PHOTOS DOOK WORDS Mila Crewe-Brown
The new studio of Mathews and Associates Architects in Pretoria is a study in cost-effectiveness, sustainability and adaptability.
“The price of a brick in a mundane building is the same as in a poetic building; the difference lies in how you lay or use that brick,” Pieter Mathews says, standing outside his inspired new office space in Hazelwood, Pretoria. His philosophy gives meaning to everything he and his team aimed to achieve in Oaktree Studio, which, in short, is value. The future-proof base for the architecture firm is a mixed-use property that is fully equipped for the unpredictability of the transforming Pretoria neighbourhood in which it resides.
Balancing the dual role of home and office with aplomb, this building adds frugality to its impressive credentials. In its previous life, the Oaktree Studio building was a nondescript single-storey midcentury dwelling. Pieter retained its L-shaped footprint and added a level above, which he and his team now occupy. Downstairs, his meeting room is flanked by two breeze-block screened courtyards, neighbouring a flat that is occupied by a tenant.
Were you to stand at the northern end of the building, you might recognise the telltale lines that earned it the nickname the Monopoly House. Pieter has loved the simplicity of the Monopoly House for some time, and so decided on the symmetrical shape for the upper-level studio, which peers into the tree canopy and maximises the natural light.
Given that this new level is wider all around than the structure below, the resulting overhang serves a number of purposes: providing shade and cover from rain, giving the studio a greater floor space, and allowing for any future plumbing works to be simply core-drilled through the cantilever.
“Recycling is important to us, so we used all the old timber roof trusses as wall cladding,” Pieter says. In addition, a pile of concrete test cubes – used in strength testing prior to construction – was repurposed as paving, and demolition rubble was used as infill for the front terrace, which is now planted with tall grasses salvaged from other properties.
In terms of finishes, the building uses a combination of low-maintenance, insulating corrugated sheeting, bagged and painted brick, and raw concrete. Even its clean white exterior paint job was a matter of economy: Contractor’s white, says Pieter, is the cheapest PVA available.
The staircase linking the two levels is a prominent structure that protrudes from the facade of the main building. With a generous picture window that floods light onto the landing, the stairwell is now a more thoughtful space through which to transit.
The béton brut slab that divides the two levels is a visible marker of old and new. Pieter likes it for its rough patina and ability to tell stories. A plethora of local artworks animates the building, from a cheeky installation by sculptor Sybrand Wiechers to a handful of works from the Cool Capital Biennale. Art, Pieter believes, is a vital component in the magic of a space.
Thanks to the genius of its designers, this highly efficient building has something to teach us about thinking smartly, thinking sensitively and thinking for the future. “Things needn’t be expensive to be beautiful,” Pieter says, referencing the Veblen effect, the tendency to find a product desirable because it has a high price. “It is just perception; with honesty and creativity you can debunk that.”