The modern and contemporary school of architecture is considered by some to be boringly similar from building to building. However, what is traditionally thought to be modern architecture is only a fraction of what is actually included within the Modernist tradition. It is in reality much more than black, grey or white steel and glass rectangular boxes with flat roofs. So what inspires today’s architects? How difficult is it to create a contemporary residence on a limited budget, while adding still costly eco-conscious services and systems into the mix? We aim to find out here, outlining 2017 solutions with informed comment.

New Look

Beginning in the 1920s with Walter Gropius, the leading light of the Bauhaus in Germany, Modernists pioneered the idea of combining design with new technology. Marcel Breuer was among the renowned artists and architects on Gropius’ staff. Later, Le Corbusier took this obsession with technology further, famously calling the house ‘a machine for living in.’

Subsequently, a number of European Modernists later moved to America, taking Corbusier’s machine-age dictum with them. They favoured inexpensive industrial building materials and rejected the tradition of separating the outside from the inside in lieu of the Modernist penchant for open social spaces, with preferably floor-to-ceiling glass panes. This all made perfect sense and as a result, the bright, airy, strictly cube-like form of the Modernist house became an easily maintained and often glorious space within which to live, work and play.

Nigel Tarboton from Metropole Architects comments: ‘Modernism has a strong affinity with minimalist and functional design without watering down the spirit of adventure. Both Mid Century Modern, and the Atomic Age Googie architecture, find pure Modernism as a shared DNA. Modernism is about deep breaths and bold sweeps, devoid of the unnecessary infill of superfluous gestures. This pursuit of simplicity however, doesn’t necessarily equate to cold and stark architecture, as countless opportunities lie in the choice of materials; how we choose to manipulate these pure elements is what produces a tangible warmth to our designs.’

Jenny Mills of Cape Town-based JMA: ‘Modern architecture means clean lines and open areas that feel well connected internally and they should also have a strong relationship to the site and views. It’s important for me that the end result is an emotional one – the spaces must live and feel – and the people living in them must have a sense of being grounded and safe, even when in expansive environments. The theories of Modern architecture are complex and many faceted beyond what we perceive our clients understand of the term. Or we ourselves!’

Adrian Maserow of AMA in Johannesburg says: ‘Architecture is the prime ingredient of the urban grain and in many ways our buildings are more instruments than edifices. Modernism is always spatial, with a structural order and an honest use of materiality as a response to technology and sustainability.’

Renato Graca of GSQUARED finds common ground: ‘Todays’ evolution of form and space is a hybrid between technology, social views and the individual inhabiting the space. The recent technological advances of the 20th century have allowed us to create modern, flowing, glass-enclosed spaces, which are able to remain temperature controlled and comfortable for living purposes internally. Externally this provides for large spans, cantilevers and cladding options not available some 50 years ago. So whilst this allows for a major exploration and freedom in the creation of spaces, it does present a designer with the challenge of keeping things simple, which is where the combination of a client brief, concept and context come in.’

Inspired by Function

Modern architecture breaks away from cookie-cutter design, architectural confectionary and traditional aesthetics. Rather it strives to create residential and commercial design that rejects ‘standard formulas’ and instead pursues projects inspired by layout, location and function.

‘Modernism, as the name suggests, is widely recognised as the architectural movement that shaped contemporary life – our urban environments and suburban landscapes – in order to follow a certain principle and standard of living while engaging with our built environment,’ so says Nico van der Meulen of Nico van der Meulen Architects.

‘As a paradigm, Modernity imposed thought more than it did form, function, use and approach. The shortfalls surrounding the Modern Movement are that it quite rapidly became one that clung to a style and language of design, and thereby became somewhat devoid of the potential it was granted by the pioneers of this movement. Today, the notion of Modernism is at times used out of context – and without comprehension – when referring to architecture that reflects and imbues a sense of timeliness (associated to the current time). When architecture reveals a reflection of the new, the progressive, the innovative and inventive, we associate this with architecture that is rooted in Modernist principles and attitudes. However, it becomes a contemporary (novel and of its time) translation – one that is a response to client briefs, context, economics, plus social and political aspects.

‘In theory, and as such resulting in practice, the notions put forth by the Modern Movement, such as expansive and inclusive use of space, integration of contextual parameters, woven and relational spatial tactics and ergonomic functionality have become knotted into the fabric of our particular architecture.’

