Too often the concern when designing a home is the overall visual impact of the build, as it ‘wins’ on first impressions. We thought it important to gain insight into what it truly means to design for the humans who ultimately live in the created space, and not leave a massive carbon footprint on the road to forming their new living reality. Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, of the eponymous architectural and interior design firm, lent us their thoughts on the build’s relationship to the environment, form versus function, and how to handle this precarious balancing act.
In crystallising the essence of the architectural journey we have been on over the past 30 years (‘it’s a journey that has taken us to many no.1 awards internationally’), the overriding question that we inexorably ask ourselves is ‘how did we impact the people, the nature, and resources that the project touched on in the long term? ‘It’s not just the immediacy of a new fashionable design, or the design approach, but it’s about the long term. We often ask ourselves, ‘how did our design philosophy affect people’s psyche, and did we mold some kind of philosophy pertaining to the project we executed? Did our artistic style, imbued in sustainable ideologies, have longevity and far-reaching influence? ‘The golden thread that ties our work together, and is the basis of our evaluation of a completed project, would always be how the earth was touched and what input would the activity onsite have had. On ‘North Island’ (Conde Nast Traveller, Best of the Best 2001), nature was celebrated by making columns out of treated unwanted trees, creating a building that felt like an inverted forest.
Living on site
When dealing with climatic conditions, and influencing temperatures in a house situated in the desert, a rockstore below the building was utilised to pull either cool air in summer (harvested late at night by cooling the rocks) and later harvesting cool air. In winter, warmth is retained by the sun heating rocks naturally at midday, and harvesting the heat for use during the coldest hours of the night. Simultaneously, the buildings themselves looked like organic rock mounds piled up in the landscape to appeal to the client’s brief of ‘hiding in plain sight.’ Internally, walls of layered, compressed rammed earth pulled the ancient memory of the land beneath to the surface above. The use of rammed earth was repeated in the ‘Dalrymple Pavillion’, where the layers of earth from the Gautrain excavation sites were gathered to create a space in time of Johannesburg’s story. In instances, local labour and handcrafting was coupled and became an integral part of the design.
There have been periods where curing an ailing city centre became an important issue. In 2010, we were asked by South Point to look at ways to unify their portfolio of 50 buildings in Braamfontein. It was student accommodation, and unifying them into a citadel within the city. An umbilical cord of colour linked various precincts and demolishing ‘bad’ buildings tocreate ‘places’ within the city were utilised. Ultimately, rooftop bar ‘Randlords, ‘was created as a nucleus for night entertainment overlooking the city.
A number of sculptural houses nestled in nature and influenced by forms found in nature, also deserve a mention. An example, ‘Keurbooms Cottage’ is a sculptural gesture born out of a past look at futurism and space travel (Space Odyssey 2001). This is also influenced by rolling landscapes and white crests of waves in the distance, and the movement of migrating pods of whales, and recalls other architectural nuances found in parametric architecture today. ‘House Pengilly’ is another look into the future through past references. This is the John Lautner sculptural philosophy utilised in the early Bond stylistic film sets and more recently in an attempt to create an interesting backdrop for Tony Stark in the Ironman house. Finally, ‘House Rech Carstens’ takes to the Googie architecture theme, which was prevalent in early 1960s, and Johannesburg in certain instances. It reignites interest and longevity in this type of early Johannesburg architecture. All of the above are tied to the human psyche or landscape and vegetation in a strong way. Urban living on top of existing buildings allows vertical expansion in an urban space, and ‘The Roof Top Apartment’ on the garden in the sky above the Everard Read Gallery sees a steel, wood and stone pavilion embedded in a densely vegetated rooftop garden. It is urban garden living on their roof among plants and art.
The move to prefab in order to have less impact
A large part of our work has been the creation of luxury high-end boutique lodges around Africa. The move over time has been to create structures that use sustainable material resources, as well as buildings that require minimal maintenance, but still appeal to a romantic notion of escape. An example is the new JAO Camp rebuild in the Okavango Delta (Conde Nast no1,Botswana). Material sustainability resources, as well as low maintenance in terms of touch constantly moving through the Okavango Delta lead us to design a mecano set of prefabricated steel architecture in a sculptural way that had biomimic constructs of blending into nature. Having all the structures made from a steel exoskeleton, and clad with fibre thatch made from recycled plastics meant not having trucks pounding and damaging roads 15 years later as they carry out yearly maintenance on failing timber and organic materials attempting to decompose, improved the impact on nature going forward. On ‘Miavana Private Island’, flat roofed pre-fabricated steel pavilions create large modernist umbrellas to protect from sun and rain, but the free flow spaces underneath, clad in local Ravanel and Latanier palm leaves allow the inhabitants to feel intrinsically connected to nature, both in materials and form.
In ‘Angama’, a luxury tented camp perched high above the plains of the magical and timeless plains of The Masai Mara in Kenya, a tented canvas in the ultimate landscape. Look back into the Serengeti with all its magic. As an architect, one is always trying to capture a need or a vision of a client and turn it into built-form. Our briefs have been varied and extreme, and the combination of the romantic dream and the functional have to reach an equilibrium to make it successful. All the architecture that we have executed that has stood the test of time, has had a holistic design where buildings that had a consideration to the environment as well as the human’s mental space, have been the most successful.
Silvio Rech + Lesley Carstens
Architects and Interior Designers