Bold Monaghan Farm House

WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes

Built for twin sisters – each with different tastes – this home in Monaghan Farm eco-estate explores how a fusion of art and architecture makes a home’s connection with its setting more profound and meaningful than simply providing a pleasant view.

For Gillian Holl, owner of the award-winning Veld Architects, this must have been one of the more unusual briefs to receive from a client – or, in this case, clients. It was for twin sisters Ansi and Renette Buitendag who, after spending most of their adult lives apart, decided to build a home together. Not only would each have a wing to herself, converging on a shared kitchen, dining and living area, but each had distinct architectural tastes. Renette preferred a Modernist approach – a building with a “connection to the landscape”; while Ansi favoured a style that was “bold, strong and minimalist”.

The location they had selected was on the Monaghan Farm eco-estate in Lanseria – a sunken, tranquil spot below the road, overlooking the Jukskei River. It was a location that demanded further specific considerations too. Only three percent of the land on Monaghan Farm will be developed, so the natural setting will be preserved for posterity. The beautiful landscape of rolling hills, grasslands and rivers poses the question to all architects who build here: what sort of relationship to create between nature and architecture? How best to connect with this landscape? What makes us feel at home here? Both sisters are art lovers, bringing with them substantial collections of art, so the relationship between art and life was also thrown into the mix.

Monaghan Farm House
Architect Gillian Holl of Veld Architects.

Gillian’s response, in the end, hinged on an old Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “The mother art is architecture.” She would weave Ansi and Renette’s love of art into the very fabric of the building, and through a complex layering of bespoke and collaborative efforts with local artisans, artists and crafters create a home-as-monument that would celebrate life and art. It would be strong and sheltering and, rather than simply delivering pleasing views, mediate a more complex relationship with its setting.

To accommodate Renette’s more Modernist approach, Gillian designed a series of pavilions that open up to their surroundings via large windows and screens, with colonnades and pergolas that seem to extend out into the landscape and scoop it in. Although she chose a material palette in which pure concrete and steel predominate, Gillian points out that there is a level of delicacy and detail in this design that softens it and gives it a feminine character.

For Ansi, Gillian created a series of distinct “sculptural elements in the landscape”: three interconnected buildings – one concrete, one rusted Corten steel, and one clad in metal sheeting reminiscent of barns or agricultural buildings. This part of the house represents an unashamedly robust and object-forming approach to architecture, with distinct, simplified forms.

Marrying the two sections is a central living space, which blends the light and the solid, the robust and the delicate, the bold and the intricate. This more social or communal area is defined by a light roof that floats above a solid base. Clerestory windows allow natural light to wash softly in; a timber latticed ceiling offsets the raw concrete and steel below; and large, laser-cut steel canopies blur the distinction between outside and in. At the entrance, you’re greeted by gabion walls stacked with slate, the stone grounding the building with its “natural” and “authentic” qualities. Its colours also resolve the separate elements, harmonising with the other materials and bringing them together.

Throughout the house, Gillian invited collaborations with a wide range of artists and artisans, crafters and makers. Everywhere you look are unique, beautiful, handcrafted elements: stained-glass windows by The Cutting Edge; custom glass lighting by Glass Forming Academy; and incredible breeze-blocks for which Gillian brought together Wolkberg Casting Studios and Down To The Wire, who create jewellery from poachers’ snares. Much of the cabinetry was designed in collaboration with Veld Architects.

In meeting the challenge of designing a home that would fit in with and add to its beautiful natural setting, Gillian and the owners have responded with a rich, imaginative tapestry of solutions drawn from creative and cultural resources. The house – its robustness, strength and resilience – and its intended longevity are justified as a shelter for humanity’s ongoing and ever-renewable attempts to foster a connection with a place. That celebration makes a home not only for art, but for the inhabitants, too. They’ve dubbed it “Amani”, which means peace in Swahili.

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