Architecture is not an aesthetic discipline

Say Frankie Pappas, the maverick South African architecture and design outfit who’ve scooped a Dwell 2020 Design Awards nomination.

We need to set the record straight. Architecture is not about making things pretty. Architecture is about finding scarily simple solutions to disturbingly complex problems.

Architecture lost its way. A long time ago. And it now sits somewhere between artistic expression, egotistical pursuit and stylish endeavor. We should be building a remarkable future – not an empire of fancy fucking townhouse complexes.

Architecture is not a surface treatment or a colour or a curvy wall. Architecture is a reverence for the future. It is respect for context. Architecture is purposeful creation – it is the eye-wateringly beautiful solution to a seriously complex problem. Architecture takes thousands of intangible factors and responds with a single tangible form. 

The building must always emerge of its own accord. The form of a building is the direct result of an unpacking of every single constraint of a project and of deliberately studying how these constraints work in relation to one another. A building’s proportions, its finishes and its aspect are the result of rigorous solution seeking, studious planning and sensitive choice.

As Frankie Pappas, our job is to map out the constraints of a building and find a point where all the given problems find a common solution. Where the design parameters overlap, that’s where we find solutions to problems. This is where the true solution exists. Architecture is linear programming. On steroids. In this sense, the solution (and the resulting form) is absolute. We don’t invent the building – it invents itself. It has reasons for being – and these reasons go deeper than style and look and feel and fashion. We discover the building; we don’t design it.

When we begin a project, a detailed set of parameters is established. What is the budget? What are the site’s micro-climates? The security requirements? Material constraints? Environmental and social factors? And so it goes on and on. And on. We cannot stress this enough: these are the things that give rise to architecture. 

In House of the Tall Chimneys, our Waterberg project – which has been nominated for the Dwell 2020 Design Awards for Best Dwelling – our principle parameter was the need (choice) to build a dwelling in a riverine forest without removing a single tree. More philosophically, it was to celebrate and lionize the bushveld surrounds by limiting our interference with nature in every way possible. 

Emerging from the rock face and soaring into the lofty tree canopy – the house is an off-grid living space that serves not only its inhabitants, but its context too. We’ve created a natural cooling system – the two tall chimneys – whose other purpose is to support the house structurally. We’ve used almost exclusively sustainably grown timber and locally sourced brick – both selected to match the colours and textures of the sandstone cliffs and riverine forest. We’ve used the density of the trees for screening rather than a constructed solution. We’ve planted the flat timber roof with endemic species, giving that borrowed square meterage back to nature. We’ve stripped the building back to its very essence. 

No matter the shape a building takes, it should be underpinned by meticulous rationale. Every material, every structural element and every detail should have a legitimate reason for being. Borrowing an aesthetic or a design element without substantive reason is for Pinterest pushers and Instagram influencers – it is not for architecture.

Transforming the intangible and complex into something tangible and simple is a process we relish. What are the philosophies that underpin the design? They may be to celebrate the natural world, to simultaneously offer privacy and communal living, to deal with soaring summer temperatures or to interact with the street beyond. Given the right amount of consideration, each of these philosophies combines to form the solution. They create the building, not us.

Our motto at Frankie is ‘wonderfully similar. beautifully different’. Just as every person who collaborates under Frankie is one-of-a-kind, each work is a complete original. But they all share a common theme: a deep reverence for the future. The final building and its components must be contextually relevant and honour a future vision of architecture and its place in the world – a vision that exists long after its inhabitants have departed. Even the smallest of buildings must serve greater social, economic and environmental issues. Without this, architecture is just a pretty bathroom with fancy taps. | @frankiepappasinternational

Frankie Pappas is a Joburg based architecture and design studio made up of architects, mathematicians, coders, engineers and other likeminded individuals who work together under a collective pseudonym. Together they’re changing the language of architecture one building at a time by creating wholly unique solutions with their nonconformist approach. Though they may be new to the regular lexicon of design and architecture in South Africa, the group has already been named as one of Wallpaper Magazine’s Top 20 emerging architectural talents from across the globe. Their House of the Tall Chimneys has since been nominated by Dwell Design Awards 2020 for Best Dwelling (voting is still open) and they’ve been invited to exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Watch this space – these people are dangerous.

Words: Frankie Pappas as told to Mila Crewe-Brown
Production: Mila Crewe-Brown
Photographs: Dook for VISI