WORDS Jo Buitendach PHOTOS Nelson Won (Cobogo House), Fernando Guerra (House B+B) Marc Domage and Matthew Bradley (Cameron Platter, Trieu Chien and Hiroyuki Oki (The Lantern), Supplied.
An order of airy, beautiful breeze blocks is always a good idea, irrespective of whether it’s used in an iconic mid-century build or the latest cutting-edge architecture.
For many, breeze blocks recall 1960s beach bungalows or a screen wall meant to hide a washing line. For a whole new generation, however, these bricks, with built-in airflow and endless shadow-casting shapes, are so much more. They’re a perennial favourite, perfect to use as an attention-grabbing design feature – and here at VISI, we’re big fans.
A bit of context
“I have an obsession with breeze blocks,” says Sam Marshall in the introduction to The Breeze Block Book. The Sydney-based architect, whose firm recently completed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia, is also known for his popular Instagram account @breezeblockhead. Sam’s account is a celebration of the variety of blocks available, the intricate patterns they make, and the popularity of the breeze block internationally.
Amazingly, breeze blocks didn’t get their name from their airy ways. Rather, according to architectural historian Pamela Deasy, it was the addition of an ingredient called “coke breeze” into concrete blocks in the late 1800s, to make them more heat-resistant, that led to the name being coined. It was only in the 1900s that they became hollow in shape. They’re generally used in warm environments, nearly always tropical – which makes sense, given that they were developed “to provide protection from the sun while maintaining airflow”.
With the rise of modernism and functionalism in the mid-20th century, there was much debate about these functional and cheap concrete blocks. While some architects found them kitsch, others championed their use, creating complex patterned bricks that became popular in public and residential buildings. This is particularly evident in areas like California’s Palm Springs, with its abundance of stylish breeze block-adorned homes. Global popularity of the blocks meant mass production and prolific use well into the 1970s.
History and pretty patterns aside, for Sam and many other contemporary architects, it’s using the blocks today that counts. Whether it’s to aid in temperature control or create a natural source of light, they believe breeze blocks – like the ones featured over the next few pages – must be acknowledged for their continuing contribution to design. The Breeze Block Book is currently out of print, but will hopefully be available soon.
House B+B and Cobogó House, São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo-based architectural firm Studio MK27 are big fans of the Brazilian modernist movement, and well known for their use of breeze blocks. “Natural light plays an important role in our architecture,” says the team’s Clara Varandas. “The idea is to generate a light filter that can create different shadow effects through the day, so one can experience many different sensations.”
Studio MK27’s Cobogó House in São Paulo is both a home and a work of art. The top floor features a hollowed-out block design by Austrian-American artist and sculptor Erwin Hauer, whose minimalist works are a gentle reminder of Brazilian modernism.
The remarkable breeze block-style wall has a lace-like quality, and changes continuously with the sun and seasons.
With House B+B, the firm, together with Galeria Arquitetos, aimed to create a welcoming, intimate space for the owners. Alongside exposed wood and concrete, they also referenced Brazilian modernism from the 1930s through the “wall of hollowed-out elements”, which creates patterns of light and shade, and allows for air movement.
Ncondo Chambers, Umhlanga
Subtropical KwaZulu-Natal has a long history of breeze block use – so it seems fitting that Durban-based firm Dean Jay Architects has worked on several residential and commercial projects that incorporate them. Interestingly, they refer to the bricks as jaliscreens, which they believe is historically accurate. Originating in India, a jali or jali-screen is the term used for a holed-stone or latticed screen that allows light and air to pass through.
One of their recent builds is the impressive Ncondo Chambers office park in Umhlanga. Striking jali-screens that wrap the large parking area were custom-designed by the architects, and made by a company in Pinetown. We love the cool quotient (in more ways than one!) of this corporate building.
Breezeblock Café, Brixton
Nestled under the iconic Sentech tower, Jozi eatery Breezeblock is a retro space, full of slasto and earthy colours. It offers great coffee – and, as the name suggests, its breeze block game is strong.
“We wanted to fit in with the surrounding environment,” says owner David du Preez of the aims he and fine artist Justin Brett had when creating the space. “The breeze block, slate and pavers we used are all things you find in Brixton”.
“Our other intention was to use and repurpose as much as possible, both from a cost perspective, and because we liked searching for and finding objects that fit in with what we were doing. One of those objects was breeze block, which we used extensively to separate the parking lot from the courtyards. We ended up having extras, so we put some onto the floor and built another wall. And when searching for a name, we had lots of ideas – but the breeze blocks were around and matched the intentions of the project, so we called it Breezeblock…”
A Chip off the old block
It’s not just architects getting in on the breeze block trend – the material has triggered a wave of other creative offshoots too.
Durban’s Cameron Platter produced a collection of breeze block-inspired sculptures, some of which were exhibited at Petit Palais art museum in Paris. Surprisingly, these beauties are not made of concrete – the artist carved them out of painted wood and rebar.
Cameron says his interest in breeze blocks stems from their universality – they are used all over the world, and in highand low-quality builds. “Everyone can relate to this on some level,” he says. “Stacking something on top of another thing.
Simple sculpture. They’re as complex or as lo-fi as you want them to be. They’re seating, shelving, furniture, storage. They’re skeletons and backbones. They’re beautiful. They’re trash. They’re earth.”
Even our avian friends are getting a little breezy. Pleasant Ranch, a one-man wood shop in Vermont in the US, run by Steve Hadeka, creates mid-century birdhouses complete with bungalow-style bird living, front lawns and, of course, era-appropriate tiny breeze blocks.
Johannesburg-based artist Chloë Reid’s images of walls and floors include watercolour and pencil artworks that feature breeze blocks. The series mainly references surfaces in Joburg, as well as DIY manuals and source books. “There is something quite bodily about breeze blocks for me – the holes and curves, the awkwardness of small inconsistencies within a repeat or pattern,” she explains. “This is contrasted by the cold of the concrete or brick material. In Johannesburg, the semi-transparent breeze block is an airy and open boundary line that is very welcome among high, impenetrable walls. It delineates or identifies space in a receptive way.”
New kids on the block: The Lantern, Hanoi, Vietnam
Completed in 2016, “The Lantern” – Nanoco-Panasonic’s showroom in Hanoi – is a masterful example of how breeze block can be used extensively, and in a fun, modern way. Designed by Vo Trong Nghia (VTN) Architects and Takashi Niwa, the gallery and lighting showroom presented several challenges, including a typically small city site and a large tree overshadowing the build. In response, VTN designed a simple yet effective perforated exterior façade made from terracotta breeze blocks to create a lantern-like structure that’s illuminated from the inside. Terracotta blocks are a Vietnamese staple: ideal for tropical climates, they’re cheap and quick to assemble, and allow for shading and passive ventilation.