Habitat Jan/Feb. 2013

Excerpts from Colin Sharps article Architecture ’13, pages 88 – 102 Habitat Magazine January/February 2013

'Architecture is Physics made flesh' - Juan Borchers


Certainly, architects value their role in society but why does their iconic reputation exist? Is it because they are entrusted with the enclosing of space, and this on a planet with shrinking habitable areas for human occupation. This is the best case scenario for architects, but where does purism end and survival begin? Are some merely legal functionaries, that enable residential, corporate and public developments to be built. Undoubtedly we live in an era of compromise and survival in the current fiscal scenario is a major factor. So how can aesthetics, high-end modernism - which is Habitat's chosen banner to wave - and sustainability be considered in a global economy with shrinking budgets? In this annual FOCUS, which begins the New Year, we answer some of these questions by asking for informed comment from leading architects in South Africa while considering the global view. The Roots of Modern Architecture Modernism in architecture is generally characterised by a simplification, the clarity of form and the omitting of ornament from the theme of a built structure. It's a term applied to an overarching movement, with its exact definition and scope varying widely. Early modern architecture took root at the turn of the 20th century and evolved with rapid technological advancement and the modernisation of society. In the formative decades there were numerous movements and schools of design / architectural styles; some with conflicting ideals. The very concept of modernism became a central theme and was adopted by many influential architects and architectural educators. It continues to be a dominant architectural style for institutional and corporate buildings into the 21st century. Architects important to the history and development of the modernist movement include: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvar Aalto. Common themes include: the notion that form follows function, i.e. that the result of design should derive directly from its purpose. Closely related is the concept of `truth to materials': that the genuine source and natural appearance of a material ought to be seen rather than concealed, or altered to represent something else. Subsequently, industrial materials and the adoption of the machine aesthetic became popular, particularly in International Style Modernism, and through this a visual emphasis on horizontal and vertical line evolved. So, does contemporary architecture remain the best way forward - and if so why?

Jenny Mills of Jenny Mills Architects largely corroborates: 'It's not a style as such. A visual assembly of built composite elements will not provide a way forward; a design approach that analyses and arranges decisions within a framework can provide better design solutions. Critical analysis is as important as the approach that helps shape the successful result. The best way to progress is to be informed from a wide range of sources and not rely solely on formulaic answers. Questioning and in-depth enquiry are essential; as is contextual responsiveness to environment, culture, and technological solutions. Innovation and invention in finding solutions may take a variety of shapes and forms.' But in the current global recession, have the parameters changed insofar as workable solutions in architecture? Jenny Mills says: 'Most certainly. We are re-using components when renovating, selecting materials and products that can still provide durability and longevity - i.e. reducing the 'throw away' culture. The viability of projects depends on tailoring and reworking to make them cost-effective. Shifts and downscaling in the inventory of some larger producers means openings for niche products and items that are marketed and sold in new ways. And this can create faster turnover, which is desirable. Jenny Mills: 'Media is becoming a vital factor. The impact of new social media - websites, Facebook and Twitter - will create an upsurge and a massively dynamic exchange of ideas and information. So much is - and will become - more easily available, interchangeable and repeatable. It will be harder on a global scale to make a mark, to be original or unusual. But it will become much easier to be visible and communicate with a far larger audience. `I feel that the trend towards authenticity and handcrafted elements will grow. There will be a need to feel good about the ethics behind individual lifestyle and the choices made will direct design. Eco-consciousness will surely become more main-stream and it's likely that there will be an increasing feeling for freedom of expression along with critical discourse. Previous senses of contradiction or judgement will become irrelevant.'

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