House of Legends: Creating Coromandel

WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Dewald van Helsdingen (new), courtesy of the Sydney and Victoria Press Family Archive (historical)

Creating Coromandel, a new book about a once-mythical, later almost forgotten house – an incredible modernist architectural wonder near Lydenburg – resurrects the legacy of the South African architecture world’s “best-kept secret”.

One time, Coromandel Manor, was the stuff of architectural legend – a multi-millionaire’s ’70s stone home on a farm between Dullstroom and Lydenburg. It was a long, low building, with narrow wings interlayered with planted courtyards, a series of bold buttresses and a planted roof; at once exotic – built by a foreign architect – and a high-water mark of “regional modernism”. It looked like nothing else on the architectural scene: unmistakably modern, but strangely timeless; alien, but somehow at one with its surroundings. Yet, for years, this remarkable project went under the radar, says Edna Peres, co-author of Creating Coromandel, a new book that finally attempts to give the house and its architect their due.

The house was commissioned by Sydney Press, founder of clothing retail giant Edgars, and his American fashion-designer wife, Victoria. In the 1960s, they bought the farm, partly as a getaway from the city. Sydney began transforming it into a forward-looking experimental agricultural enterprise, which included stables designed by the Bauhaus-trained local architectural luminary Steffen Ahrends, no less. For his house, however, Sydney turned to Italian architect Marco Zanuso. Sydney and Victoria had seen a pair of homes he had designed in Sardinia in an international magazine, and they were entranced. They contacted him in 1969, and brought him out to South Africa.

Despite its unusual and dazzling design, the house remained surprisingly obscure. This was partly because of Sydney’s “desire for discretion”, as the book puts it, and partly because of the strange place it occupied in the South African architectural landscape. South Africa’s isolation during the apartheid years meant the house was mostly ignored by the international community, and its place in Zanuso’s oeuvre was largely obscured. Besides, as Edna says, Zanuso was actually “much more famous for his product design than his architecture”.

Coromandel Manor

Creating Coromandel: Marco Zanuso in South Africa

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Edna recalls first going to see the house as a young architect working for local architecture firm StudioMAS. One of its directors, Pierre Swanepoel, had grown up near Coromandel Farm, and had known about the house since his childhood. “His mom did some work for Coromandel Farm, and that’s how he discovered the house,” explains Edna. In the Noughties, she managed to see the house for herself. Since Sydney’s death in 1997, Coromandel Farm has been run by a Farm Workers’ Trust, which bought the farm with money borrowed from the Land Bank.

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These days, Coromandel Manor is run as simple, hostel-type guest accommodation. She was stunned by what she saw. “I felt like an archaeologist discovering this ancient place,” she says. “It was so weird and wonderful and romantic and tragic… It looked like something alien that had grown out of the landscape.” Later, her attempts to find out more about the house uncovered little. “There was hardly anything in the archives,” she recalls.

Eventually, she began interviewing people who knew about “this house that … nobody was allowed to go to”. There were tales of gardens designed by legendary Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx that were never realised. (A young Patrick Watson designed them in the end; he went on to become one of South Africa’s foremost landscapers.)

Little did she know, but an Italian architect, Andrea Zamboni, was working to document Zanuso’s somewhat underrated architectural achievements at the same time, which he published in the architecture magazine Domus.

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Edna wrote a few papers for architecture journals, based on what she could find, and some years later moved to Portugal. After connecting with one of Sydney’s daughters overseas, she was alerted to Andrea’s work. They realised that they had been working on the same project from different ends, and decided to write a book to connect their lines of inquiry. After various false starts – including the inability to find a local publisher – the book has finally seen the light of day. Coromandel has at last been properly documented and its legacy secured – and its vision and influence are starting to be understood.

Edna sees the book as part of a broader initiative to safeguard the legacy of the house. Other private interests have been discussing various possibilities with the Farm Worker’s Trust. There has been talk of restoring Coromandel Manor, and an architectural collaboration between Frankie Pappas, Mayat Hart Architects and Thomashoff + Partner Architects has drawn up plans.

Keep an eye on @friendsofcoromandel on Instagram for news and updates.

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