Windsor Without Palaces

    30 March 2013

    It was only 8.30a.m., but already my shirt was catching on my dampening shoulders. That’s Florida for you, even in December.

    I felt a set of eyes on my back. I didn’t turn around; instead, with my trusty five-iron, I reached for another ball. I looked through the haze towards the palm trees some 400 yards distant at the end of the driving range. I began the rituals of my swing, superstitions to concentrate the mind: a shuffle of the feet, a cock of the wrists and a bend of the knees. I swung the club, more in hope than expectation by now.

    The pattern of the morning was repeated. As I raised the club above my head, my back went into a spasm which intensified as I reversed the action to hit the ball. The pain was so great that I could not strike the ball cleanly. I thrashed at it, yelping. The ball scurried off to the left and disappeared into the verge.

    I sensed those eyes again. I turned around. The eyes belonged to Ivan Lendl, the former tennis champion who now coaches Andy Murray. He smiled and I heard him say: ‘Bad back. Stop till it’s better.’ Then he drove off in his buggy. No nonsense, no sentiment; no wonder Murray’s much improved.

    I was dejected. This was a once in a lifetime’s chance to play the course designed by the legendary Bobbie Trent-Jones Jnr at the Windsor Estate, and I’d banjaxed my back on the flight from London. I returned to the clubhouse. Then the day began to look up.

    Windsor is paradisiacal. The estate occupies more than 400 acres near Vero Beach on a barrier island between the Atlantic and the Indian River. A late morning breeze that you can set your watch by dispels the humidity, creating a climate that’s so friendly you can swim in the sea in December. The grounds are split between the golf course, an equestrian centre and Floridian groves that have been drained of water and ’gators.

    Windsor was bought in 1989 by Galen and Hilary Weston (the owners, among many other things, of Selfridges). They wanted to challenge the standard American golf community (in which there is more golf than community). They also hoped to foster an architectural style in opposition to the suburban sprawl that has spread across parts of North America and western Europe since the second world war. They realised these ambitions with ‘New Urbanism’, a movement that has adapted America’s colonial heritage for modern life.

    Privacy within the community is the aim. In suburbia, you meet your neighbours over the garden fence; at Windsor you climb onto the veranda and knock on the front door. Walk through a front door in Windsor and you’re invariably met by the work of a famous interior designer. They don’t have an easy job: using a limited space (these are not mansions) to accommodate three generations of the same family, while also being alive to the demands of hosting. The Westons’ Guest House, designed by Rod Mickley, balances these needs. The terracotta house is built around a part-cloistered courtyard garden (landscaped by Deborah Nevins), which provides a large entertaining space and somewhere for children to play. The rooms surrounding the courtyard contain an art collection that will surely wind up in a MoMA (Peter Doig and Alex Katz in the sitting room, and what appeared to be a Christo in the downstairs loo), yet they are welcoming rather than grand. The living room is dominated by softly upholstered sofas and an array of books spread across an enormous modern table. Along with smaller pieces of designer furniture there is a scattering of antiques, which are supplemented by features such as family heirlooms, memorabilia and flowers. The lighting is arranged to brighten the room as well as the pictures, which banishes any sense of being in a museum, and the calculated clutter stops the house feeling like a show home for the superrich.

    There are also fine examples of minimalism at Windsor. Rick Schaub commissioned his brother, the architect Clemens, to design his house. The brief was: build me an art gallery with furniture it. The dining table and chairs blend with the colour of the floor so as not to distract from the modern paintings and photographic series on the walls. Schaub’s prize sculpture, ‘The Walking Woman’ (an eight-foot Amazon who seems determined to walk from here to eternity) can be seen from any position in the house in a 180 degree arc from the entrance hall to the guest suites on the other side of the courtyard. It’s a masterstroke of design every bit as impressive as the Weston Guest House. Schaub, though, is an ironist: ‘Maybe it’s too minimalist.’

    The houses are serviced by a concierge, three restaurants, a shop, an art gallery, a town hall, tennis courts and a health centre. The golf course and equestrian facilities act as the ‘village green’, beyond which lies the beach club.

    Windsor is one third private members’ club, one third country club and one third planned town. It’s ingenious as much as it is beautiful. It is also expensive. A four-bedroom house is priced in the local paper at $2,295,000. That’s one of the cheaper options; the most expensive is expected to fetch $15 million. Building plots are still available. Prices start at $300,000 for the site and finish at $4.3 million. And the costs continue long after completion. As of January this year, membership will set you back $80,000 and a further $11,750 a year (before sales taxes). If you want to play golf, you will have to fork out $200,000 and an annual fee of $19,600 (before sales taxes). See what I meant by ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’.

    If you do have this kind of money, be warned that Windsor is very particular about its denizens. The estate’s blurb announces that membership is by admission only and applicants must be sponsored by at least two members of ‘good standing’. The snooty tone makes Windsor sound like Pall Mall in the sun, which does a disservice to the residents and the way in which the estate is evolving.

    While the global art crowd was tearing around the living hell of Art Basel Miami, some 90 miles south of Windsor, Hilary Weston invited two artists, brothers Gert and Uwe Tobias, to exhibit in the village gallery. The show was the second of three collaborations with London’s Whitechapel Gallery, designed to bring art and culture to the Windsor community and not merely the collectors. The whole village was invited (just like it is in Lark Rise) to meet two guys who are too cool for Miami.

    The Tobias brothers’ work seems to owe something to their background. They are ethnic Germans who were born in Transylvania, Romania, in 1973. They were saved from the Ceausescu regime in 1985 by the West German government, which sponsored their migration to Cologne under an agreement in which ethnic Germans were purchased from the bankrupt communists.

    The Tobiases’ work hums with subtle hints at suffering, flight and migration. Headless beasts and mythical creatures fly across strange, often hypermodern textures and surfaces. It is as if the nightmares of the Black Forest had journeyed through time to invade Silicon Valley. Embroidery and heraldic signs are superimposed on modern backgrounds; and woodcuts are fronted with technicolour versions of beast fables. It’s weird and wonderful, exuding a sense of the
    past that is familiar but not recognisable, which makes you think. The exhibition transfers to the Whitechapel in April.

    The party after the show confirmed why Windsor works. It could have been the sort of shindig which you can’t wait to leave, especially with jet lag and a bad back; but the guests were so warm and generous, interesting and interested, that I stayed longer than was necessary or advisable. Windsor’s a good place to be.

    Photo by Jessica Klewicki Glynn