LORELLE BELL

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.