Teaching the old brick new tricks

WORDS Marine Leblond

Conversations on Architecture is Decorex’s yearly treat to the building industry: a day of lectures by a line-up of local and international architects, given in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. Marine Leblond attended and reports that the speakers seemed to share a common interest: the clever and novel use of everyday construction materials.

Solano Benitez comes from Paraguay, a small country with many ancient cultures, and “as many ways to think about our world”. Taking the cue from his countrymen he has learnt to look at clay bricks in the most unconventional ways. To make a cheap building, Solano has a three-step strategy. Start with using the cheapest material. Then reduce the amount of structure to the minimum. Finally, change the way you build with the material. Solano constantly experiments on site during the construction process, until he comes up with structures that challenge our idea of what can hold up, like 4cm-thick brick walls and vaults, all built by hand. His strong understanding of structure and the forces at play within a building allow him to get rid of unnecessary material, like, say, the concrete around the re-bars at the base of a concrete column.

Solano seems always playful, even when it comes to his father’s grave. In a piece of forest that he loved fondly, four cantilevered concrete beams define a nine meter-sided square, with the tomb at its centre. The inside face of each beam is clad with mirrors. As one steps into the square, the heavy beams disappear, leaving the visitor faced with infinite reflections, like spectral versions of oneself, surrounded by the forest, ferns and roots.

London’s dRMM, represented by director Alex de Rijke, is obsessed with another material: engineered wood. That means laminated timber beams, cross-laminated timber panels and other techniques that can “change softwood into hardwood” – very stable, precisely calibrated and strong structural elements with a low carbon footprint. Using these, even towers can be built of timber, with no need of a concrete core. But it has proven difficult to convince clients, once more set in old habits, even though dRMM’s MK40 Tower, a temporary 20m-high artwork and experimental structure, was all timber. It was afterwards unscrewed and neatly stored in a shipping container, ready to be assembled again. The same idea applied to the Naked House, a 100 square-metre flat-pack kit house that was assembled in three days by Alex himself and a colleague, with only the help of a crane driver, for an exhibition in Oslo.

Experiments carried on with the Tower of Love, which in its early days mostly got hatred from local residents. Sure, it is radical architecture, even for the eccentric English town of Blackpool. But what is not to like about this “super-sustainable construction”? On a plinth of concrete blocks that combine cement, recycled glass (from locally drunk bottles) and wood fibres, the wedding venue is a cross-laminated timber edifice, clad in shimmering golden stainless steel shingles. In this wedding hall, shaped like a giant camera chamber, couples tie the knot with Blackpool Tower as a backdrop.

In contrast, Stellenbosch-based architect Johann Slee is self-admittedly old school – in a good way. He is not interested in swapping his pencils for a mouse, and given his talent for graphite drawings, this is good news. His materials of predilection are the ones from the very land he builds on. And so the massive walls of the Stone House (read VISI’s feature here) were made of stone entirely found on the site. If the Red House blends into its landscape so well, it is because its walls are coated with the local red mud, mixed with cement. With “simple, cut-the-crap” design, Slee creates architecture in continuity with the vernacular, and does not fail to be contemporary and luxurious.

At the other of the spectrum, Jörg Leeser of German firm BeL shows a very dry design: pure lines, minimalist details, white geometry. Very simple elements are carefully composed. The Fraba Sp. z o.o. is an industrial building with an assembly line. The structure is simple: a circular floor, plain steel columns and a triangular pattern of laminated timber beams for the roof, all immaculately white. To keep things to their minimum, the bare waterproofing material is used as the outside skin. The carefully laid bitumen sheets with their layer of reflective foil finish a look that is simultaneously low tech and sci-fi.

BeL are also architecture activists. In various collaborations with artist Merlin Bauer, the BeL office has worked at making the people of Cologne aware of their surroundings and committed to preserve its heritage. A highly successful project was the Strandbox. An ice-cream cart was re-purposed: covered with Le Corbusier-designed wallpaper and fitted with a pirate radio transmitter. Various hosts were invited to broadcast live throughout the public spaces of Cologne. Highly visible and super mobile, the little red-and-white Strandbox helped citizens discover their city, sparking social interaction and events, and becoming a shifting landmark of Cologne’s cultural life.

Hands-on design and experimental construction seem to be key. Fellow architects, it is time to play.

Marine Leblond is an architect and urbanist. Trained in France, she worked in London and Paris before stopping in Cape Town seven years ago.