the Author

Bailey Rawson-Spink graduated from the LondonMet’s Architecture RIBA II / MARCH programme in 2022.