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Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Sandcastles and the Sahara ...

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco

It's been 10 years since I visited Morocco.   Anyone who's been will recall a country with every landscape under the sun.  It was January when we visited and our romantic notions of a sun-kissed Sahara were soon tempered by the snow capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, and the green canopies of Argan trees throughout the Sous Valley.  Looking back through my travel snaps I could convince myself that we detoured through Switzerland (such is its likeness to the mountain village of Ifrane).  

But even after all these years, the impression that has lingered longest is of the striking edifice at Ait Benhaddou.  Rising from the sand like a golden monolith, this citadel evokes wild imaginings of ancient civilizations and Arabian nights.  Or - if you're nostalgia tends to the more homespun - this 'sand land' might trigger memories of long, summer afternoons of castle building on the beach. 

The humble sandcastle is an expression of what is possible when our imaginations collide with the raw material of the coastline.  

Perhaps it's the pleasure derived from sandcastle building that has formed my appreciation for single material architecture.  Or maybe I feel that there is something vaguely virtuous in exploring the full potential of a material.  There are certainly constraints imposed by this method (try constructing a cantilever out of sand!) but there are inherent opportunities as well.  'Monomateria' is the name I have coined for this approach to design (yes... Archi-jargon. Apologies). 

I recently compiled a shortlist of contemporary buildings for the purpose of researching an article.  Each project takes its design cues from the multiple possibilities presented by a single material.  Check out the selection below...

TIMBER | St Andrew's Beach House, Mornington Peninsula, Australia

St Andrew’s Beach House by Australian architects Austin Maynard. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

St Andrew’s Beach House by Australian architects Austin Maynard. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

Rudimentary timber buildings seem to suggest a vernacular best left to the annals of 10th Century feudal farming.  Masonry has long been the preferred material for the ruling classes - and ever since the Industrial Revolution threw to the fore the new possibilities presented by steel construction - the need to assemble buildings entirely from timber has been in rapid decline.  

Fast forward a couple of centuries and this outmoded technology appears to be making a comeback.  A shining example is Austin Maynard's St Andrew's Beach House on the Mornington Peninsula in southern Australia.  From form, to frame, to materiality, this project defies the norms at every opportunity.  Its most obvious deviation from the mainstream is a circular plan that defines its cylindrical form.  No doubt this choice introduced some structural complexities - and given that this is an exposé on singular materials - it comes as no surprise that the framing is entirely in timber.  Engineered timber beams and columns are in radial formation and exposed within the dwelling.  The resulting impression is of a spiral shell fish... or a sea urchin... or a ripple on the water.  Whichever way, it's apt!  Timber framed windows, timber screening, and solid timber cladding complete this tribute to timber construction.

BRONZE | The Bund Finance Centre, Shanghai

The Bund Finance Centre, Shanghai by Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners.

The Bund Finance Centre, Shanghai by Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. Image courtesy Heatherwick Studio.

Two British heavyweights are responsible for the monumental architecture of Shanghai's The Bund Finance Centre.  Heatherwick Studio together with Foster + Partners co-designed a complex of institutional buildings delivering over 420,000m2 of prime real estate on the waterfront in Shanghai.  The pièce de résistance of the Masterplan is indisputably the spectacular screen to the centrally located Cultural Centre.  Conceived as a veil of tassels wrapping the building, the design takes full advantage of the malleable property of metal to form stainless steel into 675 tubular lengths suspended from the roof structure.  

The choice of a bronze finish conveys the 'jewel-like' quality of the Cultural Centre.  Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) was used to coat the stainless steel 'tassels' with a magnesium alloy that lends the material its warm, bronze lustre.  Bronze coloured stainless steel sheet is used to clad the fascia to the roof, and the material is extensively seen throughout the precinct on window surrounds and vents. 

The Finance Center is a brilliant example of how a single material can be used to unify a series of disparate buildings and provide visual cohesion at a macro scale. 

CORTEN STEEL | City Library, Bruges

City Library in Bruges by Belgian architects Studio Farris. Photography by Tim Van de Velde.

City Library in Bruges by Belgian architects Studio Farris. Photography by Tim Van de Velde.

A design competition was held in 2012 to select an architectural team for the proposed extension to the City Library in Bruges.  Belgian architects Studio Farris were ultimately successful with a simple concept that proposed a rational, rectangular form for the new addition.  To make distinction between old and new, a markedly different material was chosen to contrast with the original building.   At 550m2 the new addition is fairly compact and the choice of a single material seems apt to avoid the 'visual clutter' that could arise from over-articulating the facades.  

Corten steel is the single material on-show, with the cladding varied in three different ways to create interest.  Here we see a combination of solid panels, perforated panels, and embossed panels with a few carefully placed windows providing the only counterpoint to the Corten.  The choice of an eye-catching material to fully clad the building is a bold gesture, and any other quirks - such as complex geometry or decoration - would arguably render the design over-the-top.  However this building exhibits a restrained form that allows the rich, ocher hues of the Corten to define the new addition.  

LIMESTONE | Ripon College Chapel, Oxford

Ripon College Chapel in Oxford by Niall McLaughlin Architects. Photography by Dennis Gilbert.

Ripon College Chapel in Oxford by Niall McLaughlin Architects. Photography by Dennis Gilbert.

The dictionary defines 'monolithic' as 'made of only one stone'.  Whilst it is inconceivable that a large-scale contemporary structure could be carved from a single mass without joint or junction, the word is still apt to describe Ripon College Chapel in Oxford by Niall McLaughlin Architects.  In this example the preeminent material is limestone which shrouds the pure, elliptical form of the building.  The external facade is divided into three distinct bands and each displays limestone in a different condition.  

The base level exhibits traditional, ashlar masonry construction with smooth stone blockwork neatly stacked.  In the mid-section, the stone courses are arranged in a dog-tooth bond with blocks laid corner-to-corner rather than side-to-side.  In this layer the surface of the stone is rough and abrasive in contrast to the sleek finish on the stonework below.  The upper-most layer incorporates clerestory windows to provide high-level lighting to the Chapel interior.  The window glazing is set between deep stone blades that introduce a strong, vertical rhythm to the upper portion of the facade.  

Whilst the overall composition celebrates a single stone edifice, variation in texture helps to visually compartmentalize the building to add interest and draw the eye.

BRICK | Termitary House, Thanh Khe, Vietnam

Termitary House in Vietnam by Tropical Space. Photography by Hiroyuki Oki.

Termitary House in Vietnam by Tropical Space. Photography by Hiroyuki Oki.

There are many ways to skin a building with brick, and Pinterest is positively bursting with examples of the playful possibilities that masonry construction can afford.  One particularly fine example is the Termitary House in Vietnam by architects Tropical Space.  It's fair to say these local designers have become especially adept at their signature style:  the ventilated brick building.  With high temperatures and high humidity typical throughout the summer months, it follows that the architectural vernacular would promote a construction type with high thermal mass.  Internal as well as external walls are made entirely of brick, with openings throughout the course work provided for ventilation and visual connectivity to internal courtyards.

The resulting architecture is simple and unadulterated.  The purity of its cubic form and the restrained material palette allow the subtle variations in the brick to be celebrated.  This building was completed in 2014 and seems to have forecast the current trend in domestic construction for playful patterns and hit-and-miss brickwork to articulate facades.

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