Robin Partington’s your definition of luxury?

If luxury were an object, what would it be?

If luxury were a place, where would it be?

If luxury were a moment, when would it be?

If luxury were a person, who would it be?
Audrey Hepburn.

There are two faces to Holmewood House, a modern day country retreat in England’s Chiltern Hills. The first is as when seen from afar, when the house, sunk into the middle of 150 acres and hidden under a roof planted with grass, is almost invisible unless you know what to look for; a lesson in architecture that is sensitive to its environment. In contrast, the alternate view from up close or within reveals dramatic curves, towering walls of glass and generous volumes in the sort of futuristic bunker that Ian Fleming might have described for a James Bond villain. Yet to its architect, Robin Partington, the unusual structure is simply, “a beautiful, yet classic house — a modern house which has been built into the landscape.”

Commissioned by Lady Helen Hamlyn as a country home not far from London, Partington was forced think outside (or underneath, as it was) the box when planning restrictions on the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty vetoed any structure above ground. Having previously restored the 17th-century Chateau de Bagnols near Lyon to great acclaim, Lady Hamlyn was happy to accept the subterranean challenge.

“We had the simple idea of taking a scalpel to the landscape, lifting the edge like a duvet and sliding in Helen’s diagram of how she wanted to live and that’s exactly what we have,” remarks Partington of the final design. Lady Hamlyn envisioned the contemporary interior as anchored by her collection of early-English furniture and antiques. With high ceilings, all the principal rooms face south through glass walls. A large skylight sits above the home’s central courtyard, where at the touch of a button the French limestone floor miraculously descends either slightly to create an ornamental reflecting pond or to a depth of 1.5m for an indoor swimming pool.

More than a reaction to strict planning constraints, Holmewood House is a glimpse of the future of stately homes. Partington and Lady Hamlyn have created a house with all the grandness and splendour of a Georgian pile but with minimal impact on the environment and the added bonus of increased energy efficiency. Is the future of aristocratic country seats below ground? “For this site it was absolutely right,” responds Partington. But he warns other would-be diggers: “Burying a building in the ground has been done many times before, but the results often look crude and hurried. Here, we had a 150-acre estate to play with and enough of a lead up to the building to get these sensuous curves wrapping around and over the house. You need a lot of space to get that to work.”