Wednesday 23 August 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Wednesday. 23/8/2023

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Image: Ema Peter

Up the country

In need of a breath of fresh air? A visit to a woodland home in the Netherlands provides us with a welcome break but Winnipeg’s latest architectural project (pictured) might also help you to turn over a new leaf. Plus: we celebrate the best of Brutalism and sit down with a leading light in design to discuss his latest projects. But first, Stella Roos with some standout suggestions for city spaces.

Opinion / Stella Roos

City fixes

I arrived for my summer holidays in Helsinki by ferry and, as I pulled into the harbour, I had the brief, bewildering experience of not recognising my former hometown. So much development has been taking place on Jätkäsaari, one of the city’s peninsulas, that the whole coastline looked different.

Sadly, I can’t say that the change is very cheerful. There were the greyscale high-rise blocks; there was the mandatory shopping mall; and, on a piece of prime seafront real estate, was a round, multistorey car park. There was hardly a pedestrian in sight and there were no shopfronts of small businesses. Unfortunately, most urban development in the Finnish capital is a variation on this theme. It’s not just Helsinki: my travel companion remarked that Nordic countries in general seem to have lost their way a little when it comes to construction. Here are five proposed fixes.

1. Ban construction of inner-city shopping malls. Along with a host of European countries, Finland imported free-market consumerism in the form of shopping malls and still can’t kick the addiction. Their construction is motivated by short-term thinking and tends to crush local communities.

2. Don’t raze; reuse. It is very difficult to build a functioning neighbourhood from scratch and, in most cases, it is best not to try. Working with existing building stock is often more challenging and expensive than starting with a blank slate but the reward is a place with character.

3. Focus on quality over quantity. Helsinki has set high quotas on housing construction but many newly completed developments now struggle to sell vacant units. It is a reminder that even in a housing shortage, standards matter: people want unique homes in attractive neighbourhoods.

4. Employ the small builder. Only a handful of companies build most of Finland’s infrastructure. The conglomeration of construction means that craftsmen’s knowledge is lost to standardised solutions.

5. Stand up for your choices. The famed consensus culture of the Nordics extends to real estate, where the architect has little authority over developments. Alas, safe choices do not make for interesting architecture: behind every good building is someone with a vision and at least a few mad ideas.

Stella Roos is Monocle’s design correspondent. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.

The project / Halcyon House, The Netherlands

Light relief

A half-hour drive from Amsterdam, the rural region of Oosterwold has few urban-planning restrictions – a rarity in the Netherlands. “The area has been described as the ‘Wild West’ and there are fewer challenges in terms of regulations, permits and complaining neighbours,” says Bo van Niekerk, co-founder of Habitats of People Architects, an Amsterdam-based practice that was approached by a couple looking to build a home in Oosterwold. “This means that you have more freedom to determine your own guiding principles, which we found in the natural landscape.”

Image: Pathou Studio / Michael Cerrone
Image: Pathou Studio / Michael Cerrone
Image: Pathou Studio / Michael Cerrone

The result is Halcyon House, a two-storey home with slightly tilted, wood-panelled exterior walls that soften the building’s silhouette and create a sense of harmony with its surroundings. Inside, the walls are finished with beige clay plaster and the floors are made from plastic recovered from the Meuse river. “Our clients were inspired by John Ellway’s Terrarium House in Australia,” says Van Niekerk. “The Netherlands has a different climate and generally grey weather. Our challenge was to bring in natural daylight and create a warm atmosphere, while maintaining a contrast between the larger and more intimate spaces of the house.” To achieve this, skylights flood the open-plan interior with light and large windows provide sweeping views of the home’s vegetable garden, beehives and the occasional passing deer.

Design news / The Leaf, Canada

Branching out

Winnipeg, in Canada’s central Manitoba province, has a climate that’s similar to Kazakhstan: sub-zero temperatures in winter followed by scorching-hot summers. To design a new botanical sanctuary for such extremes, Canadian firm KPMB Architects looked to Norman Foster’s Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Astana for inspiration. “It’s essentially a giant tent,” says Mitchell Hall, who led the KPMB team in planning The Leaf, which has just opened in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. “This was the lightest possible solution that we could achieve with the smallest number of structural parts. We wanted to eliminate visual clutter inside.”