‘Form follows function’ is a mantra expressed by Modernism’s tendency to recognise that the location and planned function of a project should dictate much of the design signature. That the building should, where possible, depend on the plot to determine how it should be laid out, that it should be ‘at one with the land’, not simply dropped on top of it. This was a Frank Lloyd-Wright design maxim.

‘Honesty and Minimalism are appropriate to the modern lifestyle and as such form the basis of World architecture,’ so says Kevin Lloyd of Kevin Lloyd Architects. ‘But herein lies the challenge, as we seem to seldom recognise the local environment and culture.

In magazines and on websites there is very little variance in the architecture in most countries; a regionalism layer should be part of Modernism and in that way it would be truly honest. We try to convince our clients to accept an architecture, which we would like to think of as ‘Regionalism’, with its roots in the Modern Movement ethos.

‘To achieve function means reducing a design to its absolute minimum basic elements, and this is a huge challenge and requires extraordinary discipline and control. With residential builds and the very personal nature of the client family needs, one has to accept different characters within the family who might be hoarders, collectors, sentimentalists and even minimalists, possibly all in one shared area. Thus, the built structure should be adaptive and accommodating, without losing its honest clarity of form, material and space. Once again this is Regionalism at its absolute local level.’

So, Modernist architecture should take inspiration from the project itself; to design for each unique situation and to be inspired by its purpose, and to this end it is ideally free of clutter and unnecessary elements. The goals of the project are clarified at the start and only the features that are required are included in the design. Residential homes are often stripped down to showcase the architecture, the focus being on the space itself rather than on any detailing not relevant to the overall design.

The Modernist aesthetic of ‘less is more’ invokes simplicity and clarity, manifesting in clean, functional and simple design. Yet, there are varying degrees of Modernism. Some followers will opt for the strict design sense of true Minimalism, while others prefer to incorporate the minimalist aesthetics of Modernism in conjunction with their own personal style.

Nothing to Hide

Rather than concealing the nature of the structure, Modernists want the viewer to see and feel the inner-workings of a given project. Materials are often shown in the natural form and are showcased; nothing is concealed or altered to resemble something else. Structural elements are revealed such as exposed beams throughout open floor plans; both are key elements in the Modernist equation. The idea of a sense of ‘truth’ is present in these designs, where all materials and architectural elements are bared and exhibited honestly.

Jenny Mills: ‘What appears to be a simple structure may be anything but. Often to create the appearance of simplicity requires a highly complex engineering solution, which may not be visible. To create the wide spans (open clean spaces) and seamless corners and cantilevers in our buildings often requires hidden structural solutions. Advancements in technology, specialised concrete systems (post tensioning etc.) mean that as these systems become accessible to the domestic or residential smaller scale market, less of the structural systems will need to be hidden. Ideally there should be nothing to hide.’

Adrian Maserow: ‘The skin of the architecture ‘breathes’ both the climate and the culture in its envelope. Great design is much more of an instrument that facilitates, than just being an object to admire. Where these tools – used in the silent language of architecture – are somehow fused with its poetic, we experience a powerful moment of synchronicity.

‘Where the geographies of cities are likened to a natural topography, deep memory lives in the metaphysical poetic. Meaning and experience are enhanced through the legible intention of an architecture that makes the world a better place through the commitment to sustainable city life.’

Modern architecture promotes strong linear elements and bold horizontal and vertical features. Beams, posts, cutouts, windows, staircases, fireplaces, roof lines and other structural elements all assist the architect in creating a linear-inspired space. This focus is much more prominent in Modernist design; lines tend to be straight and angled rather than curved, however organic lines do appear on occasions – the late Zaha Hadid being a leading exponent.

Modernists also push the envelope on roof design. Their buildings might have multiple roofs at different levels, exhibiting the complexity of the overall design and perhaps the uncommon silhouette of the structure. Varying lines and elongated vaulted ceilings, as well as interesting overhangs or unusual linear elements, are incorporated to create a more unique statement. The physical elements of the building – such as beams, posts, windows, staircases and fireplaces – are used to assist in the creation of a linear space. Lines are typically straight and / or angled, and roof lines are bold. The façade and exterior design isn’t simply functional, with the result being more than just a home; in best case scenarios it’s an artistic, even sculptural, statement.

In the South African context multiple rooms open onto a large patio or atrium, designed to extend space and blur distinctions between interior and exterior with materials that usually include glass, steel and aluminium. Here, such notable modern architecture often incorporates the topography of the land it is built on. The focus is generally on open floor plans with fewer walls, creating a space in which living, dining and kitchen areas are very often combined. An island fireplace may be used as an accent and can serve two interiors, while windows are ideally floor-to-ceiling and – with sliding doors – work to bring in more natural light.

