John Penn: Radical Classicist, Rural Modernist

The Making of a Film, Beach House, 2015

John Penn was an architect, painter, musician and poet whose nine houses in East Suffolk built between 1961 and 1971 are unique examples of rural modernism. All designed with uncompromising symmetry adhering to the points of the compass in their positioning in the landscape they use a limited language of materials and form that were influenced by his time spent working in California with Richard Neutra. They are Californian modernist pavilions in the Suffolk landscape. Penn knew the Suffolk landscape from his childhood and his mother was a painter so he had a deep connection with the place.

The houses are all within a relatively small geographical area. Initially in my research I visited as many of them as was possible and spoke with the current owners to get a sense of Penn and his work. I had thought I would make a film about all nine houses but eventually settled on Beach House as focus for my film as it was the house that he had built for his sister and himself.

As a painter Penn was greatly influenced by Rothko and American Abstract Expressionism. He was very conscious of avant-garde strands in music and painting. In the 60’s he experimented with combining instruments such as the harpsichord, clarinet, sitar and bassoon and formed an improvisational group who played regularly together.

Beach House on Shingle St has a simple rectilinear structure made from bricks that mirror the pale colour and pitted texture of the shingle beach, its form sits in the landscape unobtrusively, its glass expanses front and back give views through the building to the salt marshes behind, perhaps a perfect architectural solution to living in this remote windswept location at the edge of the sea, its flat roof reflecting the flat open horizontal landscape in which it sits so lightly.

At the time I came across Beach House I was making a film, 3 Church Walk about Cadbury Brown’s house in nearby Aldeburgh and this house had many similarities with the one I was researching. I continued walking on the shingle to meet with the musician, Thomas Dolby, at his house a few hundred meters further along the beach, only to discover that he also lived in a house partially designed by Penn. His was an old coastguard’s house that had been adapted by Penn to live in and bore the trademark cedar wood ceilings and open structure that I had seen as I peered through the windows of Beach House. Dolby showed me the hole cut in the wall of his office that Penn used as a projection booth to project films onto the living room wall. It was then that a set of questions about Penn and his work, arose that I felt could perhaps be answered through making a film about the relationship between his work and this landscape that he painted so frequently and in which he expressed his ideas about architecture. The fact that he clearly had an interest in film and perhaps made films himself piqued my interest.

Beach House is John Penn’s most uncompromising design in terms of idea as form. It has been adapted over the years by its owners for modern living but in essence it is classically Palladian in its extreme symmetry and radically modern in its materials and open design. There are sightlines through the house, which sits on an east west axis. Through openings and outlooks the sun is seen rising over the sea at the front of the house and setting over the marshes at the back. Its current owners describe it as having Turner out the front, Constable out the back. This relationship to the landscape, a painterly relationship of light and colour, is present in all of Penn’s houses, each of which have particular outlooks over the flat, open, horizontal, landscape of east Suffolk. This is accentuated by the remote locations of many of the houses where the landscape itself has been described as modernist, with its long, low horizons, muted colours and empty vistas. Despite the rigorous symmetry and uncompromising formalism in Penn’s architecture, his houses are romantic. Penn was a painter and musician as well an architect and these qualities are evident in the buildings he designed.

John Penn was influenced by the Case Study Houses designed between 1945 and 1966 in Los Angeles and his time spent in California working with Richard Neutra. Neutra had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and took from him the importance of the interior exterior relationship in the modern house. Neutra’s designs were, like Penn’s, more Meisian than Wright inspired but this relationship to the landscape and the sites in which the houses are situated could be seen to have its roots with Wright.

Penn returned from California and due to his extensive family connections found wealthy clients to build houses for in Suffolk. Architects at the time were looking to Italy and classicism in design for the plans for their houses and Penn was no exception. He embraced the rigorous symmetry of Palladio and created variations on a theme, each house having a central core containing the services, kitchen and bathroom, and living sleeping spaces on either side that were identical in size, although the sleeping side often was divided by a folding screen (and in some cases more substantial partition walls as the clients’ needs were to come into play.) Another Palladian feature of the houses were the raised plinths that they were constructed on, which in the English climate in low lying coastal areas also served to keep them above the flood level.

The fact that these Californian pavilions were constructed in the Suffolk coastal region, where the simple outdoor life and airy open spaces function well in the summer but less so in the winter has presented their owners with some hardships but where the houses have been well looked after and brought up to current standards of insulation they function well. They are beautifully crafted objects, which explore the possibilities of the new, experiment with materials, form, space, time, light, mobility, flow and are rich in narrative.

Narrative in architecture implies more than form following function, space having a narrative or potential narrative relates to not only how the space might be used but also might be mis-used creating unpredictable narratives. There is a deeply human aspect to Penn’s designs despite their strict formalism. According to Erica Cummings, a close friend of Penn’s, he was always looking for an ideal site to build his ‘temple’. Beach House was a small temple inside a larger temple. The openness of its design and its exposed position on the beach give it lightness and fragility but also a sense of freedom and adventure.

