Modernist hearth

PHOTOS Greg Cox PRODUCTION Etienne Hanekom WORDS Alma Viviers

Lees in Afrikaans.

March 2014: On Thursday 27 March at 6pm, OH Architecture will be hosting a tour of the house. It costs R50 to enter and students get free entry. Booking is essential. 

November 2013: The latest Monocle magazine includes an article about “Die Es”, the family home that Gwen and Gabriel Fagan built with their own hands almost half a century ago in 1965. We thought it was high time to dig out our own feature on this relevant and remarkably arresting example of the vernacular architecture for which the legendary architect is best known. 

February 2011: My very first encounter with “Die Es” was on a Saturday in October 2009. Alongside 20-odd other architecture fans, I greedily consumed every detail with eager eyes and snapping camera lens. This was the last – and most personal – stop on an Open House Architecture tour during which the legendary Gabriel (or Gawie, as he is affectionately known) and Gwen Fagan recounted the stories behind their many designs and over 200 restoration projects: House Raynham, where Gawie personally surveyed the terrain with his dumpy level in order to design according to the precise aspect of the land; the Institute for Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine, where he joined two buildings from the 1920s with glass infill and a striking circular glass addition; Chavonnes Battery; where the Fagan’s knowledge of restoration and heritage work came into play when the archaeological site was discovered during excavations for the foundations of the BOE building…

My second visit is completely different. This time I accidently drive past “Die Es”, spotting just its iconic free-form chimney in my rear-view mirror. From the road, you can hardly see this modest house, which sits low on a steep slope among a lush, indigenous garden. This is in stark contrast to the new developments that now tower over it. From the carport on street level, a set of cool Table Mountain sandstone stairs lead you down to a small outdoor lobby. Gwen laid every single pebble, which they collected from a nearby beach, in the cement of the lobby floor. 

The heavy copper door opens with a loud “clunk” of Gawie’s purpose-made sliding bolt and inside I am greeted by a pool of light from the skylight that accentuates the round grindstone embedded in the floor. This time the house is quiet and the sound of my footsteps that move from the cement floor to a yellowwood platform come to a halt as I take in the full volume of the living room and the view beyond the storey-high sliding glass doors. (Later Gawie explains that he consciously used material, sound and texture to articulate the spatial experience of entering the house – it sucks you in like a funnel and delivers you to the other side, into a vast, light-filled living room.) To my right lie the kitchen and the dining room that opens up to a sheltered courtyard where one could previously enjoy a beautiful view of Lion’s Head, an aspect now hidden by a new house. To the left is a set of yellowwood stairs that lead to the first floor and the 18m-long living room with the fireplace that lends the house its name (“es” is the Afrikaans word for hearth).

Around the dining-room table I ask where the idea for the design started. Gawie hesitates for a moment but Gwen is quick to answer: “He drew it just like this. Sometimes he just gets the idea for a design – just like that, done and dusted. He is a genius this man; he might not look it, but he is.”

Gawie picks up from her: “What is important is to have the courage to stick to that first sketch.” He explains how the chimney, when drawn to scale from the sketch, came out much bigger than anticipated, “but then you have to go back to that original instinct and trust that it is the right thing to do.” 

In 1964 the Fagans moved from Pretoria to Cape Town so that Gawie, who at the time worked as an in-house architect for Volkskas Bank, could start his own practice. They bought the site in Camps Bay, which Gwen describes as being a “little seaside village” at the time and started to construct the house in 1965. Money was in short supply and the whole family had to pitch in. Even their four children – Henry, a structural engineer today who runs a practice next to his father’s office and has often worked with him on projects, Helena, Jessie and Alida – all had to help out after school and over weekends. “Money was tight and we decided to sell our little car to buy a second-hand cement mixer to speed up the construction of the house,” Gwen remembers.

The Fagans also moved into the downstairs living area when the first floor slab was cast. “While we were building we lived in a nearby flat but it was tiny and very uncomfortable,” Gawie says. “We moved in before the house was finished… of course this is strictly speaking illegal but luckily the building inspector was a kind man.”

The shuttering for that first floor slab was scraped clean by the girls and used to create the unusual and visionary wavy roof construction. Gawie fetches a 1:1 scale mock-up section of the roof, to show me how it works. The custom-sawed planks (about 100 mm deep) were pivoted over a central beam, which runs the length of the house to create the wave. The planks were then glued and nailed together. “The problem is that we now had little steps in the wood on top of the roof and couldn’t apply the waterproofing over the steps,” Gawie explains. “So I hired a floor sander and walked over the roof to sand it down.” He then mixed the sawdust and good wood glue together, and used this as plaster across the roof. To prepare the surface for waterproofing, he sanded this layer to expose some wood and then finished the roof with a neoprene waterproofing, a coat of silver and a coat of white paint. “The neoprene waterproofing had a 10-year guarantee… it is now almost 50 years later and the roof is still holding out.”

