The Wildernesse Restaurant, designed by Morris + Company, plays with wood construction and typological precedents, all despite a small budget.
The United Kingdom’s county of Kent connects London with the southeast coast and, on account of its abundant orchards and greenery, is known as the “Garden of England.” Here, in the town of Sevenoaks, to be precise, sit the rolling hills of the Wildernesse Estate, with Wildernesse House at its center. Built in the mid-18th century, this Grade II—protected Georgian mansion was home to aristocrat and philanthropist Baron Hillingdon during the 19th century. Later it served a variety of functions before being bought by PegasusLife, a retirement housing group, in 2013. The mansion is now the center of a retirement community where the first residents are due to arrive in the coming months.
Directly behind the house is the new Wildernesse Restaurant, the latest piece of London-based Morris + Company’s master-planning project on the site, which also includes a set of mews houses and apartment blocks to come. The £1.9 million pavilion is designed to provide the community’s residents with a social hub on the site while inviting in those from the surrounding area. “It’s all part of a community-wide piece of the estate,” explains founding director Joe Morris. “Anybody can get in; it’s very much a public offer.”
Inside, the restaurant is primarily characterized by its cross-laminated timber (CLT) structure that is left exposed, forming a grid of columns supporting timber arches and a vaulted ceiling. The vaults serve as a spatial device as much as a structural one by dividing the restaurant into squares, beneath which tables neatly sit. CLT is very much the material of the moment thanks to its ecological advantages, and new projects that employ it in a novel way often feel like manifestos of sorts. (Embodied carbon for CLT projects can be remarkably low; this project, for example, is considered to have an embodied carbon emission of –48 tons.)
CLT use at Wildernesse Restaurant is, unfortunately, one of the weaker claims for the material. Owing to the formal complexity of the roof structure and a tight budget, the CLT’s inconsistent joints and cracks appear clumsy amid the regal and refined surroundings. Morris faults the struggles of working under a design-build contract, which reduces the role of the architect in overseeing final design quality. “That was really the challenge,” he explains, “just trying to get a highly crafted and bespoke building with local trades and local experience.”
Elsewhere the architects use simple, thoughtful moves to make the most of the constraints. The large windows and freshness of the exposed CLT create a naturally bright atmosphere in marked contrast to the dimmer environs of a typical retirement home. (That said, this is not a typical facility; apartments in the mansion start at over £1.1 million, and promotional images feature guests driving vintage sports cars.) In addition, the restaurant provides ample views of the estate’s greenery while subtly complementing the adjacent mansion: The light biscuity beige of the mansion’s brickwork is reflected in the aluminum and both buildings’ arched windows.
The spaces beneath the ceiling vaults are of generous height and establish natural dining areas, while two raised vaults in the center create a roof lantern that casts gentle afternoon shadows. Moments such as these give the pavilion an elegance befitting its main typological ancestor, “the Victorian orangery,” says Morris, citing a reference as antiquely English as the tea and biscuits to be served inside.