The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Underhill by Arthur Quarmby.

Photo copyright James O. Davies/Historic England

Subterranean pioneer: A trailblazing underground house in Yorkshire

Over the summer we submitted a listing application for ‘Underhill’, a house whose name only modestly hints at the sort of building it is. It was designed in 1969 by Arthur Quarmby for the architect and his family; it was completed in 1975 and they have lived there until this year. It cost about £50,000 to build and is roughly 3,500 sq ft in size. Sited high up in the moors of West Yorkshire, it has stunning views across Ramsden Clough. It is also cut 5m deep into the ground.

Subterranean housing had been popular in the US for some time, though Quarmby was the first in this country to make use of the technique. But the house is no mere eccentricity: it fits into a wider trend away from established practices of architectural organisation – Miesian modernism having by this time become conventional and restrictive – and centring instead on creating efficient and sustainable communities. It was a manifestation of something primordial (Quarmby cites the Iron Age dwellings of Cornwall and the mythical underground dwellers Tuatha dé Danaan as inspiration) which also looked to the future, to create a new way of living in a world which had been transformed by war and the atom bomb.

Underhill is built deep into the rock, the excavated earth pulled back over the structure of four stone arches supporting a roof of concrete beams and breeze-block infill. The many rooms are protected from water by an innovative drainage system which channels water down and around the house and then downhill. A light insulated skin wraps around the entire structure. The result is a thermally efficient building with its own stable internal climate that makes minimal visual impact on the surrounding countryside.

The house is approached through a wide circular door-frame, with rectangular doors opening behind. Overhead, the roof-scape of grassy mounds rolls away into the moors. Approaching visitors can be seen through a periscope. Once inside, the entrance hall is dark, allowing the visitor to experience the ‘drama of passing through a dark tunnel into a large space flooded with light, greenery and water’. The main internal room is spacious and brightly lit. French windows give long views of the moors, and light falls from a glazed dome onto a figure-of-eight swimming pool directly beneath, casting a rippling light throughout the room. ‘I don’t really think of the house in terms of a cave,’ Quarmby says. ‘I think about it in terms of the Golden House of Nero, the ancient hillside dwellings north of Granada… The house is designed around a play of light and form. I designed it as much to delight as to keep a low profile both visually and in terms of energy.’ Openness to the sky was important, not only in a practical sense but to counter the way that he felt ‘architects have taken the sky out of architecture. I like to see the clouds scudding by.’

The interior is gently staggered over five levels. From the main space, wings spread out like a medieval manor house, with separate quarters radiating from the central hall. For obvious reasons, many contemporary critics described Arthur Quarmby as the ‘Tolkien of British Architecture’, which does rather underplay the scope and range of his output, both architectural and otherwise (he had a long career as both inventor and architect, as the feature on plastics in architecture in this issue shows), as well as the complexities of Underhill in particular – a highly sophisticated building and absolutely pioneering in a British context. We hope to see it listed by the time the Quarmbys move out after forty years, this winter.

Tess Pinto