Building an Icon: Dombeya

WORDS Gillian Holl, with Graham Wood PHOTOS Chantel Magwick

Veld Architects’ Gillian Holl was recently introduced to the architectural wonders of Dombeya, built by artist Alexis Preller, when she was called on by its new owners to help restore some of the buildings. In this instalment of our popular series that celebrates landmark local buildings, she takes us through the story of the almost-mythical complex – and the two men who conjured it.

The Basics

Over the 20 or so years that the visionary 20th century artistic icon Alexis Preller lived at Dombeya, his smallholding near Brits, he almost always had a new building project on the go. From the mid-1950s onwards, Preller constructed a complex of buildings that in the end included his house and studio, a guesthouse, a swimming pool and changing room, and his swan song – a remarkable gallery/museum space known as the Mudhif.

A vaulted brick building inspired by the giant arched grass structures made by the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, the Mudhif was a tribute to Preller’s devoted friend, the architect Norman Eaton, who died in 1966 after a car accident, and left much of his collection of art and artefacts to Preller. The Mudhif was intended to house Eaton’s collection.

Eaton and Preller shared an appreciation for design from all over Africa, from local Ndebele architecture
to the art and design they encountered further afield. They travelled extensively throughout the continent, and their mutual interests and ideas found expression in both Eaton’s architecture and Preller’s art. The two men, in turn, also influenced each other.

Preller’s paintings were filled with myth, symbolism and cosmology, veering from the surreal to the abstract. Dedicated to making an art of Africa, he once said that his aim was “to identify myself with my age and place: Africa, and the 20th century”. His buildings at Dombeya were a manifestation of that artistic ambition, too.

Eaton was a similarly solitary figure. Architectural historian Clive Chipkin describes him as “a remote figure outside the hurly-burly of general practice”. Preller described his work as having “an African quality”, which is now understood as a rare, pioneering example of a uniquely African language of “regional Modernism”. His use of carvings, mosaics and intricate brick patterning blurred the distinction between architecture and decoration.

At its Zenith

After buying an empty expanse of subdivided farmland with views of the Magaliesberg, Preller started building at Dombeya in October 1956. “With some advice from Norman Eaton, he designed a very basic house: a large single room for living, working, eating and sleeping, with glass doors on the south side looking out on the Dombeya tree,” writes Esmé Berman, coauthor of Alexis Preller: A Visual Biography. A few years later, when he received the commission to paint a mural for the Transvaal Provincial Administration building in Pretoria, Preller had to build a new studio big enough to house the canvasses.

In 1966, he began planning architectural additions again, including a guesthouse. This time, he took inspiration from Eaton’s creative use of brickwork. The new guest suite not only features one of those amazing mosaic floors, but also a mural by Erich Frey (who was actually a jeweller) made with rectangular copper sheets designed to catch the light – sunlight by day, candlelight by night. In 1970, Preller added a swimming pool and the conical changing-room tower (which looked a lot like the structures he’d been painting for years). Eventually, in 1974, he began building the Mudhif, the museum/gallery he had envisioned to house the Eaton collection, and which would incorporate a pair of carved wooden doors that Eaton had brought back from Zanzibar. The building was never finished, although its shell and another staggering mosaic floor were completed.

In December 1975, Preller went into hospital for an operation, where he unfortunately passed away. He was buried at Dombeya alongside his partner, Guna Massyn. The property was sold in 1977.

The State of Play Today

Dombeya’s new owners are in discussion with Veld Architects about the restoration of the remaining buildings in the complex. Some have been altered beyond recognition, but the guesthouse, the studio and the Mudhif – including the magnificent floors – are intact. Even the changing room next to the swimming pool is still standing.

Why the Building Matters

Its place in local art and architectural history alone makes it significant. The stories that swirl around this place are still told and retold in art auction catalogues whenever important Preller works appear for sale. Eaton’s legacy is much better appreciated now, and questions about climate, landscape, materials, culture and identity that he began exploring all those years ago are front of mind for architects once again. As the epicentre of Preller and Eaton’s intellectual and artistic collaborations, Dombeya embodies a unique intersection between African identity and modernity.

Not Many People Know that…

The Zanzibar doors originally intended for the Mudhif now belong to another artist and academic (and notable Preller expert), Professor Karel Nel. After Preller’s and Massyn’s deaths, the doors were auctioned off. Years later, Nel went to great lengths to track them down, and had them incorporated into his own Dombeya-inspired, barrel-vaulted house and studio – which he named Mudhif.

We Love it Because

In Preller’s foreword to Norman Eaton: Architect, he concluded: “With him, magic and reality and truth were absolutes; interchangeable, and, very often, one.” He could be describing Dombeya. The incredible decorative details – the floors and murals! – are an integral part of an overarching vision here, not an add-on. Craft, construction and architecture are one. To have the opportunity to restore it and bring it back to its former glory is beyond exciting.

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