During the research period for the film the owners of Beach House, Bruce and Anne Page gave me a DVD that contained a film made by Penn in the house soon after its completion. In this piece of film titled Shingle Street John Penn 1971 people can be seen enjoying the beach, throwing stones into the sea, others walking on the beach, a boy climbing to the top of a shingle dune. A panning shot reveals nothing but the sea, sky and shingle with a few coastguard cottages on the edge of the beach. This sets the scene. This is Shingle St, Suffolk, the remote piece of East Anglian shoreline where Penn built Beach House. A hand written title card is seen with dancing shadows created by the sunlight falling through leaves onto the card followed by a close up shot of a man sitting at a table writing with a pencil on a pad of paper. On a larger piece of paper taped to a pale brick wall we see a symmetrical drawing of the plan of a house, which is to be Penn’s Beach House. The plan drawing resembles a film frame with the central core of the house being like crosshairs and the external walls like the title and picture safe areas in a camera viewfinder.

The transition from a two-dimensional plan to a three-dimensional model comes as a shot of a wooden model of the house turning through 180 degrees is seen before the film cuts to a low shot of the house itself seen through the beach grasses.  These different forms begin to describe the space and the house, the plan showing the layout of the interior, the model showing the house in the round and in the opening shot of the house itself it becomes apparent how it sits in the landscape. The film shows a day in the life of the house, beginning with its conception on paper, through model stage through to completed, inhabited building.

In my film, Beach House, I have incorporated Penn’s film, Shingle St, 1971 almost in its entirety to retain his composition of shots and editing decisions that illustrate his ideas about the transposition of the house from paper to screen. On paper it is apparent that the house is a temple or pavilion in its simple symmetrical plan. In his film this develops to show the three-dimensional model, which begins to give form to the idea and then in the shots of the populated house its human scale becomes apparent. Through the editing of his film the house as manifesto, its functionality and spirit come together, the idea is realised formally.

Cedric Green, an architect and former colleague of Penn’s, who worked for him as senior assistant architect from 1963-65 formed a group with him playing improvised avant-garde music, which they called metaphonics, meeting every couple of weeks to play and record with two other musicians, Romey Jacob (sitar) and Zina Tibanum (harpsichord). Cedric sent me some of their recordings, which have formed the basis for the soundtrack of Beach House. The recordings are clearly from the same time period as the house and by placing them together with Penn’s footage as well as my own the sound acts as a thread that runs from past to present, from the material shot in 1971 to the newly filmed material.

The music’s relationship to the architecture in this case is clearly linked by the architect himself. The sound recordings he made were improvised but have a distinct connection to the landscape in which the house sits. As with his painting, his musical compositions reflect the openness of the sea and the windswept coastal landscape.

One of the few articles relating to Penn and his work written by Richard Gray for the Twentieth Century Society publication, Post-War Houses (2000) gives a description of each of Penn’s nine Suffolk houses and an outline of his biographical details but rather than making a film that replicates the story already told about Penn I wanted the archive film, sound recordings and the house to speak for themselves.

The research for Beach House began with site visits to each of the houses, recording interviews with friends and colleagues of Penn’s and gathering archive materials. The metaphonics recordings and film, Shingle St, 1971 were the most significant finds during this period of research. The film and the music both created by Penn himself signposted the way for me to proceed. The film I was making described the space in a way to expose form in film and in architecture, using the repetition of views framed slightly differently and calling on the viewer’s memory to piece together the house in its past and present forms. But there is a reflection and mirroring of the archive film in my own film; views of the exterior from the beach and sightlines along the axis of the interior of the house are in both the archive material and my own but each speak of a different time.

The sound is an important element in populating the film. In his book, Sinister Resonance, David Toop refers to sound as a haunting - this conversation between place and person that is articulated through sound is evident in Beach House in the symmetry and mirroring of inside and outside spaces and in the repetition of musical phrases. Penn’s music works with the image in each of the three sections of the film in various ways. The length of notes and the pace of the music are in step with the panning shots across the interior and with the pace of the editing. The piano connects with the chair, its heavy notes like the weight of someone sitting, the trumpet signals the wind in the tree outside. Hearing the trumpet towards the end of the film you are aware that you heard it earlier with Penn’s original footage. The sound is clearly from the same period as his film so it has a ghostly quality – his presence is felt and the sound activates the space through this presence.

There is a convergence of filmic and architectural language in describing modern architectural space through the language of film. Starting with a simple floor plan drawing as Penn does in the archive film and seeing that in contrast to the complexity of the actual experience of being in the space, the way a simple structure generates a complex experience both in terms of the architecture and the film becomes apparent.

Beach House is the second in a trilogy of films titled House Works, which were made over a period of four years between 2014 and 2018 about three modernist homes in East Anglia – two of which were lived in by their architects – I have tried to counter the overwhelming narrative of the heroic aesthetic icon by attending to the quietly radical ways these buildings were inhabited. In my films of H.T. ‘Jim’ and Betty Cadbury-Brown’s 3 Church Walk in Aldeburgh, Suffolk (1962), John Penn’s Beach House in Shingle Street, Suffolk (1969) and Richard and Su Rogers’ Spender House and Studio, near Maldon, Essex (1968) I have constructed alternative readings of space and ways of life that were culturally connected, creative and unconventional.


An extract from a talk given on Penn's work and the making of the film, Beach House given at White House Farm, Suffolk