Two Minutes With // Jon Jacobson, of Metropolis Design

Hi and happy First Friday everyone! Today’s interview is with Jon Jacobson, of Metropolis Design; Metropolis Design is a South African firm located in Cape Town. Jon has given us thoughtful insight as to how they juxtapose perception and reality to discover and establish atmospheric relationships between human and nature. This detailed interview may even inspire you to contemplate how the essence of life transcends design. Check out their website to view some beautiful projects. Enjoy!

Images courtesy of Metropolis Design.

VT: Your work remains consistent in its purity of form and observation of nature. What opportunities and challenges does this bring regarding each project’s unique context?

JJ: Pure form and response to a powerful landscape go together. The landscape has had 4.5 billion years to evolve into what we perceive today — an integrated whole which offers us an endless depth of meaning and metaphor, and a sense of permanence. It is all we know, and we could never make anything with our own hands that has this resonance. We want all of our buildings to have a real dialogue with the meanings offered up to our perceptions by our surroundings. By placing the right form in the landscape, we try to highlight and bring into focus qualities of the surroundings. Simple abstract forms are universal and have the same enduring qualities to our minds as the landscapes do. We begin with a pure form, a powerful response that is easy to perceive; we believe abstract form exists better in the mind than in the sunlight, raw rock, and living reality of the landscape. The challenge is to imbue it with the qualities of the living landscape and our inner perceptual landscape at the same time.

We take a reading of each landscape that surrounds a site. We note the amount of trees and vegetation, the sea if present, the dunes, natural sandstone cliffs, how much sky, and how much monstrous development is around. We respond to this on the surface of the building, cutting into a pure form to create similar qualities of light and shade from solids and voids. These are similar qualities of irregular contour that are found in the trees, for instance. We may use asymmetrical surface compositions which mimic the weathering patterns of sandstone, or use hovering forms that resonate or have the same overall feeling as the surroundings, or we may break up surface into isolated planes to achieve transparency, dematerialization, and the ephemeral. What then happens is a poetic dialogue, and this is what we are after — to establish a meaningful connection between man-made and nature, that is of the moment, and that will endure.

The dialogue is most meaningful when it raises questions about us and our relationship to the world, when it cannot be answered, and when you get a sense of the mystery and the unfathomable at the core of life. To us, this is the essential ingredient of any real work of art. Occasionally we manage to achieve a sense of incompleteness, roughness, imperfection, irrationality, and discomfort in a building, while still maintaining the sense of transcendence and wholeness. This tension gives life and an enduring fascination to a building and a sense of it belonging to this world in a fundamental way.

VT: The materials used in your interior spaces reflect the natural landscape. What aspects of the architecture’s site do you draw from to create such soothing and immaculate palettes?

JJ: Cape Town is by the sea. The light is strong and very harsh. Shadows are harsh. The mountains are mostly weathered sandstone in shades of grays, yellows, and ochres. The distinctive Cape vegetation, called fynbos, literally “fine bush”, are in shades of silver, gray, and olive greens. On the one hand, it is a tough, arid, and unrelenting landscape, and yet due to the winter rainfall, the landscape can appear green and verdant at certain times of the year. We often use natural materials which match the hues, tones, and colors of the surroundings. The choice of finishes, paint colors, tiles, and timbers are all guided by the colors outside in the landscape. Sometimes we use the actual materials; an example would be the stone from the site itself. The connection is immediate and direct. We also use materials with textures that have the same overall feeling that the site evokes –for instance, the ruggedness and weathered texture of off-shutter concrete has the same feeling of the (elemental) sandstone cliffs or rocky shorelines.

Sometimes it is just a feeling of naturalness and simplicity. We generally like to reduce the sensorial qualities of a space to an essence, beyond which no further reduction is possible. Often this minimalism has a counterpart in nature, where every part is necessary. We end up witha simple palette of one or two materials, such as wood and stone, or wood and water, and nothing else.

All of these approaches create a sense of harmony and integration with the landscape. Some locations right on the edge of the sea in Cape Town have a special quality of light due to the glare from the water. White or light colors can be used to bring out this atmospheric quality. This creates a contrast with landscape; one example is seeing a contrast with the mountains beyond, and also seeing offset sparkles from the sea in the foreground. On other occasions we identify something that is missing from the landscape and we put it into the building. For example, if there is too much harshness outside, we will add richness and use a darker wood inside.

VT: You create a sense of spatial diffusion within your work; framed interior spaces and captured exterior views appear to usher the outsider inward, and project the insider outward. What is the intention behind this visual connection of the interior and the landscape?

JJ: The climate in South Africa is temperate and generally mild. It never snows in Cape Town and rarely gets colder than six degrees Celsius in winter. The diurnal temperature difference is not severe; the lifestyle result is that we spend a lot of time outdoors, use our swimming pool often, and enjoy barbequing. Cape Town is built between a mountain system; the sea and nature is therefore very present, even in the most urbanized parts of the city. The traditional colonial attitude, however, was to make a strong distinction between the savage landscape outside and the civilized interior within. During apartheid years, public space was contested and interior spaces were heavily defended. To this day the high levels of crime encourage fortified private space, and a high level of enclosure is the norm. Typically this manifests as punctured wall architecture decorated in a variety of cultural styles — Cape Dutch, Tuscan, Classical, Victorian, French Colonial, etc, … with a porch tacked on.

By blurring the boundaries between what is inside and what is “out there”, we try to foster a relationship with what is truly unique and collectively ours as South Africans — the South African landscape. We often introduce points of multiple perspectives of the landscape so that there is such simultaneity in the perception of the surroundings that the sense of interiority is temporarily lost. I think this is very healing. There has been too much separation and insularity; this quality of continuity between inside and outside is for me, an essential ingredient of a regionalist, and also of South African architecture.

By our culture, we do everything we can to make interiors contain and express the vitality of our lives; however, these interiors are relatively static and fixed compared to the world outside. By immersing the inhabitant into the surroundings, one is bringing them in touch with the real and enduring source of meaning and stimulation, which is ever changing. E­ven in apartment interiors in highly urbanized contexts, for example, we seek to create a “portal” to the landscape. One of the preoccupations of the practice has been with the meaning and content of our buildings. I am increasingly relying less on metaphor and poetry and more on direct juxtapositions with the natural environment as a way of achieving this. There is a terrible loneliness we feel as individuals out in the landscape. I think that to feel that loneliness is to feel the essence of being human.