The roof’s unique construction is truly one of a kind and even the project engineer of the time was sceptical. “The engineer didn’t want to do the roof this way,” Gawie recalls. “He didn’t think it would work and proposed enormous steel reinforcing. When it was done, I invited him over and said: ‘Now you jump on this roof and see if it holds.’ He quickly changed his tune and said he knew it would work all along.” By the time the roof was completed, there was no holding back the children who wanted to move into their rooms. “The children moved in even before there was glass in the big sliding windows,” Gwen laughs. “The wind was so fierce at night that they literally had to tie their bedding down with ropes!”

I ask when the house was finally completed and the Fagans both grin and declare that, in fact, it is still not done. According to Gawie the chimney cowl (that he drew in the first sketch of the house) is still missing, as are the foldaway doors that will separate the kitchen and dining room from the rest of the house.

“My country and my context”

After three years studying engineering at the University of Cape Town, Gawie changed direction and started architecture at the University of Pretoria. Here he was schooled in Modernism under the guidance of Basel South, Hellmut Stauch and John Fassler, some of the leading architects of their time. The work of Norman Eaton, who tried to incorporate the African context into his work, was also a great influence on the young Fagan. Shortly after his studies, Gawie was appointed as in-house architect for the Volkskas banking group and over the next 12 years he designed banks across the country. During this time he was already honing his context-specific approach, with buildings that differed from town to town. “I had to convince them (the Volkskas management),” he explains. “I argued that they were already putting their name on the building in big yellow copper letters and that it would be much friendlier towards the existing context to fit in rather than to reproduce a corporate recipe.”

Gawie also saved several existing buildings already on the various sites by renovating rather than demolishing them. “Gawie has a lot of good old common sense,” says Gwen. “Why would you demolish an existing building that is already there when you can reuse it? He also had a very good sense for economy of means.”

This experience was surely the groundwork for the many restoration projects he would later take on, including De Tuynhuys, the Castle of Good Hope, Boschendal and the Franschhoek farmstead La Dauphine. It was with one of his biggest projects, the restoration of 28 townhouses and several farmhouses after the 1969 earthquake in Tulbagh that Gwen, a training medical doctor, joined the architectural practice as a researcher and later landscape designer.

The original Cape architecture that Gawie came to know intimately during these restoration projects eventually also found application in new projects – not merely as a replication of the style but rather in the application of the principles of simplicity, use of mass for climate control, white limed wall and the use of materials. 

Gwen illustrates Gawie’s approach with an anecdote from a 2008 trip to Boston where Gawie was awarded an honorary fellowship of the American Institute for Architecture (the first architect in Africa to receive this honour). “We drove around the whole day to have a look at the city’s architecture and we ended up having to rush to the ceremony. There the whole conference was decked out in black, and on stage there was Gawie with the 12 other honorary fellows in his corduroys and Wupperthal-vellies that he wears everyday. Only the French guy had a white suit on,” she says. “Each fellow’s work was introduced and the girl asked Gawie: ‘Mr Fagan, what is your attitude towards globalisation in architecture and how do you approach it in your office?’ Gawie’s reply? ‘I stopped all my subscriptions to international architecture magazines a long time ago. I do what is relevant to my country and my context.'”

“Die Es” is a telling example of a house that has a true feel of the Cape and uses various strategies to deal with the Cape climate. The house turns its back on the fierce southeasterly, while thick floor slabs and stone tiles work as heat sinks, to store the heat of the day and release it during the cooler nights. Sun shields keep the worst of the direct sun out of the house and although the house is not limed, it bears the same white walls of most original Cape buildings.

A true craftsman

Although Gawie’s buildings are sensitive to the greater context, each is also a well-crafted artwork in itself, particularly when it comes to material use, construction details and finishes.“Both my parents encouraged us to do things for ourselves,” Gawie recalls. “Growing up, I must have had a toolset with hammer and saw.” 

As a boy, he built himself a paddleboat over the course of a year. “His aunt Erika told me how she praised Gawie for the beautiful boat but felt that it was such a shame he had outgrown it by the time it was finished,” Gwen says. “But Gawie’s response was that the best part had been the making of it.”

Most of the built-in furniture, doors and handles in his home were made by Gawie himself, including the hat hooks in the lobby that fit exactly between the rectangular blue tiles. He had the various round blue glass lights that appear throughout the house made from Japanese fishing floats. “Initially the glass balls broke when you cut the hole for the light fitting. The guy that was doing it for me wanted to throw in the towel,” he explains. “But I told him there must be a way to do it. I then drilled a hole and filled the ball with water so that when the round piece was cut out, it sank harmlessly in the water instead of crashing into the bottom and breaking the glass.

“If you are not in a hurry and you work for yourself, then doing things like this is a pleasure,” he says.

Gwen and Gawie, who are both in their 80s, still have no shortage of creativity and ideas. When I ask if they ever think of retiring, the couple just laugh. “Why would we?” they ask. “It doesn’t make any sense because we just love our work.” 

Gabriel Fagan, 021 424 2470, 156 Bree Street, Cape Town