With the Pine Concrete House in South Africa, the cross-cultural office Sugiberry has created a one-room retreat away from a multi-generational family house. Partly buried in the ground, the retreat’s concrete elements are repeated on the inside by the concrete’s own casing, its wooden counterpart.
Sugiberry balances between practice and theory. Their practice engages in research so as to confer coherence to their architectural projects. As a cross-cultural office blending three different cultural backgrounds – Japan as the native country of Mayu Takasugi, South Africa as the native country of Johannes Berry, and Brussels as their current office and residence – they try to establish an architectural methodology which can be determined in form and meaning depending on the context they work in. They are particularly interested in what lies at the basis of an architectural project, in what the influence of the cultural context can be on the initial conceptualization of a project and its translation.
A recent exhibition at the Flanders Architecture Institute entitled Meaning referred to Sugiberry’s theoretical research into the processes by which sense-making occurs in the human mind, how associative thinking leads to seeing what we want to see because it is the easiest approach and refers to what we already know. Their work plays strongly on seeing and wanting to see and thinking to see within the human brain. Each project on display took two visually similar materials as their starting point. It seemed to be a mind game putting one on the wrong track. The association in the human brain caused confusion and doubt, but at the same time an awareness of the materials in terms of both similarities and differences. This kind of association was taken to the extreme in the Pine Concrete House in South Africa.
A detached one-bedroom house connects to an existing multi-generational family house on the premises in a residential area on the slopes of Pearl Mountain in the Western Cape, South Africa. Being partly buried in the ground, the outer walls in contact with the ground are made of reinforced concrete. Concrete implies the use of wooden formwork. The architects imagined what they could do with two visually similar materials, the formwork and the concrete that copies the look of the formwork. They imagined reusing the pine formwork for those parts of the building where the exterior walls do not touch the earth. In the design and construction process, they further strengthened the relation between these materials. All formwork should find its resting place in the building itself, meaning that each dismantled concrete element would be repeated by its wooden counterpart, the concrete’s own casing.
The house was conceived as a retreat for the pater familias. The ground floor accommodates a multipurpose room with storage space for film showings, fitness, parking, etc. The top floor, connected to the family house by a footbridge, has a spacious open living space, equipped with a ‘braai’ barbecue, an important cultural feature in South Africa. Along the side of the hill, this space is flanked by a small bedroom, bathroom, utility room and staircase. The staircase has been rounded for the practical reason of being able to install a stairlift later. This decision had a repercussion on the reuse of its formwork. The semicircular shape is repeated in the living space as a cosy alcove with beautiful zenithal light. Here is a nod to Le Corbusier’s sketches of this ‘mystery hole’ (as he called it) during his visit to Villa Adriana near Tivoli in 1911 and which was a source of inspiration for the chapel at Ronchamp.
Architecture is encountered during the process of creation. Not being able to oversee the construction works due to its remoteness, the architects focus on the construction process rather than the detailed design expression. The entire process of pouring concrete is worked out and all the formwork panels are drawn in advance, using standard, local measures of 360 cm height for outer panels and 315 cm for inner panels (with the difference of 45 cm matching the roof thickness) and varying width. Each panel needs to find its position in the final design, unaltered, within the stringent grid. Reusing all formwork resulted in design decisions which could not have been anticipated. Suddenly, unexpected things happened. The system took over and worked in the opposite direction. It became self-referential. For instance, the landing of the stairs led to the shape of the canopy at the front door. The choice of the pragmatic materials – concrete and its formwork – became a conceptual idea that raised the design to a higher level.
The visual similarity between the materials is misleading and results from the process they underwent: the imprint of the wood in the concrete and the absorption of cement through the wood merge their appearance. Because the concrete and its formwork exist side by side, the construction process of the building, which is usually invisible, remains visible. The architects generated form through the potential of processes.
“The building is an embodiment of how it came to be, it reveals in its aesthetic its own history.” (Sugiberry)