John Outram’s Sphinx Hill House in Oxfordshire is now Grade II* listed

An important postmodern house by John Outram Associates has been Grade II* listed by Historic England, a subsidiary under the U.K. Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The Sphinx Hill House in Oxfordshire, completed in 1999, has made headlines as the youngest building in the U.K. to hold this distinction.

C20 Society, a preservation group, submitted the application to Historic England for the building’s listing. Sphinx Hill House was put on the market in 2022, and bought for $2.9 million later that year. C20 Society applied to have the building listed to protect it from “unsympathetic alteration or demolition.”

A Grade II* listing means Sphinx Hill House has been deemed a “particularly important building of more than special interest,” and thus protected from wanton remodeling. The designation not only protects the building, but also its exterior terraces, landscaping, and water features.

Historic England noted that the building was worth Grade II* listing for myriad reasons. The group said that the abode is a “tour-de-force of domestic Post-Modernism; a creative and boldly rendered work whose design, decoration and planning is layered with historical and symbolic references.”

It continued that Sphinx Hill House is “a comprehensive architectural ensemble which includes a decorative scheme of interior design and linked programme of hard landscaping” renowned for its “rigour, consistency and quality of its architectural detailing, including bespoke interior fittings and rich polychromy.”

Members of C20 Society noted it’s very rare for a building younger than 30 years old to be Grade II* listed. Few other 20th-century buildings even have Grade I listings, among them the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing by VSBA, completed in 1991, which is now being renovated by Selldorf Architects (to the dismay of Denise Scott Brown).

Today, most Grade II* listed buildings were built in the U.K. between 1700 and 1880. One of the oldest is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (1570), where Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made. Other Grade II* listed structures include Alexandra Palace (1875) by Alfred Meeson and John Johnson.

The home by John Outram Associates was commissioned by a couple in 1994 that were both interested in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, C20 Society noted. It sits alongside other, older houses like grand Victorian and Edwardian villas. The 2-story, 3-bedroom Sphinx Hill House stands out from its neighbors indeed.

The postmodern house has barrel vaulted ceilings meant to evoke the funerary complex at Djoser in Saqqara. It’s adorned by an “attic storey resembling a giant eye of Horus,” C20 Society shared. “The exterior,” C20 Society continued, “is a polychromatic composition in ‘mint chop chic’ render, featuring a winged solar disc over the main entrance, tartan pattern tiling along the base, and black column capitals topped with terracotta circles, representing the hieroglyph for the rising sun.”

Upon Sphinx Hill House’s Grade II* listing, John Outram, now age 90, shared his enthusiasm in a statement remarking on the client and long-time resident Henrietta McCall’s eclectic taste.

“She cast barley and beer to the four quarters at its ‘topping out’. I did my best, with my ‘elastic aesthetic’ to please her. She swam every morning in water as black as outer space under a shiny vault of darkest blue for an audience of gilded green Egyptian columns,” Outram wrote about McCall. “Her richly-furnished mind talked to her house. Her colleagues from the British Museum complimented her by saying her house, with her sphinxes on ‘cataracts’ running down to the River, had done more to bring Ancient Egypt to contemporary consciousness (a.k.a. ‘life’), than many a Museum Exhibit. Our problem, today, is how to use this as a lesson in how to bring our exhausted old country ‘to life’.”

Outram’s statement also detailed his other listed built works and makes a point to name one that has yet to be protected: The Craft Workshops at Welbeck Abbey. The full statement can be read here.

To date, C20 Society has done much to raise awareness and appreciation for postmodern architecture. In 2016, it organized a conference which paved the way for other important postmodern buildings to be Grade I listed like Charles Jencks’s Cosmic House (1985) in Kensington, London; No. 1 Poultry by Stirling and Wilford (1998); and the glorious Isle of Dogs Pumping Station from 1988 in Tower Hamlets also by John Outram Associates.

Outram’s portfolio of work was also recently cataloged by C20 in a book.

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