Memory in Architecture: Chapter one


In the next four chapters, I will comment on our relationship with the history of architecture. No architecture will ever be truly new as it exists as part of a continuum of thought and development over time. But it is my contention that architecture that clearly recognises its position in this continuum, produces deeply rooted solutions. These imbue a quality I have, lately, begun to recognise and describe as a relationship between familiarity and strangeness. In this chapter I will outline how two houses designed by Gawie Fagan in the 1960s exhibit these qualities as the architecture straddles the boundary between imitation and invention.

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View of Die Es (above) with signature sinusoidal roof and recognisable chimney. Bottom: House Raynham with central structural chimney and undulating roof © Barker, 2008

Familiarity and strangeness

As humans, we develop associations with places, through sounds, smells and recognisable forms and store these in our 'memory banks'. Inventive architects recognise this fact by imbuing their architecture with a sense of familiarity but altering these associations to create a sense of 'strangeness'.

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The 'plastic' nature of Die Es'schimney © Auret, 2006

Gabriel (Gawie) Fagan (1925-)

Gawie Fagan is the most awarded South African architect and in November this year he will turn 90. He completed his architectural studies at the University of Pretoria in 1951, the same year he designed a seminal house (recalling Le Corbusier's 1930 Chilean Maison Errazuris) for his parents in Bishopscourt in Cape Town. After completing about twelve years of work for the then Volkskas Bank in Pretoria, he returned to his birthplace Cape Town and constructed a house for himself, Die Es (the chimney) in Camps Bay in 1965. Two years later he designed a residence for Dr. and Mrs. Raynham in Newlands.

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Fagan and his wide at the Royal Cape Yacht club where, each day, they share a plate of food for lunch (Barker, 2012)

Die Es and Raynham

Fagan uses three main architectural elements to provide his houses with a sense of familiarity. These are chimneys, walls and roofs. The original position of the chimney in the Cape vernacular house articulated its functional role. Families gathered around the fireplace while food was being cooked. Fagan extends this functional role to a spatial one in Die Es where the hearth is extended to form a winter room. Fagan also shifts the position of the chimney from the end of the house to a frontal or central location to act as symbol or focus. In House Raynham the chimney shifts to an internal position as the flue is attached to a column acting as roof support. The 'plastic' quality of Cape vernacular walls is recalled in Die Es, but in both houses (see Fig. 7.6) Fagan extends these qualities by moulding the entire building form, as walls rise and fall to meet the roof. Cape vernacular buildings either had simple single or double pitched roofs, but in House Raynham a sense of strangeness in the roof design is achieved through the moulded and folded roof planes which honestly express the relationship between internal spaces and external roof. These ideas are further extended in Die Es where the roof is syncopated to allow mountain views and high level afternoon light.

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Light and view through syncopated roof at Die Es © Barker 2009

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Chimney flue in Raynham acting as roof support © Barker 2009

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Ground floor plans of House Raynham and Die Es © Fagan archive

A way forward

We could all do well to recognise historical continuity and our relationship to it. South Africa has many cultures some which have, unfortunately, been sublimated over time. However a handful of South African architects like Norman Eaton, Peter Rich, Jo Noero and Gawie Fagan, to name a few, have recognised the value of our architectural heritage. In an era of architectural confusion we would do well to revisit our architectural history and learn valuable formal and spatial lessons from it, to create buildings that are strangely familiar over time.

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Die Es fireplace room © Au



Further reading:

  1. 1. Barker, A. 2010. Heterotrophic syntheses: mediation in the domestic architecture of Gabriël Fagan. South African Journal of Art History. Volume 25 (Number 1).
  2. 2. Barker A. 2012. Heterotrophic syntheses: mediation in the domestic architecture of Gabriël (Gawie Fagan). Unpublished PhD thesis.
  3. 3. Barker, Arthur. 2012. Cape vernacular interpretations. Architecture South Africa. Sept/Oct(No 57), 36-44.
  4. 4. Barker, Arthur. 2012. Typological form in the architecture of Gabriël (Gawie) Fagan (1925-). South African Journal of Art History. Vol. 27 (No. 3).
  5. 5. Barker, Arthur. 2013. Craft and intellect: materiality in the domestic architecture of Gawie Fagan. South African Journal of Art History. Vol. 28 (No. 2).
  6. 6. Barker, Arthur. 2014. Fagan and the vernacular. Vernacular Society of South Africa journal.Fagan, G.T. 1983. Architectural language. Architecture South Africa, 1983(5/6), 50-51.
  7. 7. Fagan, G.T. 2005, Gabriel Fagan. Twenty Cape Houses. Cape Town: Breestraat Publikasies.