Archives for category: Architecture


This article was first published in the Weekend Argus Heart of the Home supplement, 2 October 2011.

Weaver’s Nest – a home as magical as its name suggests – hovers in its dramatic, challenging landscape on the mountainous slopes in Higgovale.

With walkways, decks and shuttering made of timber, stone stairs, terraces and paths that lead to wild garden areas, a cemented rim-flow pool and concrete-coloured stuccoed walls  –  the materials all contribute to the building’s sense of belonging in the landscape.

The forested site falls away from the roadside entrance into a deep, rugged ravine crossed by two mountain streams with steep embankments: a beautiful spot lacking any flat space on which to build.

Architect Sonja Petrus Spammer’s response is a lyrical balancing act that honours both the natural environment and the needs of the recently-widowed client – coincidently the architect’s mother-in-law –  for a compact, secure, Scandi-inspired modern home.

Spamer’s initial idea was to try to straddle the steep banks of the streams and build the house along the street front.  But this would have created a north/south axis, rather than an east/west one required for a north-facing home; a critical consideration when building a house to take advantage of passive thermals in the southern hemisphere.

So Spamer looked to various sources for inspiration and a solution to this challenging terrain. One was a childhood spent in the Karoo where she’d encountered numerous examples of railway bridges and block houses which suggested piers connected with floating bridges. But there were other vital inspirations too. The tented camps of the Kruger parks and their simple cocooning commune with nature, as well as with the dome-shaped reed structures redolant that dot the Namib countryside.

Spamer also learnt from a project she’d conceptualised in Australia while attending a master class there. The design brief demanded artists’ accomodation and a gallery/studio in the outback along the banks of a river. Here she drew on local Aboriginal culture,  their relationship to nature and adherence to dreamtime. Her concept design comprised a gallery/studio space accessible to the public gaze while the accommodation was strung along the river, more private and suggestive of the transition from wakefulness to sleep.

And finally, she was influenced by the host of the master class, Pritzka Prize winning Australian architect, Glen Murcutt whose”treading the earth lightly” ethos injects environmental sensibility into his domestic architecture.

The result is a beautifully proportioned building made up of two piers linked by floating wooden bridges, lightly anchored so that its minimal footprint barely disturbs the wilderness below.  Spammer’s design appears to take Murcutt’s ethos further with a building that feels just barely earthbound.

The house is composed of twin pavilions linked by uncovered walkways. Each has a living area just below street level, with a bedroom, workspace and bathroom below. One pier supports the “main” house with a bedroom for the owner, the other a studio cum guest suite.  “Lanterns and hammocks” – this was the visual image driving Spamer’s concept of living space above, with bedrooms hanging at the bottom.  The modest size of the top – some six by nine metres – is visually expanded by the covered and shuttered decks onto which the living areas spill. Large clerestory windows draw inside the views of nearby mountains, while walls of sliding panels of glass disappear, underscoring  the impression of living in nature, aloft on the tree branches. Basking in this setting it is hard to imagine that Cape Town’s central business district is a couple of kilometers away.

For Spamer, educated at UCT’s school of architecture against the charged political backdrop of the late 1980s, Weaver’s Nest, completed in 2006 heralds a departure from her earlier, exclusively socially-conscious public architecture, towards a more considered view of how comparatively affluent domestic design might also be invested with a certain social and conscious sensibility. It was her contact with seminal Australian architects, like Murcutt, as well as Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury, Spamer says, that gave her, for the first time, the luxury of grappling with what she refers to as “the fundamental nature of shelter” and of understanding the poetics of shelter and materials and people, and their interrelationships. “I think the fantastic thing about Glen Mercutt and his whole team is the profound modesty that goes with their humanist approach as designers,” Spamer explains. “They’re so well-measured. They don’t try to do everything for everybody. They’re conscious of the fact that they don’t practice in an urban or grand way. They’re essentially architects who design houses.” Their designs according to Spamer don’t necessarily contribute to the collective public discourse, “but working with them does provide scope to question things in a fundamental way”. The experience, she says, taught her to develop a real respect for clients and to question how she could use her skills and knowledge to make the greatest contribution for the client. It made her particularly fond of a view of architects that she says Murcutt expresses  –  which is that at the end of the day architects work with quite ordinary things, houses, but good architects do extraordinary things with them.

Her professional life till then had been heavily influenced by her local design heroes, among them Jo Noero who had headed the Architecture Department at UCT during Spamer’s time as a student there and who was her first employer after graduation.

“As a student our projects always tried to use the city or country as our laboratory and I always chose to work on projects that were socially driven. I had no affinity for something that didn’t have social elements. I was the queen of community centres and social housing,” she smiles. “When you deal with social complexity and urban issues  there is an endless number of things you need to consider, including social and political relations,” explains Spamer. “But you don’t question the essential nature of component parts and how these might impact on individual people.”

Her work with Joe Noero includes collaborating on projects like lecture theaters for the Funda Arts Centre in Johannesburg, the United Cricket Board cricket oval in Alexandria, Mdantsane Boxing Acamademy in East London. This was followed by a period in Nelspruit  where Coca Cola  was a client on an occupational health clinic and training centre. She also designed a church in Kanyamazane (Nelspruit) and school in Lothair outside Swaziland. Influenced by Noero, her designs she says were very economical, human-scaled, good looking, and always focusing on social issues.

While she admits to an added sophistication these day, she doesn’t like the idea of having a signature style. Buildings must tell the client’s story, she insists.

Weaver’s Nest and its success owe a lot to the client. “My mother-in-law has an astute sense of design and construction, and has run many building projects. She was my client and the builder on the project.”

For someone who believes you’re only as good as your projects, Weaver’s Nest is testimony to Sonja’s strength.

“My mother-in-law had an idea of something she’d seen, a small place that seemed bigger because of its relationship with the outside.  She loved the model I made which merged the idea of optimising space and the landscape. And the end result, was something she  felt looked timeless and like belonged there. That was the most important thing to me.”

NOTE: All photographs courtesy of Sonja Spamer and remain the copyright of Sonja Spamer. Further reproduction is forbidden without her prior consent.


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.