Location – East Legon, Accra – Ghana
Area – 783.0 sqm
Project Year – 2016
Architects – Mobius Architecture
Structural Engineer – Nana Yaw Obeng
Contractor – Asher Glaiden Ltd
Photography – Roger Yebuah
Text by: Farouk Kwaning [staff], in conversation with Augustus Richardson, Managing Partner [Mobius Architecture]
A decade ago, if one was asked to describe Ghanaian architecture or a building deemed to be Ghanaian, it would not be uncommon to hear about form, colour, local materials or worse still — Adrinka Symbols. Architect Augustus Richardson and his team at Mobius Architecture clearly embarked on a tangent to redefine what their perception of “Ghanaian” is. Sitting here, under this calm and breezy Gazebo looking back at this floating white box residence, I beg to ask; actually what isn’t Ghanaian about this?
Without a doubt, there is a certain perception about Ghanaian architecture
— “Less glass perhaps; more wood, thatch, mud earth, a hint of bamboo, a little rusticity or the famous GyeNyame symbol”. It is as though perfection cannot be one of our qualities. Architect Richardson paints a vivid picture of this stereotype and then smashes it into smithereens with this architectural response. “Good Architecture must satisfy 3 things as Vitruvius put it: Firmitas – Utilitas – Venustas. Firmness, Utility/ Usefulness and Beauty”
Therefore if asked to define Ghanaian Architecture, this would be an architectural response, to the history, cultural memory, societal underpinnings and most importantly the Genius Loci “Spirit of the Place”. All these viewed through the lens of a 21st-century Architect and the aspirations of his 21st-century cosmopolitan Ghanaian client who like many others has lived and schooled overseas, has imbibed myriad world cultures yet desires a residence in Accra; created the Bridge Residence.
“The spirit of Mobius agrees with what Ross Lovegrove eruditely calls “Fat-free design.” and this is what we believe in. Another keen aspect of our mantra is Functionality. It is the crux and crust of our designs. Whatever we design must have use and utility. It is always an odyssey to create a design. Our responsibility as “fat-free architects” is to try to answer questions that incite radical designs and motivate critical questions and inquiries. This is the philosophy of Mobius” — Augustus Richardson
The metaphor “The Bridge” was not its name from inception. During construction one day, the engineer in an attempt to resolve a 8-metre span to be able to achieve the open living- dining-kitchen pavilion stood at one corner and said “this could be resolved like a bridge, not necessarily one crossing a river or valley, but the elevated, enclosed platform of a ship from which the captain surveys and directs the ship operations”. It worked structurally and metaphorically. The master bedroom and its cantilevered terrace was that space from which the client oversees the entire residence. The name got stuck from then on.
The Bridge. Defying gravity, cantilevered spaces. The core energy of the building is to fashion a point where you can stand and see it all. Philosophically, it is the merger of geometries, light, and volumes.
The site is located in East-Legon, Accra and is bounded by 3 neighbours on the west, south and east with the access being a cul-de-sac in the north. The site was preoccupied with an existing building which the client wanted to be renovated. It covered the whole site, leaving very little space for landscaping. “We decided to introduce nature into the design by working some light and landscaping in. The linkage with nature is an idea I push for because I believe one should not be hemmed in on the inside” Augustus says. Subsequently, the client was given the opportunity to see the existing building model vis- à-vis the current design and immediately opted for the new design. “As a designer, there are moments when you have to stand your grounds, despite the limitations of doing so”.
From Architectural Science, we learnt that the colour white bounces off a lot of heat whereas black absorbs it. The designers clearly used this as a tactic in tropical design. Upon entry from the main gate, the upper floor clearly distinguishes itself as a floating white box with the driveway leading to a car port closed off by an Aburi-Stone clad wall and shaded by trees. The main living area is unveiled by 3-metre high by 2.5-metre wide glass doors which could slide totally opening up the living – dining- kitchen area to embrace the south- western breeze.
