What makes Newhouse so unusual, if not unique, is that it is directly modelled on an archaic house type that was reinvented here for the 20th century. The plan is that of a domus, the atrium house-type of ancient Rome, designed to look inwards and without external windows. In a domus the semi-roofed atrium or courtyard, its middle left open to the sky for light and air, was the most important room of the house. Slanted roofs sloped inwards, with rainwater draining from the roof into the middle of the atrium.
That is what we have here. At the heart of Newhouse is a courtyard or outdoor room, with a 16 feet-square opening to the sky, around which the shared life of the family – living room, kitchen and nursery/playroom with dormitory cubicles for the four boys, then aged 9, 4, 2 and 1 – revolves and is on constant display. With the exception of a 12 feet-wide strip along the north-east side of the house, reserved for the adults’ work and sleep, the entire 64 feet-square interior is one continuous open plan without corridors.
There are a few lightweight partitions and only a glazed, shoji-like, sliding screen – a transparent membrane to be drawn, as required – between indoor and outdoor living. Windows are individually treated to offer tight-angled glimpses of the surroundings or give different parts of the house their unique character – one at the desk of each boy’s cubicle, a long low horizontal one in the kitchen facing Stocking Lane and, in the living room, three ceiling-level slits through which to view the sky.
Newhouse was built with humble materials “lying by the wayside” – over-burnt red clay bricks (rejects from the brick kiln, recently available for the first time in Ireland at a fraction of the standard price), a peristyle, or open colonnade, of wooden telegraph poles set on rough millstone pads (reminiscent of Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto), and a corrugated fibre-cement roof. There are corner gargoyles instead of gutters and downpipes, to heighten the experience of rain cascading off the roof, which might seem rather Zen but is also singularly Irish – more Irish than the Irish themselves – in its stoic celebration of even the foulest weather.
Gerda’s studio is secreted away at the back of the plan. Set outside and a little below the courtyard, it is reached through a tall, narrow, brick-floored passage that descends with a gentle flight of broad, shallow steps from the courtyard to the landscape beyond and Woodtown Park across the meadow. The studio is the only room that faces only outwards. Spare and ascetic as a monk’s cell, it is a concentrated, contemplative space, the sole distraction a narrow slit window in the gable through which to monitor the comings and goings from the house. There is a higher window – the largest of all – that bursts through the roof space, touching the parapet, to flood the studio with reflected sunlight.
Newhouse, as its radical, avant-garde name suggests, is one of architecture’s rarae aves. It was perfectly complete, a work that could neither be added to nor subtracted from. But life as intended there did not last very long. Werner soon moved out and in 1969 abandoned everything for a new career as an opera singer in Germany. Introverted, uncomfortable and impossible to heat, Newhouse became a burden on Gerda. She might have moved but didn’t want to uproot the family.
After her untimely death in 1975, her studio was preserved for more than 30 years, just as she had left it. In 2004, at Werner’s instigation, Newhouse was added to the Record of Protected Structures in the South Dublin County Council Development Plan. It was sold in 2006. The new owner carried out substantial unauthorised works during 2007 and 2008. Permission to retain the alterations was granted in 2009.