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South African architects SAOTA on how they bring light, space and life to every project

In an extract from their new book Light Space Life: Houses by SAOTA, the renowned South African practice sets out their manifesto for making houses and how the natural beauty of the land defines every project

By House & Garden | March 30, 2022 | Interiors

There is something dramatic, epic and even mystical about Cape Town, the city in which we live and work. Table Mountain, the city’s most definitive feature, has a powerful presence that is as much spiritual as it is physical. It is a place maker; it has personality and presence. It is earthy and elemental, a dominant natural force that animates life in the city.

Many of our foundational ideas and beliefs were forged in our home city, especially during SAOTA’s first decade of existence in the heady, optimistic and transformative time around the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the end of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to democracy during the 1990s. The new confidence and optimism of those early years allowed us a perspective that was forward-looking, confident, uplifting and innovative, as South Africa rejoined a global conversation about architecture and design.

The ideas we negotiated then have an ongoing resonance in our approach and philosophy. The sense of possibility in the air drove our ambition, while the almost spiritual presence of nature embodied in the mountain kept us from trying to express the new identities that were being forged at the time in buildings conceived as singular objects screaming for attention. Instead, we approached the often spectacularly beautiful sites on which we worked with discretion, with an idea of opening our designs to the beauty and mystery around them, letting their presence in without artifice.

Photography: Adam Lench Instagram

Our approach had its roots in the fascinating and inspiring examples of regional modernism around the country. Our architectural precedents, however, opened up a world of influence with threads and connections as much with Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and European modernism as with the Case Study Houses and California modernism in the USA, Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil, Luis Barragán in Mexico, Jean-François Zevaco in Morocco, and Paul Rudolph and Gawie Fagan in Cape Town.

In seeking to advance our own architectural traditions and create an innovative, refined architecture from our studio in the shadow of Table Mountain, we came to understand the complexities that inform local identities, the cross-pollination, the myriad variety of shared ideas in a global world. We also developed an understanding of how the best aspects of local context, from the site itself to the unique culture, heritage, materials and craft of a place at a particular time, had the seeds of principles that would resonate anywhere in the world.

Despite the appetite for the look and feel of the designs we created in Cape Town, we had no desire to apply a preconceived ‘style’ repeatedly in new locations, but rather were driven to discover how the ideas and approaches we forged on home ground might continue to engender new expressions wherever we worked, synthesising with the traditions there. We wanted every SAOTA design to respond at a visceral level to its context, whether a South African cliff edge, a Swiss lakeside, an American seashore, a Russian steppe, a Middle Eastern oasis or an iconic urban location.

As we increasingly work internationally, we have realised – and strive to harness the insight – the global perspectives at the heart of local perspectives. Over the years, SAOTA has distilled its philosophy into three core elements: light, space and life.

Photography: Adam Lench Instagram

Light brings poetry to architecture. It is the very essence of perception, which is why we tend to see buildings not as objects, but as forms sculpted in light. The energy that is crucial to human life is also the force that reveals mass and renders form, allowing the observer to perceive colour, texture and space. It creates the atmosphere or ambience of a building, marks the passage of time and the rhythms of nature, connecting the life of a building to life on a planetary scale. Our designs embrace light. It influences the orientation of the architecture and how the buildings open to receive it, as well as how we need to control it and provide shelter from it. In South Africa, especially in Cape Town, we are blessed with fresh, clean sunlight. We strive to let this light in so that the interior spaces of our buildings glow. The brightness and clarity of the light in South Africa demands purity and simplicity in form and detailing. These characteristics remain at the heart of our design DNA wherever in the world we work.

Space is one of the most primal and fundamental experiences of being human. Among the most exciting aspects of creating space for life in South Africa, and which has become part of our design DNA, is an understanding of shelter – the most basic conception of what architecture does – defined not so much by walls as by the roof. From an early stage, we had the good fortune to find ourselves presented with exceptionally beautiful sites. Perhaps this is what encouraged our conception of architecture as working with, rather than against, the landscape and the elements, magnifying a connection with the surrounding environment. We like to think of architecture as analogous with a tree – something that provides shelter and a sense of place, but does not interrupt the landscape, seeking to formalise it and ‘put a hat on it’ without disrupting the experience of it. We design with the whole site in mind, the landscape and the views. Our houses ‘live out’ and we invite the outside in. We like to design gardens and courtyards to allow nature to come into the building and be a part of the experience. We want the earth to touch our architecture. At the same time as our interior spaces borrow from outside, we strive to create light, fresh and open but carefully layered spaces, which mediate our relationships with the setting and the rest of the house with sensitivity and a light touch. Beauty is a very underrated quality in architecture.

Life is the true purpose of a building. Any good building is a celebration of human life, and all good architecture should be concerned with improving quality of life. We live in buildings for most of our lives, constructing relationships and families, learning and playing and living. The quality of these buildings has a profound effect on our ability to imagine a better future, to grow and to make a success of what we do with our lives. It is a key building block for a healthy society. We think of our designs as the stages upon which the dramas of life play out: stages for entertaining, for sharing, for rest, for families and for contemplation. They are the theatres in which people live and flourish.

Photography: Adam Lench Instagram

The somewhat obvious point – all too often lost and forgotten – that ‘architecture with a capital ‘A’ can be complex and challenging without being alienating is central to our work. We want to make architecture that people enjoy and we believe that includes a certain magic, mystery and delight. Attending to functionality should never preclude poetry, so we try to choreograph the unfolding experience of space and setting in a way that brings surprise and delight. The ultimate success of a building rests on the question of whether it positively transforms the lives of its inhabitants. Does it make life better? There is a quality of magic about that. But it need not be radical; it can be gentle and humane.

This article originally appeared on House & Garden UK