F.R.S Yorke was one of the primary promoters of modernist architecture in Britain in the 1930s. As well as his architectural work, first in partnership with his father then with Bauhaus great Marcel Breur, Yorke wrote for the Architects Journal and produced his Modern House series of books. The first edition of The Modern House was published in 1934, mixing examples of the finest modernist homes from Europe and America, with some from Britain, which was still testing its toe in the water of modernism at this point. By 1937, this had improved enough to be able to publish The Modern House in England, featuring an array of modernist dwellings, divided into four categories according to building material; brick and stone, timber frame and concrete.
Torilla, Nast Hyde, Herts (1935) by FRS Yorke
One of the houses in the concrete section was a house he designed at Nast Hyde, near Hatfield in Hertfordshire. It was commissioned by Christobel Burton for her daughter Barbara MacDonald. Christobel was the daughter of Christabel Rose Harmsworth Burton, who lived at Great Nast Hyde, an Elizabethan country house, and the new house was to be built in a portion of the grounds. Christobel apparently met FRS Yorke on a skiing holiday.
Torilla under construction
Plan of Torilla's ground floor and garden
The house is formed of reinforced concrete, with walls of 4in and 6in thickness, and concrete slabs for the floor and roof. The house is mostly single storey, except for the living room area which is double height. The master bedroom suite has a roof terrace, with a bathroom and children's play area next door. The interior flooring was finished in a combination of maple, terrazzo tiles and cork carpet tiles. The living area is large and open plan with clerestory windows, and contains the red-painted staircase to the roof terrace, and a dramatic, monolithic fireplace. The house was well received and documented in the architectural press of the day, notable for being one of the first houses built in monolithic concrete. Yorke and his now partner Marcel Breuer, were asked to add an extension to Torilla a year later.
The living room of Torilla with monolithic fireplace. Image from RIBApix
Yorke and Breuer would only work together for 2 years, but in that time they designed a number of houses. For the furniture manufacture P.E. Gane they designed a show house, consisting of walls built from local stone and glass with a flat roof. The house also had inbuilt plywood furniture. It was later demolished. They also built a sequel to Torilla, this time in Hampshire for H.A. Rose. It has been altered and extended, but still survives today, as an old people's home. Yorke and Breuer would also design a pair of brick Masters houses for Eton college, as well as the spectacular Sea Lane House in West Sussex.
Shangri-La, Lee-on-Solent (1937) by Yorke and Breuer
Sea Lane House, West Sussex (1937) by Yorke & Breuer
Barbara MacDonald lived at Torilla until 1939, when the family moved to New Zealand. Barbara’s mother then moved out of Great Nast Hyde and into the modernist house. After German air raids on RAF Hatfield got too close for comfort, the Air Force took over the house until 1945. Christobel moved to Codicote, where she once again commissioned Yorke to design a house, this time an experimental concrete box-framed home. The house is still there but altered and extended. It should also be noted that one of Christobel’s grandsons was the architect Richard Burton, later of Ahrends Burton & Koralek
As with many early concrete houses in Britain, the construction of Torilla was faulty and water ingress caused damage to the structure. It was listed in 1983 but then delisted a year later when an application to demolish it was made. It was allowed to deteriorate further until in the mid 1990s, when Amerigo Brusini bought the house and proposed to demolish it. It was instantly relisted by English Heritage and a successful campaign to save it was launched, after which architect John Winter restored Torilla back to its original glory, as it remains to this day.
James Bettley, Nikolaus Pevsner, Bridget Cherry: Buildings of England- Hertfordshire FRS Yorke: The Modern House in England Alan Powers: Modern- The Modern Movement in Britain Jeremy Gould: Modern Houses in Britain 1919-39 Historic England Listing