Sussex Heritage Trust’s Person of the Year 2018 Neil Holland on the county’s beauty

Architect Neil Holland at home in Chichester (Photo by Jim Holden)

Architect Neil Holland at home in Chichester (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: JIm Holden

Sussex Heritage Trust’s Person of the Year 2018, Neil Holland, on preserving the county’s beauty as an architect and a landscape painter

When Neil Holland was named Person of the Year at the 2018 Sussex Heritage Trust Awards he admits he was surprised.

"I'm not doing the perceived visual thing that architects do," he says from his townhouse in Chichester where he lives surrounded by the watercolours he has painted from a very young age. "I was delighted - it felt like all the thinking I've been doing in painting and architecture has been recognised. It wasn't just for me, but for all the people who have contributed to the success of the practice with their talent, creative skills, commitment, integrity and friendship over many years and continue to produce architecture of the highest quality across Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent."

Before he retired in 2016, his company Neil Holland Architects had received more than 50 architectural awards in 40 years of work. But from the very start Neil had swum against the Modernist tide - instead taking inspiration from architectural history and each building's place in the landscape.

"I used to argue with my tutors when I was in my 20s as a lot of what they were teaching was brutal concrete," he says. "It was in the middle of the Vietnam War, we were all a bit nervous that we might get called up - and then there was this architectural style called Brutalism. The world felt brutal enough as it was!"

Instead Neil took his inspiration from the past - while at the same time trying to create something new. He describes his Damascene moment as when his class at the Leeds School of Architecture went on a day trip to Glasgow. "I remember standing outside Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Art School in Glasgow on a windy February morning and thinking this was something unusual and original," he says. "I remember going into the library thinking that if this was possible then I wasn't going to give up being an architect. I stopped arguing with the tutors and toed the line, but made a pact with myself that I would do something different to what they were preaching to me."

His first chance came in the early 1970s when a meeting at a dinner led to him being commissioned by Sir Peter Scott to design the Wildlife and Wetlands Centre in Arundel. "It was as modern as I was going to go," says Neil looking back. "But it was contextural with skyline of Arundel Castle and appropriate for the water's edge."

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As money was tight he designed the building as a series of octagons, which could be added to as time went on, while still retaining a complete structure. Even today visitors can appreciate the power of the reception space, as a small entrance hall and shop suddenly opens out to a wide viewing gallery overlooking the main pond, with not a single column to block the view. "It's resting on 120ft of silt - the river bed of the Arun," says Neil, who was 31 when he designed the building. "Scott's brief was to introduce people gradually in an exciting way. It's all standing on eight double steel columns at each corner of the octagon - it's very open."

It certainly worked - the building earned Neil his first trophy, a Civic Trust Award, and set his career in motion. He set up Neil Holland Architects in Arundel in 1973. Among his many major award-winning works was rebuilding the Eardley on Worthing seafront from scratch, keeping its original style and feel through painstaking documentation but adding an extra floor and an underground car park. It earned him three UK International Property Awards in 2012.

His design for Chestnut Tree House Children's Hospice won a Sussex Heritage Trust Award in 2005; and the rebuilt family home Woodlands, at Burton Mills Pond near Petworth, which followed a strong Sussex style, was named House of the Year by the Daily Telegraph in 1996 and was the subject of a Country Life feature in April 2000.

"I've always felt that the site is more important than the building," he says. "You have got to understand the site and what is around it. If you look and absorb all of that then hopefully you will come up with something original but marinated in the place."

Place is key to his work - and may arise from the love of landscape painting which he has retained all his life. In fact it was painting which led him to become an architect. When his school careers master heard the 15-year-old Neil wanted to be a professional painter he suggested: "If you like drawing then be an architect - architects draw."

"I'm really a painter who has become an architect," says Neil today. "It's why I feel strongly about landscape or place, whether it's a town, village or city. I've got the mind of a landscape painter. It's a lovely experience. If you went to sit in the middle of a field to look at an oak tree for five hours they would take you and put you in an asylum. If you put an easel in front of you they will leave you alone!"

He still paints regularly, selling prints of his work through his website. He also does commissions, ranging from pictures of people's homes to gifts of Arundel Park scenes for the Duke of Norfolk's retiring trustees. "I slightly simplify and exaggerate the best bits," he says. "It's unlike photography, it's about memory. If you think of a landscape you like, you edit out nasty bits of fence in the foreground. It's almost like painting a dream of a memory." Neil primarily works in watercolours en pleine air - something he sees as a uniquely British approach. "If you paint with watercolours in the south of France they will dry out because of the heat," he says. "Here you can allow it to dry slowly and work into it."

Having moved to Chichester six or seven years ago he is now planning an exhibition celebrating the best of Sussex for 2020 - inspired to soothe the aggression and divisions caused by Brexit. "My working title is Sussex: The Spirit of Place," he says. "It would involve painting, but also music, writing by people like Hilaire Belloc from Shipley, poetry and possibly even sculpture. Sussex has a particular spirit of place - I would love to feel that people from all walks of life could come along and say there is an underlying feeling to where we live."

He still does the odd bit of architectural work when asked, and acts as consultant to his former wife's company Victoria Holland Architecture, but at 74 he's happy to spend his days painting and spending time with his daughters when he can. Painter Amy, 45, now lives in Boston, 22-year-old Beatrice is an interior designer and Lily, 20, is a student at Newcastle studying psychology. "Architecture is a very demanding profession," he admits. "But when I see a building I've designed now it feels very different from when I designed it. A building gets better with age."

Good to know

Sussex Heritage Trust was launched in 1977 with the aim of preserving, improving and encouraging the appreciation of Sussex's architectural and natural heritage. It has been running its annual awards scheme since 1998 to highlight fine examples of conservation, preservation and rejuvenation projects across East and West Sussex. "It celebrates people doing lovely stuff and has become terribly prestigious - it is trying to encourage excellence in building," says Neil. "People really value getting an award from the Sussex Heritage Trust."


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