The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Parkham Wood, Brixham

Parkham Wood House in Brixham, Devon, is the first in a series of four private houses in the Torbay area, built by the locally based architect Mervyn Seal. It was brought to the Society’s attention by the current owners, Mr and Mrs Powell, who much admire the house and have kept it unchanged for many years.

Parkham Wood is a remarkably intact set piece of the late 1950s, early 1960s. More than that however, the house is a tremendous technical and aesthetic achievement. Cantilevering out over the cliff-face, surveying the town of Brixham below, the house, inside and out, is full of wit, style and drama—as flamboyant and exuberant as the decade that was dawning.
Having already converted and extended a coach house at Lyncombe Vale Road, Bath, for his parents, designed a private house at Condover, Nr Shrewsbury and completed designs for Bath Crematoria for his then employer Bath City Council—all of which still stand—Mervyn Seal moved to Devon to set up his own practice. The prime aim for him was to begin, in collaboration with a local builder Michael Kent, a speculative housing project called Marina Park on the cliffs at Brixham. Whilst developing the project Mr John Brady who was the owner of Parkham Wood Hotel in the town, contacted Michael Kent. The Hotel sat on the hard, grey limestone cliffs that form the bay at Brixham and its high retaining wall to the street had collapsed. Mr Brady therefore needed the wall replacing and happened to select Michael Kent to do the work. In the course of discussions, Mr Brady also stated that he wondered if whether it would be possible to build a three-bedroom house on an extremely steep and precarious site adjacent to the hotel for his family. Brady suggested he contact Mervyn Seal who was duly commissioned and began drawing up possible designs immediately.

Mr Brady, apart from wanting three bedrooms had absolutely no other stipulations or interest in the brief whatsoever. This gave Seal complete freedom in the design, as long as Michael Kent agreed that it could be built of course. Construction was quick—the house was completed inside six months. Brixham Urban District Council had given planning permission speedily meaning there was no time for any thorough site survey or geological investigation—the sole building inspector, who unsurprisingly had no experience of assessing this kind of building, only had one stipulation, that the rock be uncovered completely before construction began.

It was in this amenable climate, and on this difficult site that Seal developed Parkham Wood. For obvious reasons, the house had to be moderate in size and lightweight. To compensate for the former, Seal opted for an open-plan interior, to give the feeling of space. He succeeded—the house is only 11ft wide throughout but the feeling of openness and light in the split level living/dining area is magnificently achieved through the use of a full wall of glazing and carefully modulated ceiling heights. The house uses basic construction techniques, pushed to the limits, and Seal is adamant that it could never be built in the same way with today’s concerns for on-site safety. Long concrete beams span brick pylons resisting on foundations set into the bedrock. Perpendicular to these run a series of shorter cantilevered concrete beams which allow the timber frame to cantilever out over the cliff edge. The roof is also designed to be lightweight and is made of felted Stramit board, (a cheap product made of straw sandwiched between two layers of cardboard). One of the key things for Seal was something he had borrowed directly from le Corbusier, the idea of upper-floor living. At Parkham, the master bedroom is suspended out over the main room—effectively forming a glazed ‘balcony’, from which to view the main space. This in turn created a ‘snug’ underneath, the back wall of which was constructed from local, Buckfastleigh stone, a greyish limestone with flashes of honey-colouring—the limited budget would not allow an open fire or stove.

Both inside and out Seal used his own ‘fishbone’ design for the stairs—which uses a central metal core braced with ribs. These became a trademark and were constructed very cheaply, whole flights at a time, by local metalworkers at Brixham Shipyard more used to welding fishing boats than stairs.They are one of the most striking and successful features of the house.

And so the roof itself, perhaps the most distinctive and memorable feature of this house, and indeed the other three that still survive in the area. Seal describes it in functional terms, rather than as a specific design feature. He had seen at Bridge House, his previous house in Shropshire, the problems of drainage from a flat roof. At Brixham, he opted for a straightforward solution —the falls allow all the water to drain down one central pipe on the rear façade. By dropping the centrally placed main room down, the butterfly also allowed him to modulate the double-height space he desired defining sub areas within the main living space.

Parkham Wood was and still is a house with one overriding aim —to look outwards, across the whole of Brixham to the sea. The view through the fully glazed wall is spectacular and there is a huge balcony that connects to the driveway below. You could spend weeks here without feeling the need to go anywhere.

The Society is in the process of putting Parkham Wood forward for listing as a rare, surviving example of Mervyn Seal’s idiosyncratic, dramatic private houses. Provincially situated, Seal never got the recognition his high quality, thorough work was entitled to—we hope that further work can uncover more about this important, though as yet unsung regional architect. Seal’s work raises key questions about design flair and pragmatism, about cost and longevity. Here is a house in fairly good condition, built cheaply on a difficult site with masses of style. We very much hope English Heritage recognises the house as a significant piece of post-war domestic architecture and that it finds a sympathetic new owner.

Jon Wright