The Last Glass Box Art Residency

This article could have been titled in a few other ways; Making Beautiful with ugly Things, More Architecture with Lesser Material, Rubbing up the Heritage Committee the Wrong Way, Not your Everyday Family Home or even, The (I)Legitimate Lovechild of Hillbrow and Westcliff, but since this blog focuses on the material qualities of the built environment, The Last Glass Box and its constituent tectonic qualities, seems not only more appropriate, but also hints at both something lost, see the new Energy Regulations*, and something mythical, namely, the modernist notion of designing a machine for life.

Thus, a few questions arise at the start of the conceptual formation of the architectural tectonics: How can a steel and glass box become a fine tuned instrument for living in? What would a building look like which takes its primary design cue from a nearby ESKOM pylon and if the complete roof functions as a gutter and catchment area for rainwater to last the household a year? How would the structure be positioned on a site that falls nearly 10 meters over 70 metres, and oriented to make the most of the year round Highveld sun? And then some…

If these were the primary tectonic parameters shaping the initial form of this multifunctional art residency in Westcliff drive, Johannesburg, then a second set of guiding principles which focuses on the Highveld’s natural environment- the seasonal temperatures and the path of the sun- influenced the orientation of the main building, and together with the availability of building material close by, including Westcliff rock, quarry stone and shipping containers from the container yard south of the Johannesburg CBD, determined tone, texture and building construction.

The North and South facades are non-weight bearing steel and glass wall curtains, entirely made by hand (warning: don’t try this at your own home) and attached to a series of engineered galvanized steel portal frames, which allows for maximum diffused southern light in summer, and maximum direct northern sun in winter. The interior of this primary structure is completely shaded most of the day on the 21st of December, but on the 21st of June, the sun washes the black slate floors from 9:30 until sunset. The stone tiles release its heat gradually into the night, assisting in maintaining the moderate temperature inside. All along the glass façades, giant opening door panels, allow for a constant cross-cooling breeze in summer.

A Hundred year old oak tree not only silently keeps guard, but also keeps the building shaded in summer and after a thundering mass dropping of its acorns and leaves on the galvanized steel roof in autumn, allows the winter sun to sketch a dappled outline of its branches on every flat surface it can find. The same roof collects rainwater, and directs it into 20 000 litre capacity storage water tanks, which are UV filtered when needed for human consumption.

If the building pays homage to the galvanised electricity structures which criss-cross South Africa, it turns its back on the same electricity supplier as it draws its electrical supply from a bank of batteries powered by sun power panels collecting the endless supply of sunshine on offer. An energy efficient heat pump system though, has been installed as backup to heat an under floor warm water solution for when winter reminds us she does exists and snaps us into submission. Some other design decisions contributes to the environmentally sensitive sense of place; a freshwater pool keeps any chemicals out of the water cycle and an indigenous garden attracts bees, insects and birds.

Possibly the most important question is, how can an architect and artist/client create a functionally resolved building, which does not compromise the artistic integrity of the space, but allows for infinite possibilities of creative and artistic expression?  

As a demonstration, the flexible main public space accommodates typical household functions like cooking and entertaining, but because of its open plan configuration, can be easily reconfigured to host an art exhibition, a lecture or a piano performance too. Hidden electrical plugs in the floor and in the overhead beams, allows for specific task lights or film projectors to hang, or floor lamps to stand, anywhere it is needed. Large loose movable carpets define specific areas, rather than traditional walls, whereupon task furniture like a lounge suite or a dining table, further give definition to each specific space.  Careful consideration allows for the colour neutrality of the use of natural material in the architure, to juxtapose and contrast yet in conversation, with the bold use of colour. Colour film on various of the curtain wall’s glass panels, is inspired by the 1960’s high rise modern apartment blocks in Hillbrow, Mondrian’s de Stijl paintings and Johannesburg Sunsets and Minedumps, alike.

The massive single sheet fabric ceiling takes care of the acoustic qualities and creates a backdrop for film projection and the late afternoon sun projecting its own play of light, as well as a reflective panel for the directional hidden LED lights at night. Various level changes beg for sculptures to be displayed on their floating surfaces.

The private area, separated only by a balustrade and a staircase dropping to a lower level while the roof continues at the same elevation, lands in a low-slung lounge area with Japanese-inspired floor cushion futons and similarly low tables, a folded steel study desk and a sleeping nook with ensuite dressing room, ablutions and a wet room that opens into the garden.

Guests have choice of sleeping arrangements; they can choose between either a set of yellow horizontal containers with a private courtyard, containing a bedroom and a dressing and shower room, or a vertical stacked tower of containers which houses a bedroom with shower, toilet and wash basin and a studio which doubles up as a lounge with a kitchenette looking across a private courtyard over the Jukskei river valley towards Melville. Both these guest facilities are physically independent structures from the main building. The stacked tower also functions as a foreign artist’s abode twice a year when an emergent artist from Sub-Saharan Africa is invited to visit Johannesburg on a sponsored arts residency. The tower’s crowning glory is a roof garden with indigenous Ivy, Jasmine and BlackEyeSusan, cascading down a transparent hollow centered cement brick screen wall. The garden and screen both protect and isolate the prefabricated units from direct heat in summer, but opens up in winter to allow the walls to be bathed in the comforting winter sun.

One of the most memorable and unexpected moments of the project was when an old retired lady parked her battered Mazda in front of the entrance, while we rolled our eyes, she proceeded to tell us how she has been watching this out-of-the-ordinary building progress, and finally got the confidence to stop and ask about it; so, what the hell is this? (in Afrikaans). A few weeks later she was back, this time the Mazda packed with a bunch of similarly excitable ladies from the old age home, coming for tea, biscuits in hand. This moment contrasts, so positively and strongly, with the conservative hold of the Parktown Heritage Committee over any progressive architectural vision. I wish I could introduce them to these retired, but open, minds.

Roelof Petrus van Wyk, 2014

*The new energy regulations (SANS 10400-XA), applicable from 2011, were added to the National Building Regulations to improve the energy efficiency in buildings.  Orientation, insulation, and the use of glass are closely regulated by these guidelines. If the total glazed area (windows, glass doors etc), is more that 15% of the net floor area, the fenestration must be designed to comply with  SANS 204, and may require the additional specification of performance glazing, or even the use of double glazing.

Roelof Petrus van Wyk graduated 1995 B.Arch (Cum Laude) University of Pretoria, 2013 MA Global Arts 2013 (Cum Laude) Goldsmiths University, London, PhD Fellow 2015, Exhibits art works locally and Globally.

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