Mind the Gap

Meanwhile, different and often subtle concepts have emerged as conditional parameters to differentiate ‘interior architecture’ from ‘interior design’. This could translate to architecture being concerned with more than a mere building of practical and economical needs, and rather with the enclosing of space – and pro-rata to the resulting interior.

Renato Graca: ‘Design (either as interior design or architecture) is essentially the formulation / creation of a language – and architecture is the book. The most noticeable clash in any design is when this language is not taken through, or when it appears that the book has had two (or more) authors. In our practice, we devise the language for a specific project – such as the concept for a brief – and do our utmost to preserve this language throughout the book via ongoing chapters. We also try to ensure we remain the authors of the whole book, from start to finish. In this way, the challenges are minimised as the vision is preserved.

‘Our overriding approach to interiors is to provide them with a sense of timelessness and to avoid fashion and trends. The result is that we tend to opt for neutral and natural materials internally (such as timber, stone, glass, steel) and allow art, furniture and people to populate the interiors with colour and life.’

Architecture as a discipline has always been engaged in the struggle to raise human and spiritual viability to a higher purpose while providing a meaningful focus; this for at least three millenniums. So in the perfect sense, an architectural structure is an expression of cultural principles and deliberate design choices – based on current technology and understandings. This is the essence of all architecture and these ideals should be accomplished in the design process.

In best case scenarios this is achieved through narrowing abstract notions of theories – and symbols or programmes – to compose a unity of form, space, detail and materials; the result being a composition of firmness, commodity and delight. Interior architecture meanwhile should never be removed from the architectural condition and may manifest itself as the meaning embedded within the building – inside as well as out. As such it should be housed and recognised within the practice of architecture and professional architectural services.

Nigel Tarboton: ‘As Modern architecture is applied to current contexts of function and lifestyle, it is often our priority to blur the line between outside and in. The successful erosion of this line is reliant on the continuity between external and internal architecture, in achieving a seamless transition. We are intentional about creating intrigue externally, which engenders an anticipation of what lies beyond internally. It is very important to define the exterior / interior architectural design language.

‘In the residential context, often the external architecture is a representation of a client’s aspirations, whereas the internal architecture provides insight into their unique personalities. Both aspects carry equal priority.’

‘To explain any blurred lines when questioned by my clients is to clarify that architects are qualified to do anything that is load bearing whilst interior architects see to the rest,’ says Beatrix du Toit, Cape Town-based interior architect. ‘Interior architects, though often grouped with interior designers and decorators, have a wider task than merely making a space aesthetically pleasing. They take into account what is practical and beautiful, but they also understand the structure of a building in order to make it safe and functional.’

Kevin Lloyd: ‘If a house is to be considered an excellently designed home, the inside and outside must syngergise; this is the ethos of the Modern Movement. Not necessarily where the architecture is totally dominant, but where the décor and the architecture complement each other. Without this a home might be a fair design. Add a harmonious interior design and it moves to excellence; however, to take it to a magnificent level the landscape design must also play its part.’

So, all of this is more than designing the exterior aspects along with interior components; it involves the encompassing of interior elements on an equal basis within the shell while taking into consideration site conditions.

‘Architecture is space – it’s the identification of place,’ says Nico van der Meulen. Nomads traverse vast landscapes in search of a location that could provide sustenance; they settle, make a fire and construct a shelter from what they can find. This is architecture in its most primitive state. Architecture identifies dwelling and the spaces required for its execution. The ground plane, the vertical plane (wall) and the shelter (roof), are the elements that codify space. Interior architecture / design is much more about the activation of space than its containment. It has the opportunity to manipulate spatial relationships, provide for integration and facilitation of various functions and add value that transcends what pure space and architecture can achieve. It is vital that architecture / interior architecture / design allows for a comprehensive consideration of offered solutions.’

While the design processes of architecture / interior architecture and interior design share the same procedural sequence, interior design – both as a discipline and in its product – can be free of the weight of the architecture. Additive assemblies within the interior are able to establish an independent language, sometimes very different and removed from the architecture that houses it. Materials, finishes, details, stylistic motifs, interior architectural elements and spaces may therefore be free from the overall architectural language of the building. And yet a recognisable co-existence often provides the most aesthetic results.


For the full article see Habitat #257 January / February 2017