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House Biermann
Durban, KwaZulu-Natal

Barrie Ebenezer BIERMANN: Architect

Date:1962
Client:Self
Type:Homestead
Style:Critical Regionalism
Status:Extant
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Old-fashioned Modem Design + Economic Necessity = Regional Vernacular.

When the range of options open to architects is limited by the building budget, their function as designer is limited to identifying the cheapest workable answer to every successive problem. Design becomes increasingly an impersonal process, and necessity replaces whim in determining the resultant form. This does not have to detract from the quality of the end result. As much skill is involved in making appropriate choices from a limited range, as in inspired selection from a whole world of fantasy.

Within imposed limitations, there is nearly always enough choice in the disposition of elements to allow for the effective operation of 'theory of architecture': harmony and contrast. In this context 'theory' is best understood not as a system of abstractions so much as an empirical body of experience in what makes for a pleasing result. Siting (plan and section): Where other buildings are on a site, their incorporation in the new project is not only a measure of economy but also often imbues the design with a hidden logic, an air of inevitability. It follows from the premise that decisions are best guided by necessity, that one thing should follow naturally from another. This principle of least disturbance is carried further by not tampering with the site profile more than is necessary to establish floor levels; and its economy is effectively demonstrated in a roofline running parallel to the original site profile. In theoretical terms this cheapest workable answer results in a basic concord of landscape and architecture. Beneficial consequences flow almost automatically from this: protection from wind and rain and from excessive sun penetration. The absolute logic is only flawed by ceiling heights prescribed by building regulations - in themselves irrational, in that they take no account of circumstances. Established trees, of course, are incorporated into the overall design.

Planning: Schematic plan of the internal court showing the detailed application of general planning principles, based mainly on contrasts of direction. Each established element is succeeded by another opposing it in direction; each salience is answered by a recession, each void by a corresponding solid, and so on. The dimensions for traditional materials like brick supply, literally, a 'built-in' system of proportion.

Surfaces: A principle of modern abstract design requires surfaces to be treated as independent planes, distinguished by appropriate tones, colours, and textures. Here, a harmonious progression between the bagged brick wall and the brick-paved terrace was originally designed to accommodate a honeycomb panel wall as the second plane; when a cast-iron grille became available, for reasons of economy it was substituted for the honeycomb wall as the final plane in the progression of textures.

Space and Mass: A tenet of the modern movement is that space takes precedence over mass; mass should be dematerialized as far as possible to present the minimum interference with the activities contained by its envelope: an architecture of self-effacement. A corollary of this calls for the interpenetration of spaces to enhance their performance.

Light: Le Corbusier once defined architecture in terms of the play of light on noble surfaces. Those solids which are indispensable for support or enclosure, and which are functionally unsuited to dematerialization, enable dramatic interplays of light and shade simply by manipulating the placing of openings, whose primary function is ventilation.

Definition: Where the function of an element calls for visual emphasis - eg: a main entrance - it is legitimate to indulge in sculptural exercises with left-over elements, composed into assemblies of textured planes.

Materials: Frank Lloyd Wright best articulated the use of building materials for their own sake: exploiting the nature of the material in detail design. There is no call here for preconceived forms to be imposed on the material: it assumes the forms generated by its manufacture. The modern predilection for 'found objects' imbues every piece of scrap with the quality of its material.

(Edited from a text by Barrie BIERMANN in UIA 1985: 46)

The quality of this house contradicts the architect's opening contention that design becomes 'increasingly impersonal' when the range of design options is limited. In fact the house is a sound demonstration of critical regionalism.

BIERMANN's tight budget has forced ingenuity on him in the incorporation of materials found in dismantled buildings. But it is no piecemeal solution, for a strong formal theory informs the planning. Architects in the late 50s were eager to develop regional expressions of European modernism. South Africa's climate - particularly along the lush, sub-tropical coast of Natal - is hardly European. But in 1956 Mindlin published 'Modern Architecture in Brazil', which illustrated examples of heroic modernism transported to a climate similar to South Africa's, to a society which combined populations of the first and third worlds, and where cities were not European. These demonstrations had tremendous impact in South Africa, where architects immediately recognized many shared concerns: a relatively unskilled work force, leading to the refinement of poured concrete construction; the response of the free plan to the topography of the site; interest in the effects of light and shadow; and exploration of ventilation techniques. These are constituent elements of a regional vernacular - and the work of BIERMANN, Fagan, and architects like them have many of the formal components of an appropriate regional architecture that could embrace the adaptations of a future mixed society. (Disappointingly, younger architects in South Africa have not developed these leads, falling back instead on the easier enterprise of formalism copied from current historicism.)

(UIA, 1985: 46)

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One of the finest pieces of domestic architecture in Durban, it has influenced a generation of architects. The house has been rebuilt on two existing buildings on the site over a number of years by Barrie Biermann, a prominent academic who taught at the School of Architecture, UKZN (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, formerly UND University of Natal Durban). Its exemplary design solution lies in its response to climate, sloped terrain, existing vegetation, through the grouping of the residence's wings around a series of open courtyards and essentially the main courtyard, the opening of most of the internal spaces to enclosed gardens. The succession of the internal spaces, horizontally and vertically and the spatial progression (succession) through them, the views through and from them were elegantly and subtly addressed and yet enforced by B Biermann whether one circulates in the complex from the top of the property on Glenwood Road down to the bottom end on Essex Road or vice versa, always offering new visual if not emotional facets of the genial implementation of a design that is reminiscent in its spatial progression to cloisters and monasteries of the likes of Santes Creus in Spain.

House Biermann is a private residence, not visible from the road and not open for public viewing.

Ref: Poster describing House Biermann, as part of the SPOT MY DURBAN exhibit describing the Top 30 Durban Buildings as voted by Durban and KZN Architects. Exhibited at the UIA Congress in Durban in August 2014.

Submitted by William MARTINSON


Writings about this entry

Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pg 46-47
Biermann, Barrie Barrie Biermann. Architect's House, Durban (1962-): in Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8): pp 46-47