When the rebuilding of a neglected Liverpool neighbourhood is hailed as award-winning ‘art’, something significant is up in the world of architecture. The news in December that Assemble, a group of young London-based architects, had won the Turner art prize for its Granby Four Streets cluster of terraced houses, an urban-regeneration project, may have rattled the art world, but it can only be good news for architecture. It’s shone a spotlight on a major shift towards more holistic, humane buildings designed to enhance the lives of those who inhabit them.
Assemble worked closely with resident organisations on a plan to reclaim public space and refurbish the terraced homes dating back to the early 1900s. They preserved the buildings’ architectural heritage but introduced a playful and modern approach that included turning a dilapidated, roofless house into a walled public garden and designing clever room dividers with built-in storage.
The studio has used the platform presented by the Turner prize to set up a social enterprise called the Granby Workshop, which involves locals in the manufacture of furniture and fittings, such as mantelpieces made from rubble and other discarded components found on site.
Assemble’s other projects include the Cineroleum, an old petrol station in London transformed into a cinema sheathed in billowing metallic curtains made from three kilometres of recycled roofing membrane. Similarly, Folly for a Flyover, also in London, was a performance space under a motorway that hosted 40 000 locals over the nine weeks it was open.
The studio’s work – which they will present to local audiences at Design Indaba in Cape Town this month – typifies a worldwide move to more socially responsible building solutions that create an interactive and welcoming environment for the human beings who inhabit them.
Minding the housing gap
Like Assemble, Johannesburg studio Architecture for a Change (A4AC) produces structures that are temporary, self-initiated and community-based. And indeed, across Africa, small studios are coming up with innovative solutions to pressing issues such as a lack of affordable housing, the needs of informal traders and emergency shelter.
‘People are realising that a small percentage of the planet’s population – between one and five per cent – can afford true architectural services, and that the real need is in the 90 per cent living in impoverished conditions,’ says Anton Bouwer of A4AC.
Bouwer and his partners, Dirk Coetser and John Saaiman, have focused their efforts on finding low-cost, low-impact solutions tailored to the African context. ‘It’s a challenge for us as designers to change mindsets about what constitutes a house,’ says Bouwer. ‘People still see houses as bricks and mortar.’
Many of their designs use prefabricated components, such as the Legson Kayira Community Centre and Primary School in Malawi, which was manufactured in their Randburg workshop, then packed up and transported to the site, where locals added masonry walls and woven-grass ceilings.
A4AC’s Mobile Housing Unit is a container house with a pitched roof, a retractable screen offering shade and security, a built-in bathroom and kitchenette, and low-energy features such as solar power and water heating. It’s envisioned as an alternative to the backyard shacks that many South Africans end up renting from residents of RDP houses.
They’re hoping the unit has appeal for large corporates such as mining companies that rely on migrant labour. A mobile housing solution offers the option of renting to own, being sold back, or relocation should the worker return home.
Public space is paramount
When it comes to larger-scale public and corporate buildings, architects are often insisting on taking the greater good into account. Cape Town architect Heinrich Wolff’s porous design for The Watershed at the V&A Waterfront makes provision for public space within the building by incorporating a central ‘street’ that invites a steady stream of pedestrians, workers, shoppers and tourists.
Increasing urban populations have made public space in cities all the more crucial. ‘South African cities are starting to increase in density but they’re still nowhere close to those abroad,’ says Hugh Fraser of Paragon Architects. ‘This has a major impact on public transport and the fabric of cities.
‘Sandton can now benefit from the Gautrain, and corporate buildings also obviously have a much bigger impact on sustainable architecture. Buildings that accommodate thousands of staff members can make huge contributions to water and energy savings and reduced waste production.’
How offices can make an impact
A plant-filled piazza was the starting point for Paragon’s design for the 11 Alice Lane commercial hub in Sandton, which consists of three office buildings. Phases one (Marsh) and two (Sanlam and Santam) were completed in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Phase three – an office building for Bowman Gilfillan that includes ground-floor retail space – is due for completion this year. The entire precinct is aimed at achieving a four-star Green Star rating, and has been conceived as a green lung incorporating lushly planted ‘pause points’ and courtyards for employees and the public.
Paragon created a two-winged structure for the Bowman Gilfillan building so that every office is located on a perimeter and exposed to light. The building includes 5 000 square metres of fritted (finely porous) glass that contributes to solar control, and makes use of technology that has developed since the other two buildings were completed.
Making mud modern
Building with mud, sometimes called ‘rammed-earth architecture’, is an age-old construction method that’s being revived locally by architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, and in West Africa by Atelier Koe.
‘Earth construction has a history of over 10 000 years, but is often associated with poverty,’ says Clément Dagneaux of the Senegalese studio. ‘Cement, in contrast, is a relatively new building material.’
Atelier Koe’s Eban Aya mud home, which won second place in the Nka Foundation’s Mud House Design Competition in 2014, combines bamboo and a compressed-earth shell that provides natural insulation and cooling, humidity regulation and acoustic properties. The construction has a near-zero carbon footprint.
Atelier Koe has shown how mud can be used at the higher end too, in private homes such as Khamsa House south of Dakar. Built with stabilised-earth bricks using the clay-rich soil dug directly on site, the residence is serene, contemporary and imposing, with voluminous spaces enveloped by thick red walls. The walls create an iconic structure and a striking vernacular that the studio is developing as its signature.
Gardens in the sky
Farther afield, Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia is proving that verticality doesn’t have to mean less green. His studio’s newly unveiled design for the Diamond Lotus housing scheme in Ho Chi Minh City consists of three 22-storey towers linked by aerial bridges bursting with bamboo and other plants. Each of the 720 apartments will have its own planted balcony, giving the illusion of being rooted in the ground. The plants shield the building from the harsh tropical sunlight and their combined effect punctures the city’s cement surface.
Vo Trong Nghia is fast making a speciality out of finding innovative ways to design buildings around, underneath and alongside gardens. Houses for Trees offers an alternative model for greening the cityscape by treating buildings as giant pots, with trees planted on their tops.
One thing is becoming abundantly clear: as technological developments enable architects to reach ever higher with gravity-defying designs, their approach needs to be rooted in the human needs on the ground. As Paragon Architects put it, the aim is to ‘contribute to a better future in better cities by thinking long term and driving quality decisions’.
Globe-trotting African architecture
Perhaps no local firm is better placed to comment on Africa’s rising influence on the West than Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects (SAOTA). Global demand for the Cape Town-based practice’s clean-lined contemporary design has exploded, with residential and corporate commissions flooding in from all five continents.
The Apex Tower and Garden Court in London, completed in November 2015 by SAOTA as design-concept architects and Darling Associates as project architects, is a sleek glass- and aluminium-clad addition to the city’s skyline. And currently being built in Lagos is Kingstower, a 15-storey office block sheathed in an innovative shading screen.
Driving the firm’s global expansion is the way its buildings respond to their context and landscape, ‘whether that setting is a South African cliff edge, a Swiss lake edge, a Russian steppe, a Middle Eastern oasis, or an iconic urban location,’ says Stefan Antoni.
South African’s indoor-outdoor style of living has resulted in a laidback but luxurious aesthetic that others want to emulate. ‘The way we live in and through our homes is unique,’ says Greg Truen. ‘Inhabitants of harsher environments, such as Europe, distanced themselves from the outdoors and became used to living with more barriers between them and nature. When they experience our aesthetic, they respond, and wish to replicate it in their own homes.’
Text: Kelly Berman