Architect and academic, Dr Arthur Barker, explains what good architecture should be according to four major contextual influences: Identity, Legacy, Memory and Ethics.
Some architects are hesitant to submit their work for awards because they don’t think it is good enough. This is why architect and academic, Dr Arthur Barker from the Department of Architecture at the University of Pretoria, believes that architects shouldn’t necessarily put forward their own projects but that the Institutes of Architecture should play bigger roles in finding and nominating good buildings.
He refers to Thomas Honiball, who at the age of 74, for the first time submitted a project after being persuaded by colleagues, and won an Award of Excellence from the Pretoria Institute for Architecture.
He further suggests that buildings should only be awarded five or ten years after they have been completed, having personally seen projects that have only survived a year, for whichever reason.
Barker served on two award panels during 2015 and visited numerous nominated buildings, both in Namibia and South Africa. Speaking at the latest DAS Conference, he took the audience through his own system of understanding what good architecture could be, discussing four major contextual influences:
“How do we make architecture that creates a new local identity rather than following international trends?”
Barker uses Nina Maritz’ three award-winning resource centres, which are scattered across Namibia, as an example of how an architect uses her own personal design identity, which is rooted in contextual and sustainable architecture, to influence all of her work.
“Settlements, particularly in the north of Namibia, are characterised by a close arrangement of individual buildings tied together with a bounding wall or fence. Maritz has adopted these principles in the organisation of the resource centres, providing them with local spatial identity. The main and controlling form is a central exhibition foyer with modular additions,” noted Barker.
“What is so clever about her work, is that it reinforces local identity because it is rooted in the local context,” he said.
“How do we respond to the spatial legacy of apartheid planning such as informal settlements that are dislocated from resources and gated communities that not contribute to their context? Also, how can we create good urban space that works for everyone?”
The Hermanus Community Day Centre is one such project that got it right, according to Barker. “The architecture addresses the street, creates an active edge and provides a series of public to private thresholds into the building. And instead of putting a fence right around the building, the architects responded to security concerns by putting large sliding gates, that open at certain times, in strategic places” he said.
“This spatial legacy continues into the building where there are major considerations for the user – in fact, the building was strategically designed around the needs of those who are ill. So the architects paid a lot of attention to the waiting areas, the way that they are lit and ventilated, and the way that circulation is legible”.
“How do we design ethically to make comfortable environments and use materials efficiently to limit resource impacts on our planet (and not just with green paint)? We need to act ethically as members of professional bodies, as well as in our relationship with clients, other built environment specialists, contractors and governing bodies. We should be ethical in terms of the limitations of local resources and we need to think about less expensive solutions. But lastly, and most importantly for me in the design profession, is spatial design: We must consider the design of ethical space – appropriate space for particular conditions,” Barker explained.
The open-plan bathroom is, for Barker, an illustration of the lack of ethical spatial innovation. “It was very clear to me in about 30 houses I visited during 2015 that the overused open plan concept is dominating spatial design,” he said.
In contrast, Barker calls Thomas Honiball’s award-winning architecture “a concretisation of a principled way of working that challenges conventional ways of making space through the balance of cellular and open-plan space, ordered through light and aptly suited to the physical and inspirational needs of the client, the immediate physical environment and climate. The work speaks of experience and restraint.”
“How do we make new architecture that respects history, but understands the needs of today?”
Barker pointed out that no architecture will ever be truly new as it follows a continuum of thought, but said that architecture which clearly recognises its place in this continuum produces deeply rooted solutions. “It is about finding a balance between familiarity and strangeness and giving history a contemporary feel”.
According to Barker House De Villiers in Pretoria, which recently won an Award of Excellence from the Pretoria Institute of architects, is a contemporary interpretation of the Modern Movement that was contextualised in Pretoria after the Second World War. “The rustic painted brickwork in a Modern Movement planar style has facilitated a modern, environmentally sensitive and historically grounded home,” he states.
“In summary, it is my contention that if designers of the built environment consider all of the previously mentioned contextual influences, it will go a long way to creating innovative architecture that contributes to a place, that extends our appreciation of history, is ethically founded and fosters responsible and appropriate spatial organisations,” he concluded.
Caption: A courtyard house, designed by Jacques de Villiers, has won an award of excellence from the Pretoria Institute for Architecture (PIA) in 2016. The design considered the site and the surroundings, and was conceived to be energy efficient and environmentally sensitive.
Courtesy of Konsep Architects