The Influencers’ Influencer: Anthony Orelowitz

WORDS Graham Wood

Ever wondered who inspired our current generation of architects? Anthony Orelowitz, a founding director of Paragon Architects, counts encounters with sculptures among some of the most moving and influential moments in forming his sensibility.

It starts to make sense that some of architect Anthony Orelowitz’s most profound experiences of “form in space”, a phrase he uses often, were sculptures, when you consider the corporate buildings his firm Paragon Architects is known for. From early breakthroughs (for the firm, and the Sandton skyline) like 15 Alice Lane, to landmarks such as Sasol Place, Alexander Forbes and 140 West Street, he’s added strong, sculptural forms to Joburg’s richest square mile. They’re often large and powerful, and they command the space around them. 

Anthony Orelowitz is a founding director of Paragon Architects.
Anthony is a founding director of Paragon Architects.

To take half a step back, though, he knew he wanted to be an architect when his parents built a house when he was just six or seven years old. He remembers that the architect was Michael Challis, a significant figure in local architecture in his time. “In those days, it was quite a beautiful house,” says Anthony. “Even at that age, I could understand what the architect had done spatially, and it stuck with me. “From [then on], I wanted to do nothing else.”

READ MORE: Johannesburg Home Designed by Anthony Orelowitz

(The late architectural historian Clive Chipkin lavishes significant attention on Challis’s own house, which he notes was “engaged with the landscape [and] responsive to the site”. He also comments on its “strong regional factor” – all of which is interesting when considering the house Anthony designed for himself recently. But more on that later.) 

The next part of Anthony’s “greater education” came not from a direct architectural influence, but from attending art classes with the famed Bill Ainslie, starting at just 11 or 12. Ainslie was a dynamic and influential artistic force on the local art scene from the 1960s until the 1980s, not only as an artist himself and a teacher, but as a pioneer of radically democratic multiracial art collectives, from the Johannesburg Art Foundation to the Federated Union of Black Artists and the Alexandra Arts Centre. He was closely associated with the likes of Dumile Feni and David Koloane, with whom he established the groundbreaking (and internationally replicated) Thupelo workshops, which eventually led to the establishment of the Bag Factory in Newtown. His early art classes, Anthony remembers, “were very innovative”. At the age of 13 or 14, they taught him to weld when he showed an interest, so that he could create metal sculptures. 

READ MORE: Barloworld Equipment’s Headquarters Designed by Paragon Architects

Later, as an architecture student travelling to Rome for the first time, he suddenly found himself among the buildings and streets he’d replicated so often in drawings. Their transformation from “two-dimensional plane into three-dimensional experience” was incredibly powerful for him. Nevertheless, he was perhaps most impressed by some of the sculptures he encountered in the city, especially Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne

“I just thought, this is the most beautiful piece of art I have ever seen in my life,” he says.  Around the same time, he counts visiting Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion as “definitive” in its impact. He found the way in which Mies had created form and space through the simplicity of plane and texture – the combination of the absolute rationality of the design and the “simple richness of the material” – hugely inspirational. 

Much later, in his 30s, an encounter with a sculpture of a different kind – which was also about a stripped-down experience of material and space – profoundly affected his spatial sensibilities. He went to the Guggenheim Bilbao. “I didn’t like the building,” he says (he’s not much of a Frank Gehry fan), but inside were American sculptor Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses – gigantic, steel cone-like forms with tilting walls that you walk through, and that seem to bend space as you move through them. They brought home the emotional dimension of “a human form moving through space”. The kinetic engagement with the form, Anthony says, counts as “one of the most amazing and moving experiences I’ve ever had… You have these epiphanies right through your life.” 

Although the “experiential journey” is often underplayed inside Paragon’s corporate buildings, a walk through the atriums of Alexander Forbes in Sandton should be enough to convince you of Anthony’s sensitivity to the dynamics of space. And it is something that has become even more emphatic in his recent work. 

Barloworld Equipment’s headquarters and showroom in Isando is one of Anthony’s favourite recent projects.
Barloworld Equipment’s headquarters and showroom in Isando is one of Anthony’s favourite recent projects.

Take, for example, one of his recent favourite projects, Barloworld Equipment’s headquarters in Isando – an incredible, bubble-shaped showroom for earth-moving equipment, featured in VISI 117. It might be one of Paragon’s smaller projects, but its curving shape, which allows the building to reveal itself dynamically along a journey rather than all at once, bears more than a little of this direction in Anthony’s approach. 

The experience of designing his own house (which was featured on the cover of VISI 118) after concentrating on corporate buildings for decades also prompted a shift in Anthony’s work, igniting a fascination with the detail and intricacy of smaller projects. 

The architect who inspired him most in the design of his home was the Brazilian Marcio Kogan. “For me, he is the greatest house designer of our age,” says Anthony. Kogan’s work prompted him to consider how the building would engage with its environment (perhaps taking him full circle to his formative encounter with Challis) and, once again, how the simple deployment of materiality could generate emotion. “I wanted to create a space that evoked a sense of calm and peace,” he says. 

He refers to the design of his home as a matrix of pavilions and lush planted atriums that allow the whole panhandle plot to flow through the house and extend to its outer edges. He describes it as “pushing through space” – taking plane, volume and space, and a simple palette of rich materials, to “turn it into reality”. 

Given the changing corporate and economic climate, and Anthony’s newfound fascination with the kind of space-making that concentrates on volume rather than form, you can’t help but think there’s more of this to come. But, as the architect points out, the profundity of the emotional experience of form in space remains the golden thread that runs through his work. 

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