Architecture

IN PICS | The House of the Big Arch may just be SA's most unique home

Made up of brick hubs connected by glass-and-wood bridges, this Frankie Pappas-designed home melts seamlessly into its forest surrounds

11 October 2020 - 00:02 By Julia Freemantle
Immersed in the riverine forest of a reserve in the Waterberg mountains, the house was designed to melt into the landscape.
Immersed in the riverine forest of a reserve in the Waterberg mountains, the house was designed to melt into the landscape.
Image: Frankie Pappas

It's often out of adverse circumstances that the most enterprising results arise. A puzzle or a problem has the power to prompt clever solutions and innovative thinking.

The House of the Big Arch by Frankie Pappas, an architectural and creative collective defined by a unique ethos and a fictional persona representative of the whole, took the challenge of a tricky site and made magic.

The practice's motto “wonderfully similar, beautifully different” proposes collaboration and pooling skills and talents to solve problems for a new world — an approach which led them to be named one of Wallpaper magazine's top 20 emerging architects globally.

A project fitting for a group of like-minded multidisciplinary mavericks that believes in the power of the team over individual ego, this intriguing space advocates for solution-orientated architecture that engages with its context.

An architectural sketch of the House of the Big Arch.
An architectural sketch of the House of the Big Arch.
Image: Frankie Pappas

Situated in the Waterberg mountains in Limpopo, the location is home to a remarkable spectrum of wildlife and plant species. As such, the objective for the project was not to compete with or try to stand out from the landscape, but rather to merge with it — disappear into it even, as a sign of respect for the setting.

“A unique and direct response to this particular portion of this particular riverine forest of this particular part of the Waterberg means that the architecture of this house could exist nowhere else in the world,” explains Frankie.

The House of the Big Arch’s dramatic ramped entranceway echoes the slim elongated proportions of the building as a whole.
The House of the Big Arch’s dramatic ramped entranceway echoes the slim elongated proportions of the building as a whole.
Image: Frankie Pappas
A second, more open bridge links the kitchen to the 'arch' structure, and together they serve as an outdoor entertaining area among the treetops.
A second, more open bridge links the kitchen to the 'arch' structure, and together they serve as an outdoor entertaining area among the treetops.
Image: Frankie Pappas

Bridging the landscape between a sandstone cliff and the riverine forest below was the goal, a feat that involved navigating a forested slope — and here's the catch — without removing any of the trees. A challenge to be sure, and one answered by the team with a brilliant and engaging series of forms.

“We laser scanned the site and then converted this data into a digital 3-D model so that we could see every tree and branch when making critical decisions,” says Frankie.

A wood and glass ‘bridge’ connects the lounge and kitchen and houses the dining area – the floor-to-ceiling windows again connecting the structure to the landscape.
A wood and glass ‘bridge’ connects the lounge and kitchen and houses the dining area – the floor-to-ceiling windows again connecting the structure to the landscape.
Image: Frankie Pappas
The ‘arch’ section of the house comprises a pool, oven, and fireplace and faces north with views over the valley.
The ‘arch’ section of the house comprises a pool, oven, and fireplace and faces north with views over the valley.
Image: Frankie Pappas

By creating three separate solid structures (hubs for the lounge, cellar/library/kitchen and outdoor entertaining areas respectively), grounded by a dramatic ramped entrance — where gaps in the trees allowed — and then linked with sustainably grown timber and glass “bridges”, Frankie Pappas achieved what reads as one long, slim structure (330cm wide) that slots neatly and unobtrusively between the trees.

The bridges offer breathing room and create gaps underneath the structure's length — allowing for wildlife to move unhindered across the site.

“We wanted to offer animals and humans equal opportunity to find shelter and treat the bushveld with its deserved respect,” says Frankie.

The wine cellar of the House of the Big Arch.
The wine cellar of the House of the Big Arch.
Image: Frankie Pappas

At every level the house blends in. From the colour and texture of the rough stock brick, which was selected to match the weathered sandstone of the site, to the upper-level rooms that sit at tree-canopy height, and the easy thoroughfare for forest creatures.

This idea of working with — rather than against — the landscape goes further than its physical structure, and extends to a practical level. The entire house is off the grid (from solar panels to greywater processing and passive heating and cooling) and a roof planted with endemic grasses, succulents and shrubs merges with the greenery of the forest. It's a holistic, living, breathing organism that exists within the greater ecosystem of the setting.

“We cannot divide architecture, landscape and gardening: they are one,” says Frankie.

Q&A WITH THE FRANKIE PAPPAS TEAM

What do you think your collective-minded approach as a firm brings to each project?

Our philosophy ties directly into our tagline “wonderfully similar, beautifully different”. Essentially what this means to us is that to produce remarkable solutions, we must do two things: first, we must share a similar goal. In the case of Frankie in 2020, it is an intense reverence for the future. Second, we must make sure we surround ourselves with people who see, and feel about the world as differently as possible.

What do you think sets your architectural projects apart?

Frankie is unconcerned about what looks right — it is concerned only with what is right. The key difference in how we approach our work is that we make an effort to ask the right questions — and then a commensurate amount of time answering those questions. You will always find in our work a depth and efficiency to the solutions we propose.

What would you say your primary focus as a firm is?

Our primary focus is the production of a future we would like to inhabit. And to do this we draw on the wide-ranging skills of our team — from coding to art, project management to furniture making (in addition to architecture, urban design, quantity-surveying and engineering). Access to these skills allows us to impact the future from the very small to the very large.

Would you say the firm has a “style” as such (aesthetically and structurally)?

Frankie never has — or will ever have — a style as such. All design decisions are driven by first asking the right questions. Once the correct set of questions is asked, the project designs itself.

One of the deep problems with design and the arts is that they have primarily been considered aesthetic disciplines. But, for the greatest artists and designers and architects and engineers a beautiful product follows directly from a clean, true and beautiful solution.

What recent project really defines Frankie Pappas’ philosophy, and why?

Every project we do is a direct reflection of our reverence for the future.

While House of the Big Arch worked itself around every tree on site and offered shelter to humans and animals and plants, House of the Flying Bowtie demonstrates a way of making the suburbs safer, denser, and more equitable without sacrificing privacy and serenity.

House of the Extroverted Court shows how we could create self-sustaining wilderness areas just outside major metropoles, and House of the Suburban Streetscape allows us to provide beautiful housing (and access to economic and social and cultural opportunities) at almost 50% of what the current market offers.