Influencers: Grete Van As & Johan Wentzel

WORDS Annette Klinger

Ever wondered who inspired our current generation of architects? Partners in life and in business, the duo behind W Design Architecture Studio explain their approach, and pay homage to Alberto Campo Baeza and Tom Kundig.

How long is a piece of string? It’s a refrain that has stayed with Grete van As and Johan Wentzel since their student days in the mid-90s at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Architecture, where professors Schalk le Roux and Roger Fisher would inevitably fall back on this axiom to illustrate that, in architecture, straightforward answers are elusive. “Although it didn’t help at the time, looking back, it was the best way to realise that there is no right answer to any of our design questions – or in life generally,” reminisces Johan. “We need to find inspiration and answers not in a set of rules or a guidebook with 10 steps, but in each specific and unique project.”

Challenging as those projects tend to be… “There is always something wrong: too little money, a limited brief, strict aesthetic guidelines and limitations, time constraints, skills shortages and so on,” he says. “The late American tennis player Arthur Ashe said, ‘Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.’ This approach has allowed us to always seek the unique within the ordinary, the hidden within the obvious, and inspiration where there is none to be found – that ‘something’ that guides a project to become more.”

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Each of W Design’s builds starts with a clear concept. “Our projects are always titled based on the idea or inspiration that defines their purpose or reason for being,” says Johan. With the Planet Fitness Olympus gym in Pretoria East, for example, the idea was to fully immerse gym members in their industrial environs with an interior of unfinished concrete, wood, glass and steel, but also to consciously direct their gaze beyond the perimeter, with a rooftop running track and floor-to-ceiling glazed north façade allowing them to visually and emotionally connect their protected interior space to the world outside.

The couple’s idea-driven design approach is hugely informed by that of Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza. According to him, “Architecture without ideas to sustain it is nothing. It is only form – and forms pass with time and are destroyed. A constructed idea reveals itself, unveils in its entirety, when it is materialised.” Grete and Johan also cite American architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects as a big inspiration, for his honest, direct use of materials and the importance he places on architectural trades.

One of W Design’s most recent projects, Fifty Seven Waterberg, has an unmistakable Kundig sensibility about it. Set in the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve in Waterberg, the luxury game lodge is re-imagined as a sheltered viewing platform from which to observe the sprawling expanse of the bushveld. “Essentially, we tried to create a new nature, where the building merged the landscape with the structure, the natural with the human,” says Johan.

Bringing the minimalist structure to life in the middle of the remote bushveld was no mean feat: all the various trades – masonry, metalwork, woodwork – were separated, manufactured off-site, then reassembled on-site. Keeping the building elements single-trade and unfinished resulted in a structure that reads as true to its surroundings.

“Our inspiration is found in the natural world around us, and although it’s a dream, the hope remains to create buildings that don’t exist merely for the sake of being beautiful, but rather as a place from which to experience and interact with the world – a refinement and revelation of the land.”

Looking for more architectural inspiration? Check out this Plettenberg Bay home designed by W Design.