WORDS Lynette Botha PRODUCTION Mark Serra PHOTOS Paris Brummer
This lovable art gallery in the heart of Riebeek-Kasteel is both a masterpiece in design and an ode to South African artisans… and it has just been nominated for Archdaily’s “Building of the Year 2024” Awards.
It’s not every day that a once-in-a-lifetime brief hits your desk. But for Strukt Architects’ Niel and Ashleigh Basson, that day struck almost three years ago, when their clients asked them to create the Kunshuis.
Originally from Port Elizabeth, but currently living and working in Monaco, the owners’ love for South African art drew them to the small and vibrant town of Riebeek-Kasteel in the Western Cape because of its active artist community, which they have since become entrenched in.
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“The brief was for the structure to, first and foremost, be an open-door art gallery to celebrate and showcase the owners’ impressive collection of South African art,” explains Niel, who is Strukt’s principal architect. “A secondary goal was to incorporate functional living spaces that they could reside in for part of the year. This informed a lot of our decision-making throughout the design and building process. It was such a unique brief, and our clients entrusted us with bringing their dream to life. The freedom we had to discover the project’s potential was a real highlight.”
“Apart from being a place to showcase art, the Kunshuis was always supposed to be a seasonal home for the owners – who are also investors in Riebeek-Kasteel’s annual Solo Studios art festival – to reside in when spending time in South Africa,” says Ashleigh, who oversaw the construction of the property. The inspiration for the Kunshuis was the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on Venice’s Grand Canal that houses the Peggy Guggenheim art collection – one of the most celebrated and important museums of 20th-century European and American art. Not a small act to follow.
“With a brief like this, it’s not easy to know where to start,” says Niel. “For us, it made sense to request an inventory of the art collection. Based on those images, the design process could begin. The architecture had to focus on creating space for the art, and ensuring a warm quality to the materials for when it would become the owners’ residence. The views were also a consideration – we set out to frame them and treat them with the same importance as the art.”
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The art collection may be second to none, but it certainly doesn’t overshadow the incredible architecture and design. To manage the light in the gallery areas and protect the art from direct sunlight, the property was oriented to face true north, with a secondary axis to retain a street edge. Notable too are the sliding steel screens that act as shading and security and, as there is no boundary wall, help to strengthen the street edge.
The Strukt team also took care of the interiors. “We chose every detail, down to the napkins,” says Ashleigh. “We kept the palette neutral so that nothing clashed with the art, and what we’re extremely proud of is that all the interiors and decor feature both established and new South African designers.”
From concept to completion, the project took two-and-a-half years and was mostly plain sailing. “With Riebeek-Kasteel being a small town filled with mostly traditional structures, our brief was a first for the area,” says Niel. “We had to be respectful of the surrounding homes and their inhabitants, which we did through texturing the exterior walls, the scale of the building, and manipulating the landscape. We know that not everyone may be a fan – but we think the structure is growing on them.”