Modernist Parktown North Home

WORDS Graham Wood IMAGES Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes

A gem of Joburg Modernist design, architect Michael Sutton’s own Parktown North home created the template for a new local vernacular in the ’70s, and might just have envisioned a lifestyle for the post-COVID 21st century.

Houses designed by the Mid-century architect Michael Sutton inspire a rare devotion among Johannesburg design lovers. And so it was for Marilyn McDowell, who lives in a house that has a special place in Joburg design lore: the cluster or “compound”, as she jokingly calls it, in Parktown North where Sutton himself lived, and built a house for his sister, the landscaper Ann Sutton.

“I have had a complete passion for Michael Sutton’s homes since I was in my 20s,” says Marilyn, a one-time interior designer. It wasn’t until her 40s, however, that she managed to bag one, and she’s lived in it for over 30 years. “He had such an amazing understanding of space,” she says. “He was a visionary.”

Those who know their Joburg architectural history will be aware that Sutton was a key figure in the invention of the modern Joburg style that was forged in the second half of the 20th century. He helped lay the template for the city’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle, reconfiguring the relationship between house, patio and pool. Via his inventive combinations of Mediterranean, Zimbabwean and Cape regional influences, his homes created atmosphere using simple, natural materials – bagged brick, timber, quarry tile and brick paving. And as if that wasn’t enough, Sutton also pioneered sectional title living with his designs for Courtyards and Walkways in Craighall, both of which are models of urban densification as inspiring today as they were 40 years ago.

In his wonderful tome, Johannesburg Transition, the great historian of Joburg architecture Clive Chipkin argues that the roots of many of Sutton’s grander designs, as well as those highly covetable townhouses, lie in this little cluster of buildings in Parktown North built in 1973.

He ends his description of the complex with these words: “A new modern vernacular had arisen and the Suttons – brother and sister – were at the source of this creativity.” From the street, all you see of the complex is a typical early 20th century Parktown North semi-detached house, now converted into a single home. At the very back of the property, however, is what was Ann Sutton’s house, and between them what is now a studio, which was where Michael lived.

Marilyn converted Michael’s dwelling – “It was a courtyard with a bathroom, bedroom and kitchen … a minimal but soulful space,” she says – into a studio, raising a contemporary light-flooded volume above the original footprint. Remarkably, she managed to get Sutton to design it, despite the fact that he had been living on a Greek island. “I was lucky he was in South Africa, and he came to have a look,” she says. “I didn’t want to build something that was out of sync with what was here already.”

Between Ann’s house and the studio is an internal courtyard and swimming pool. “But they’re completely separate and private from each other because of the way the trees have been planted and the gardens have been designed,” says Marilyn. Clever level changes in the landscaping add to the effect. “You’d never know it’s in the city,” she adds.

The house and studio have all the classic Sutton touches: roughly plastered walls, warm quarry-tile floors, glass sliding doors and slatted timber screens to filter the light. The gardens, courtyards and interiors interlock and overlap brilliantly. In fact, the interiors are almost like landscapes themselves, with multiple levels and changes in volume. The architecture also transforms into a kind of furniture – there are ledges you can sit on, benches and counters that seem to rise out of the walls, floors and stairs, and display shelves built into the walls and beneath the counters.

Light is choreographed with a sense of mystery and magic as unexpected washes and bursts flood in through skylights and other hidden windows. “At night, if the full moon comes across, I don’t need to put a light on,” says Marilyn.

Over decades of living here, she says she feels another aspect of the Suttons’ way of life might yet come to light, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people’s working and home lives have been rudely thrown together, there are very few genuinely viable work-from-home solutions. Could the Suttons’ multifunctional sanctuary have laid the template for a productive future space that is peaceful, harmonious and sustaining? For Marilyn, it very much has.