Image: Ema Peter
Image: Ema Peter
Image: Ema Peter

The Leaf’s swirling, big-top-style roof is a net of layered plastics that serves to let light in and regulate temperatures without much steel and glass on the exterior. Inside, the structure has four climatic biomes that simulate conditions from the Mediterranean to the tropics and, instead of air conditioning, there is a system of louvred windows at the top and bottom of the building. The Leaf is also tapped into an underground geothermal well for when things get really chilly outside. “There are a lot of so-called ‘snowbirds’ in Winnipeg, who head to Florida for winter – but not everybody can do that,” says Hall. “The idea is that anyone can go to Assiniboine Park in the dead of winter, take off their coat and enjoy a few hours in a warm, tropical place.”

Words with... / Axel Meise, Germany

Room to glow

German brand Occhio is a pioneer in the world of light design, with an in-house team of engineers that develops electronic systems to work with its products. It’s an approach that’s unique for the industry and one that the firm’s founder, Axel Meise, says sets it apart from its competitors. To find out more about this process, we met Meise at the studio’s newly opened showroom in London.

Image: Manuel Nieberle

What makes Occhio’s lighting products distinct from other brands?
Occhio means “eye” in Italian; our first product looked like one because it had a lens in the middle. All of our work contains lenses – they are the best optical instruments that you can find as they direct light rather than diffuse it. People have an emotional connection to sunlight because it is direct. We try to emulate that feeling.

How do you marry together design and technology in your products?
Our products are user-centric. For example, you are able to change the colour, height, and direction of Occhio lights with hand gestures or via a Bluetooth app. We use technology to make products that can enhance your life. We want to show people what light can do for them.

You have just opened a new showroom in London. How do you use this space to show people your products?
As we are a lighting company, we recognised the need to make the space visible and so we put a glowing white box in the middle of the shop to make it stand out. We want you to find inspiration in the space and show you what we can do to illuminate every location in the best possible way. You can use light in every environment and our showroom is a testament to that.

For more on Occhio, tune in to ‘Monocle On Design’ on Monocle Radio.

Image: Anje Jager

From the archive / Tronco Chair, Brazil

Wood intentions

José Zanine Caldas had a touch that transformed timber offcuts into some of the world’s most precious furniture. The self-taught Brazilian designer had founded a highly successful interiors company in Rio de Janeiro but decided to close it down in 1950 to move back to his home region, Bahia, on the Atlantic coast. He spent the rest of his career constructing one-off, sculptural pieces out of entire logs of wood, such as the Tronco chair from the 1970s. Each chair was made from a tree trunk that had been cut and reassembled into a frame. A supple sheet of white leather was then nailed to the front and the back to form a comfortable seat.

Caldas’s later work became known as móveis denúncia (“protest furniture”) – as an outspoken critic of deforestation and the negative effects of mass production, he aimed to use mostly discarded wood from logging for his pieces. It might seem a little ironic that by protesting profit-driven furniture production, Caldas’s work has become one of the most expensive of the Brazilian mid-century masters. But a piece like the Tronco is special precisely because of the values behind it.

Image: Baker & Evans

Around the house / Linear steel bench, Denmark

Whatever the weather

Danish furniture firm Muuto’s new steel bench from its Linear collection is designed for aesthetic and environmental longevity. Its form is clean and simple: gently folded edges and semi-circular legs give it a sleekness that ensures long-lasting visual appeal. Available in five deep-matte, UV-resistant powder-coated finishes, it is also designed to allow water to flow off its surface without pooling. The result? A bench that will tastefully stand up to the test of time, making it a welcome addition to any patio, no matter the conditions.

For more sunny terrace furniture, pick up a copy of‘Mediterraneo’, Monocle’s seasonal newspaper, via The Monocle Shop.

In the picture / ‘The Brutalists’, UK

Concrete consensus

Brutalism divides opinions. Whether you love it or loathe it, the architectural style is prominent in cities and skylines worldwide, from Tokyo to São Paulo, and includes some of the most striking and ambitious buildings of the 20th century. Published by Phaidon, The Brutalists: Brutalism’s Best Architects is a survey of more than 250 historic and contemporary designers, selected by Owen Hopkins, writer and director at Newcastle University’s Farrell Centre (an academic institute and platform that debates the future of urban planning).

Image: Tony Hay
Image: Tony Hay
Image: Tony Hay

Every entry in the book features a biography and some examples of the designer’s works, with names ranging from the internationally recognised Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi and Brazilian behemoth Oscar Niemeyer, to lesser-known talents such as Sydneysider John Andrews and Dutchman Tao Gofers. By providing an overview of some of the best minds in brutalism, this collection of more than 200 iconic buildings, which span from 1936 to the present day, might help to sway even the most polarised of opinions.


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