By Ayanda Made
The idea of the home has always been a deeply personal, intimate and emotional part of all our lives. It is soaked with feeling. It’s a place of refuge after a long day, a very own fortress of solitude during times of hardship and I find it very interesting that when we describe our homes or imagine our home it’s always attached to a feeling that’s tied to a certain space, not place. It’s the wrapped in a blanket next to the fireplace moment in the middle of July or the room filled with laughter around the dinner table moment with close family or friends and sometimes it’s a quiet moment spent alone. Home is an incredibly sensual place, it’s always been. If home was an object it be your favourite blanket as a child and there’s a terrible misconception today in both architects and homeowners to no fault of their own of what constitutes good design for a home. Maybe it’s because before the personal camera and before taking pictures of buildings became cool, homes could always only be experienced personally using all our senses, they had to like good food almost be savoured and drunk in, in order to be fully appreciated. With this in mind, the beauty of the design of a home back then could only be judged through a holistic personal experience.
Today however in the pursuit of status and great design being more accessible through print and digital media, architecture is far more commonly being consumed in bite-size portions which are almost purely a visual overindulgence of the physical and unfortunately, we’ve come to celebrate and replicate that aspect in isolation. The home something previously so intimate and personal has been reduced to a symbol, or worse a commodity used to portray a certain image when it’s never been purely about the physical. Not the walls, roof, tiles or the overall particular style that these elements make up. I believe great architects understand this, that it’s rather the careful orchestration of these elements, how you conduct them to create spaces for life to happen that constitutes great architecture.
…it’s rather the careful orchestration of these elements, how you conduct them to create spaces for life to happen that constitutes great architecture.
Good architects play the instrument, great architects play the orchestra. What I mean by this is that great architects don’t just fetishize on the one visual and physical elements that make up a building. Instead, they orchestrate both the physical and non- physical together beautifully to deliver the imaginative architecture that these elements can create. When this happens, architecture moves from being just the art of building to the art of placemaking and it’s an incredibly contextually driven process. It takes all aspects of context into consideration.
… design cannot precede context the same way a Stage Design never precedes the contents of the play. The one informs the other.
I recently watched a famous Broadway play, The Death of a Salesman by the even more famous playwright Arthur Miller, and I believe there’s a missed lesson I’ll briefly draw attention to between the understated importance of Stage Design in drawing out the intended impact of a play and the relationship it has with importance of context in creating great architecture. What’s beautiful about Stage Design are all the props, draping, sounds and colours that are never really the focus of the play. You never really notice a stage setting’s importance and impact until it’s not there, its presence is felt and its absence renders the play absolutely flat no matter how rich the content. What I later discovered was that Stage Design always follows the contents of the play, it repeatedly asks the questions “What emotion is this scene meant to evoke?” and “What setting best conveys these emotions to the audience?” It then proceeds to dress the stage in the appropriate setting to support each act. Architecture should be re-approached in the same respect, design cannot precede context the same way a Stage Design never precedes the contents of the play. The one informs the other.
If we run with this logic when discussing and unpacking architectural design, it’s easy to see that almost all celebrated architectural styles were born from critical responses to their context. It’s when we abandon this that we design inappropriate, forgettable architecture that lacks character, and more particularly homes that are devoid of meaning and substance both to the environment and the homeowner. It’s ironic because all the styles architects and homeowners have come to love and want replicated were born from contextually responsive approaches. The various existing styles can in a few years disappear into one universal type of architecture unless everyone begins to appreciate and take pride in the unique identity context gives Architecture.
Lastly, on a personal note although this applies to all architecture there’s a unique opportunity for South African Architects and homeowners to develop a uniquely South African Architecture by responding to our extremely rich and diverse natural environment if we give ourselves the opportunity to. If we envision a future for South African Architecture there must be a commitment to be responsible in our desires for a home. The beauty is that most architects are brilliant at both the ability to accurately respond to context whilst simultaneously interpreting the needs of a client in developing appropriate spaces, at a certain point it becomes almost second nature. So, in essence actually it’s less about can we do it but rather do we want to? Let’s start imagining what a heritage of South African Architecture and homes could look like if we did.