To the West of this open living area is the pool and cabana with a terrace shaded by a 3- metre cantilever aimed at mitigating the harsh tropical western sun.
And then to the right, a 1.2-metre wide breezeway connects the guest bedrooms on the north to the kids’ bedrooms and family room on the southern side. All bedrooms enjoy the gardens and the influx of natural light bouncing off the white interior walls through the large panes of glass. This composition of light and volumes doubles the size of the bedrooms significantly.
The indoor-outdoor effect does not exclude the bathrooms which are completely open to the sky. Architect Richardson in designing the Bridge particularly wanted to run away from easily perceptible small bathroom windows. “Instead we cut openings in the floor slab to allow light and exhaust air (it is reminiscent of our rural bathrooms hoarded by roofing sheets but open to the environment). I think a building must be intelligent, and one must not show its inner workings” — this idea translates into the beautiful hand-laid 7m wide stone wall which cuts off the 3 Domestic Servants Quarters, laundry and drying areas. The DSQs are connected to the main house through the north and are linked by a second kitchen (the African Kitchen) or scullery where all the heavy cooking occurs, before being served in the show kitchen.
The timber-clad dog-legged staircase with the guest powder room beneath it leads to the top floor which houses the large 50 sqm master bedroom and lounge, a terrace on the west and south – again shaded by a cantilevered roof slab. Two “him and her” walk-in-closets and the master bathroom also open to the sky, are separated by another breezeway which connects the indoors with a much larger open terrace to the east.
The interior spaces, mostly painted white host a range of paintings and sculptures from local artists including the famous Ablade Glover. The art together with the vibrant terracotta book-wall and warm timber floors bring the living space to energetic life.
In discussing the design, Architect Richardson insists: isn’t always about the built form but rather an attempt at the glorification of nature
— a 60% garden space to a 40% built area he achieved by creating 2 levels of habitation, — the use of large 3-metre high glass sliding doors ensure maximum daylight into the living and sleeping areas, greatly reducing the need for artificial lighting,
— the democratisation of space by creating a large pavilion which merges indoor with the outdoors
— right orientation of the building to ensure maximum daylight is achieved with breeze flow from the south-west through to north-east.
At night-time, the designers opted for warm ground-mounted lighting which washes against the stone walls on the outside, and the white walls on the inside creating a very cosy and relaxed mood. The lighting is powered by the solar panels on the roof slab and incorporated with sensors to reduce energy loads for a more sustainable home. We resorted to concrete as the structure because of its tried and tested strength, like Dieter Rams said, “Good design is long-lasting”. We believe that good architecture must outlive its owner — A good inheritance left for the children’s children as the Bible says.
The infill of walls is made up of sandcrete blocks, whereas the large openings of windows and glass doors were all crafted here in Ghana. The 18 mm bullet-proof security glass which eliminates the need for burglar proofing was imported as well as its associated ironmongery, but the wood, its design and assembly was entirely Ghanaian crafted. Timber is also used as the floor material in the interior spaces.
Natural stone was used on the ground floor walls of the residence for 2 reasons
- To prevent continuous painting over the years since natural stone is self-cleaning and maintenance-free.
- To “root” the building to its locale while creating an illusion of the elevated box above the ground floor.
The sophistication of the Ghanaian, their intelligence, depth, spirituality and emotion, the ingenuity and complexity in the structure to achieve such simplicity, the clinical austerity of the contractor in achieving remarkable perfection — is nothing short of “Ghanaian”.
It doesn’t matter where they are from, the Ghanaian is deemed to be very hospitable yet many of our buildings do not exhibit this. “The openness, the love of the outdoors and the great all-year-round weather. This is why the architecture we imagine at Mobius seeks not to conform but to confront what is already existing around us. Before we begin conceiving a project, the team always asks, what are we trying to do here that is different, that is original, that is unique to us as Ghanaians, How can we better the discourse of architecture in our landscape?” – Augustus Richardson.