One Firm’s Quest for True Value in Design
What do you find when you scrape away the superficial layers of something beautiful?
Johannesburg-based MiMo Architects is a firm deeply committed to exploring the fundamental elements that make good architecture last. The co-founding architects, Leonard Miller and Catherine Moronell, have identified three design cornerstones that guide their work: economy, appropriateness, and beauty. They believe that by carefully considering these elements and intentionally designing and building within their local context, they can create architecture that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also efficient and appropriate for its surroundings.
Economy, to us, means extracting maximum experience using minimum means. Essentially doing more with less. For example, when designing our Smiling Cabin nature retreat pod, we started with a timber framed roof on a foundation. We recognised that we had the opportunity to connect with both the natural ground at a low level and experience the swaying trees and starry sky at a higher level, so we arranged the walls at eye level to allow for views of the landscape while cooking and showering. The sleeping space was then designed to focus on looking upwards and outwards. By using these basic elements of earth, sky, roof, and walls, we were able to create an architecture that was rich in experience and contrast, all while using minimal means.
We often work with tight budgets, which means that we need to be mindful of the size and scope of the project from the outset. To create value within these constraints, we focus on key elements such as spatial planning, scale, orientation, and the balance between solid and open areas. We like to design simple structures using load-bearing walls and arrange the rooms to create a specific atmosphere. Sometimes, the key to unlocking the composition of a floor plan is a passage or connector that allows for easy movement between all areas of the home.
By thoughtfully crafting simple, raw structures using materials that are either left unfinished or coated to play with texture, we can create a sense of beauty and economy. This means placing the right walls in the right orientation and being mindful of the cost per square meter, while still creating comfortable spaces and reducing a building’s long-term operating costs.
Loo pods for Emmarentia
The loo pods sit gently in the park landscape and are made for popular walking, jogging, or cycling routes.
In every project, we aim to understand what lasts and why — finding appropriateness. Our approach to material selection is somewhat on-trend in its ‘anti-trendiness’. Meaning, while we are definitely influenced by global design currents, we marry this with a view that designing with local materials and local construction skillsets is non-negotiable. When specifying, we view our material choices as having a wider social and economic impact beyond the project budget.
Given the economy is in a relatively consistent state of depression, architects should be realistic about the tool palette available to their clients. That being said, we believe that clay brick is a highly versatile, aesthetically pleasing, thermally efficient, low-maintenance, easily constructed, and cost-effective material. We are also committed to using timber as much as possible, as it is a renewable resource, and we prefer to use local plantation timbers over imported options whenever possible. We strive to bring ‘boring’ materials to life in an interesting and creative way, and we take care to select and design a simple collection of materials that we know and understand.
Two Sides to a House
Attractive, affordable, appropriate
Designed around a family’s unique lifestyle, this home is attractive, affordable, and appropriate. The space is compact in footprint yet generous in terms of flow and indoor-outdoor living.
Beauty can be hard to define, but you know it when you experience it. We have a suspicion that beauty often emerges from the combination of many small layered details that come together to form a cohesive whole. For example, a small room opening onto a tall room can enhance the feeling of height, and a series of rooms without a view can make a subsequent large window feel even more striking. Contrast also plays a role in creating legibility and cohesiveness in architecture. By maintaining a consistent treatment of wall finishes in interstitial spaces throughout a building, for example, the sense of unity and wholeness is enhanced.
Uncovering beauty is ultimately about the overall experience of moving through a space and enjoying it at a human scale, rather than just looking at it. To create mood, we should strive to use elements such as volume, light and shadow, texture, and openings to create composition and contrast. At the end of the day, as architects, our goal is to create spaces that people enjoy being in. When carbon mitigation, sustainable materials, efficiency, economy, and appropriateness come together to create something beautiful that elicits an emotional response and a connection to place, buildings become more human. They hold meaning for us and we are more likely to care for and adapt the things we love and value. By designing in this way, we can create buildings that are not only environmentally responsible and cost-effective, but also meaningful and beloved.
MiMo is seeking more enriching experiences and less energy expenditure, challenging the status quo of the mindless sprawl encroaching upon us. Will you join them on their quest for creating true value in design?
Leonard Miller and Catherine Moronell
Co-Founding Director and Principal Architect