BY LORELLE BELL
Published by Weekend Argus, Sunday 7 August 2011

Domestic architecture – when it really responds to clients’ needs – must be the most challenging of jobs. For as architect Minette Bell (no relation) explains, “When it comes to homes, everyone’s an expert. We all live in homes, don’t we?”

If it were not for Minette’s own deeply felt empathy with clients (and in fact, with people generally) one might be suspicious of the touch of irony. Instead, given that architects are trained to be the most complete designers, she makes you see and admire the fine balancing act that an architect needs to negotiate between a designer’s sensibility and the need to fulfil another’s aesthetic vision.

In Cape Town – where so many new builds seem either to move between faux Georgian or Tuscan follies and the “step-and-repeat” of modern blocks, or the work of starchitects like the one so admired on the Atlantic seaboard who even designs his clients’ furniture because God forbid any individual client tastes should desecrate his vision –  it’s refreshing to listen to Minette.

For her, the compact with a client is pretty sacred and her recent projects – which include a farmhouse in Worcester, a beach house in Elands Bay and a fairly traditional southern suburbs home in Claremont – have all been very different. She is amused when she relates how builders have asked her, “So, what’s your style actually”, to be met with her response, ”It is ‘no style’ it’s unique, one of a kind. “

“Of course,” she admits, “it’s wonderful to have clients who are prepared to push the boundaries and allow you to explore with them the best response to the site and their needs, and to influence their choices.”

“Locally, it’s a challenge sometimes to persuade people of the importance of orientation and it’s also a challenge to explore an appropriate architecture for South African weather”.

But still it’s the clients’ desires that drive her design. And the enjoyment she derives from being challenged by these desires is evident.

Her latest design for a family in Constantia is a case in point. A dynamic couple with a very young family, they had fairly firm ideas on what they wanted to achieve. Their physical needs included an open-plan contemporary house with a separate study and playroom, but an integrated living area, and a dining and kitchen space which had to lead to a covered outdoor terrace and pool. The brief included a hard entry court to play sports in, and a level lawn where balls can be kicked and bats swung,  as well as a large covered area to store boats. The architect was asked to incorporate green principles as much as possible. Then, on top of these, the owners requested that the house design be based on Feng Shui  principles.  This was not an approach with which Bell was familiar and an expert consultant was brought into the project to check the design’s compliance. Feng Shui  is considered to be a system of aesthetics which when used correctly in the home is meant to enhance one’s life with positive energy. Orientation, light, the situation of the entry, the colours – particularly an abundant use of red – and water are all essential elements and the Feng Shui  consultant was involved in all aspects of the design process from conception to checking orientation of foundation trenches, footings and walls.

A fairly prescriptive brief and rigorous process, – but Minette really appreciates all it taught her.

“For the first time,” she says, in the context of a twenty-odd year career, “I really, really learnt the value of having to work within constraints.” This in spite of priding herself on always honouring the compact with clients and her preference for not developing a style that represents herself – other than in their hopefully being uniformly sensitive to her clients’ individuality.

“Apart from the usual site and budget constraints with which architects are so familiar, the Feng Shui  design presented further constraints or challenges.” The building orientation, a level change that was required and locating the entrance centrally to the perimeter measurements of the house were the main areas of influence. Specific light entry, water features and colour had also to be taken into consideration.” But, as Minette points out, “All these elements combined to create a simple, yet striking house.” The low-slung mono pitch roofs which combine to form the massing of the house,  frame an entrance court, which Minette points out is going to be a fantastic space for the kids as they grow up. The roofs are tilted up towards the views to let in more light, and they ‘stagger’ over the bedroom wing to let in east light through a clerestory to an internal passage. Exposed roof structures reveal the drama of volumes all over the living areas and the  flat concrete roofs interspersed between allow  for ‘unexpected’ light throughout the day through high windows in gable ends.

For Bell it was a real challenge to orient the house in accordance with Feng Shui which dictated a  north-west facing aspect. Fortunately the tools exist to measure the impact of sun and sun angles. “All the windows were therefore screened with heavy pergola – the depths of which could be determined –  to cut out high summer sun but let in low winter sun.”

In the end, she says, the orientation and location of the house on the site seem perfect, presenting spectacular mountain views and the light and sense of serenity of the house are fantastic.
As Minette says, “The design embraced the ‘constraints’ using them as tools to inform the final design to create a house that is extremely ‘comfortable’ in the ‘respectful’ manner that it occupies the site. The house does not ‘scream out’ its presence in Mount Prospect Road and there is a simple legibility to the spaces flowing into each other, from the ‘service’ wing, to the living wing and the private bedroom wing.” Perhaps the most abiding testimony of its success for the architect is how much she herself loves spending time in the space and how much it invites her to rest in its serenity.
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