Ethics in Architecture: Chapter Three

Education

by Arthur Barker

In this, the third chapter on ethics in architecture, I will reflect on an architect's principled way of working based on a critical attitude to the making of place and space.

In August this year, Thomas Honiball1 received an Award of Excellence from the Pretoria Institute of Architects for House Canopus Street in Pretoria. He had to be persuaded to, for the first time in his career, submit a project in spite of believing that one should never nominate oneself! Honiball graduated from the Department of Architecture at the University of Pretoria in 1969 with a final year thesis located in Lourenço Marques, which is famous for its contextualised Modern Movement architecture. Honiball founded his private practice in 1983 after working at a number of prominent firms such as Burg, Lodge & Doherty, Bannie Britz and Colyn & Meiring2

Top: The regional modern hotel and house in Tofo beach that the clients admire (Honiball, 2015). Bottom: Jose Forjaz's 1997 Instituto Missionário das Irmas do Precioso Sangue (http://www.joseforjazarquitectos.com)

Precedent

The architecture of House Canopus Street is heavily influenced by the client's predilection for the architecture of the Inhambane province in Mozambique and associated areas such as Tofo beach, about 400km north-east of Maputo. Post WWII Buildings in this 11th century coastal trading town are indicative of the regional translations of the universal Modern Movement outside of Europe. But House Canopus Street even more closely recalls the architecture of the Mozambican architect Jose Forjaz (1936), particularly the heavy walls and brise soleil of his 1997 convent, the Instituto Missionário das Irmas do Precioso Sangue. It can also be argued that the architecture of House Canopus Street follows the regional modern traditions of Pretoria through the lineage of architects like Gordon McIntosh (1904-1983) and John Claassens3

Top: The regional modern hotel and house in Tofo beach that the clients admire (Honiball, 2015). Bottom: Jose Forjaz's 1997 Instituto Missionário das Irmas do Precioso Sangue (http://www.joseforjazarquitectos.com)

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View of the entrance to House Canopus Street (Honiball, 2015). 

A principled way of working

Honiball explains (2015) that he never works with style as a design informant but that his work is always guided by four simple architectural principles - mass, space, levels and light. These have been inculcated through his University of Pretoria education and the influence of international architects like Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, but also from the regionalist and "Mediterranean" inspired architecture of Pretoria based architects Jack van Rensburg and John Claassens.

Place and space

At the heart of architects' work, and I would argue where they should be acting most ethically, is the contribution to the definition of place and space. Although Honiball's architecture is in contrast with its surroundings, he argues that the crisp white stereotomic forms give the building a classical presence while the terraces , balconies and Gawie Fagan and Marcel Breuer-like pop-out windows, provide a mediation between inside and outside.

All too often, designers lapse into the aesthetic or formal flavour of the moment. Having been fortunate enough to visit over 30 houses for both the Namibian and Pretoria Institute of Architects during this year, I was disappointed by the lack of spatial innovation. The overused open-plan with uninterrupted ceiling was the dominant spatial solution. But it seems to have had a problematic knock-on effect - the open-plan bathroom. How horribly uncomfortable that must be with condensation in winter and absolutely nowhere to "escape". Fortunately Honiball has resisted all of these spatial clichés and has created what I would call "responsible" spatial organization. 

Left: Gawie Fagan's 1951 Keurbos house "pop-out" window to provide privacy © Arthur Barker, 2008. Middle: View of the "raumplan" in the 1930 Villa Muller in Prague by Adolf Loos (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/431993789229943483/). Right: Richard Meier's 1965-1967 Smith House 

The design approach recalls the sophisticated raumplan (space plan) of Adolf Loos and the classical order of Richard Meier's late Modern Movement buildings. Space is both continuous and cellular. Honiball does not resort to standard wall-to-wall sliding-folding doors to create spatial division, but rather sliding panels that disappear into wall cavities. And thank heavens he layers the bathroom plan from public to private and provides toilet cubicles with doors! This hierarchy is further extended through the layering of open and closed space in the entrance hall where visual links to rooms beyond are strategically located. The location of internal bathrooms (with rooflights) is another clever device that creates a buffer between public and private space.

Levels

The steeply sloping site of House Canopus Street is economically levelled to provide a private entry courtyard and raised front garden with wonderful views over the city and the Union Buildings. This provides the opportunity for Honiball to employ a series of level changes that subtly guide movement and provide different ceiling heights to define various functions. The first level change is a broad stair without handrails that draws one invitingly down into the living room. The narrower stair to the first floor starts without balustrade, but as it ascends, enclosing walls and columns increase privacy. Externally, broader and wider platforms treads draw the terraces out into the garden.

View of the entrance hall from the living room © Honiball, 2015 and stair to the first floor bedrooms. Note the use of recessed openings to hide yet connect spaces with light carefully controlled light to create differences in daily ambience. © Arthur Barker 2015. 

Light

Le Corbusier is reported to have said in 1923 that "architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light". Honiball has lived up to his hero's dictum through the use of light to express architectural form and space. Externally the finely sculpted walls support overhangs, house recesses, roof lights and brick screens that create powerful shadows and dappled light that change with the hours of the day. Internally, a major focus of light was the south facing entrance hall. Here, Honiball has strategically located purpose shaped windows to take advantage of light throughout the day. High level northern windows provide a constant light while focussed eastern and western windows mark the path of the rising and setting sun.

Left: South light over the entrance door and sliver of western in the afternoon © Honiball, 2015. Middle: Outdoor shower bathed in northern light. Right: Splayed window with indirect light © Marianne de Klerk, 2015

Ethical approaches

Honiball's award winning architecture is a concretisation of a principled way of working that challenges conventional ways of making space. Many of the ideas are not new, but they are aptly suited to the physical and inspirational needs of the client, the immediate physical environment and climate and to the ethical design approaches of the architect. Simple, understated lessons we should all (re)consider.  

Architect's drawings of House Canopus Street © Honiball, 2015

 MG 4146

Northern and garden elevation. © Arthur Barker, 2015

 MG 4137

Looking north-east over the garden and the city beyond © Arthur Barker , 2015

Top: View of the lap pool and first floor balcony with sun and privacy screen and roof lights. Bottom: Northern and garden aspect of the house © Honiball, 2015

Notes

  1. 1. With Adéle van der Merwe as interior designer.
  2. 2. Colyn and Meiring created a number of seminal houses that extended the white walled massing of Cape vernacular traditions.
  3. 3. See /blog-articles/2015/november/11/memory-in-architecture-chapter-five.aspx and http://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=10613&archid=2460.

Sources

  1. 1. http://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/archframes.php?archid=3366&source=0 [accessed 11 November 2015]
  2. 2. /blog-articles/2015/november/11/memory-in-architecture-chapter-five.aspx [accessed 3 December 2015]
  3. 3. http://www.joseforjazarquitectos.com [accessed 11 November 2015]
  4. 4. http://www.richardmeier.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/P3.92CC12_crop-1024x859.jpg [accessed 6 December 2015]
  5. 5. http://www.tharchitects.co.za/architecture/ [accessed 2 December 2015]
  6. 6. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/431993789229943483/ [accessed 3 December 2015].
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