Memory in Architecture: Chapter Five
The memory of history
This second last issue on Memory, focuses on architecture formed from the influences of place, the experiences of an architect and a tradition of regional architectural history particularly in Pretoria. It begins by exploring regionalist architecture in South Africa during the last century and then illustrates how these principles are being applied today, using House de Villiers as an example.
From the mid 1930s onwards in South Africa, a number of local architects such as Norman Eaton (1902-1966), Gordon McIntosh (1904-1983), and Donald Turgel, explored regionalist design thinking that fused Modern Movement spatial principles with those of the "Mediterranean tradition". This exploration was initiated by Modern Movement architects like Le Corbusier (1887-1965) (Pallasmaa, 1988; 2007:135) who were interested in the formal and material simplicity of Mediterranean architecture that exemplified the tenets of the modernist project and a non-facile traditionalism. Le Corbusier owed this interest to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712-1778) ideas on the natural life: the more basic and paradigmatic, ancient or vernacular a solution is, the closer it gets to being "natural" and "original". This architectural tradition was continued during the 1960s by architects like Revel Fox (1924-2000), Barrie Biermann (1924-1991), Gawie Fagan (1925-)and Danie Theron (1936-2011) as well as in Pretoria, by John Claassens and Jack van Rensburg.
Left: Plan and House Wilson (1955), Worcester, Western Cape (Fox,1998:80). Right: Front view (Fox,1998:81).
Some of Claassens houses. Left: House van Biljon, Pretoria (Anon, 1969:20). Middle: House Classens, Brooklyn, Cupulo at top of stairs onto roof (http://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/image_slide.php?type=2&bldgid=10613&rank=11 [accessed 9 November 2014]). Right: House van Heerden, Pretoria (Anon, 1969:21)
left: Anderson House with its white painted brickwork walls (1949), Pretoria (Norman Eaton architect), (UIA International, 1985:22). Top right: House Biermann (1962), Barrie Biermann architect (©Arthur Barker, 2008). Bottom left: House Mikula (1965-7), Paul Mikula. (Architecture SA, May/June 2005:14). Bottom right: House Manor Gardens, Durban (1973), Hallen and Theron architects (Architect and Builder, February 1973:34,35).
Gordon McIntosh's own house in Brooklyn, Pretoria, now part of an old age home. Here the beginnings of the "Mediterraneanism" of Modern Movement architecture in South Africa exemplified by climatic control, local materials and a painted brick aesthetic, can be seen © Barker, 2015
House de Villiers
Recently a house designed by Jacques de Villiers, for his retired parents in Brooklyn Pretoria, received an Award of Excellence and a special Merit Award from the adjudicators panel at the Pretoria Institute of Architecture awards function. The architecture is a development of the Pretoria "Mediterranean tradition" through climatically responsive planning, simple yet bold wall-dominated forms and a rough white painted brickwork aesthetic. More importantly, the architecture is influenced by a range of personal memories.
Approach to house from the north © Barker, 2015
While De Villiers was a student working for Johan Jooste architect (the son of the famous Pretoria regionalist architect Karl Jooste (1921-1975)), he lived in an old white painted brickwork building on the same site as his parents' house now stands. This, as well as fond memories of a lemon tree (which now forms a focal point in the courtyard of the new house) acted as the genesis for the design of the new residence. The impact of these influences was reinforced by trips with Jooste to the Karoo to measure up whitewashed vernacular buildings in much the same way same way that Gawie Fagan was influenced in the 1950s by brakdak buildings. During his students years, De Villiers also developed an affinity for the work of Le Corbusier particularly his use of a modular proportional system, which De Villiers has now adapted to a brick scale. But other similarities can be seen such as the reinterpretation of Modern Movement planning in a Mediterranean vernacular form.
Practical considerations have also impacted on the architectural aesthetic. De Villiers notes that the new house had to act as a background building so as to not compete with the farm type aesthetic of a remaining and frontally located, outbuilding of the historic Brooks farm. He also highlights that, the colour white, reflects light well in the compact dwelling and that painted brickwork decreases its scale. Unfortunately, a tree had to be removed to make way for the residence, but its memory has been respected through its use as tongue-and-groove floorboards in the living room and library.
The understated architecture of House De Villiers has been lauded by the PIA awards panel as its simplicity overrides many of the more ostentatious schemes that were submitted and visited. The panel noted that the house is an "environmentally sensitive and historically astute home having a small footprint and a modest budget" (PIA Awards brochure). The value of this architectural approach lies in De Villiers' wise observation that architecture needs to be authentic and from its own time. Apart from this important lesson we, as designers, can all learn from simple historical and contextual clues to ground a building in both time and place while also extending important architectural traditions.
- Anon, 1969. The Houses of Johnny Claassens. Plan, April. p20-25.
- Anon. 2015. House de Villiers. Digest of South African Architecture. Vol. 19. p40-41.
- Fox, R. 1998. Reflections on the making of space. In Fox, J. (ed). Revel Fox. Reflections on the making of space. Rustica Press. Cape Town: 25-32.
- Pallasmaa, J. 1988; 2007. Tradition and Modernity: The feasibility of Regional Architecture in Post-Modern Society. In Architectural Regionalism. Collected writings on Place, Identity, Modernity and Tradition. Edited by V.B. Canizaro. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 129-139.
- PIA awards brochure. 2015.
View of the entry porch from the north-east © Barker, 2015
Entrance © Barker, 2015
Courtyard from outside sitting area © Barker, 2015
View of kitchen from living area © Barker, 2015
View of courtyard from living area © Arthur Barker, 2015
Passage as library looking towards entrance area with timber floors harvested from tree on site © Barker, 2015
Entrance with library passage beyond © Barker, 2015
Entrance area clerestory lighting with off-shutter concrete ceiling © Barker, 2015
Main bathroom © Barker, 2015
Fanlights to bedrooms and off-shutter concrete 'service' ceiling © Barker, 2015