The Influencers’ Influences: Gillian Holl

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS

Ever wondered who inspired our current generation of architects? For Gillian Holl, the founder of Veld Architects, the pure form of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel and the monumentality of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família have both informed her sustainability-centred approach to design.

If Gillian Holl’s parents had had their way, their daughter would have become an optometrist. “But all I kept thinking about was designing creative frames,” she says from her office at Veld Architects’ HQ in Lanseria. “I grew up in the platteland, and wasn’t really exposed to many professions. It’s only when I went to write an aptitude test at RAU and chatted to people there that I realised architecture could be an option. Life happened to me.”

Gillian Holl portrait

The only child of a mining engineer and a teacher, Gillian moved around a lot as a child due to her father’s job, but always lived in relatively rural towns across the Free State, North West and Gauteng. “My childhood was very grounded in nature,” says Gillian. “We hiked a lot and visited many game reserves. We also had family with farms in North West, where I’d often visit and help to herd cattle. Nature is still one of the biggest influences in my work today.”

The intersection between culture and architecture is another driving force behind the work that Gillian
does at Veld, which she founded in 2003. It’s an ethos that crystallised in the years following her studies – first, in optometry at the former Rand Afrikaans University; then, in architecture at the University of Pretoria. In London, she worked on social housing for a small architectural firm, then saved up to visit all the great masters’ landmarks, from the Pantheon and the Acropolis to the works of Antoni Gaudí, Le Corbusier and Frank Gehry. “By experiencing life and immersing yourself in different cultures, you learn to understand the importance of context, and buildings’ relationship to that,” says Gillian. “The minimalism of Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion in Barcelona is relevant there; but here, not so much. When I returned to South Africa, I had more of an appreciation for our unique context, and the thing that stood out for me is that we’re more of a community.”

Gillian describes her design approach as the result of a gradual layering of architectural principles that have resonated with her over the years: the pure, organic form of the Afrikaans Language Monument in Paarl; the masterful use of concrete and light in Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel; the level of detailing in Charles Rennie MacKintosh’s Glasgow School of Art; and the originality and sense of daring of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona. “Gaudí’s work is extraordinary for its time; he wasn’t stuck in convention,” she says. “Sagrada has the playful nature of kids building sandcastles. It’s this monumental building that takes your breath away. And I see nature in that.”

One of the most recent manifestations of Gillian’s divergent influences can be found at Veld’s House Amani, which made the shortlist of the 2022 World Architecture Festival in Lisbon. Set on a farm in Lanseria, the residence is characterised by its raw materiality. Imposing slabs of off-shutter concrete are complemented by feature walls of clay brick, Corten steel, rammed earth and Gabion cages filled with rocks from the site. It’s also a showcase of what sustainable building can be.

“The sustainability of off-shutter concrete in architecture is a controversial issue – but, as is the case with Ronchamp, once the structure is built, it never needs to be painted,” says Gillian. Corten steel was also chosen because the steel alloy has been specifically developed to eliminate the need for painting, and weathers into a rusted patina. The result is a building that embraces its landscape.

House Amani saw Gillian collaborating with a host of artists, craftsmen and artisanal workers, and this human touch is evident at every turn. Bespoke double-glazed stained-glass windows by Cutting Edge Glass project a meditative kaleidoscope of light into the interior; an installation of rocks collected by Gillian and her team from the building site hangs suspended over the dining- room table; and a wall of specially designed breeze blocks by Wolkberg Casting Studios incorporates trelliswork made of repurposed poaching snares by Down to the Wire.

“It makes sense for architecture to unite the arts by creating an umbrella for other craftsmen to exhibit their work and get the opportunity to make a living,” says Gillian. “We have to consider ways in which we can make architecture sustainable not only for the environment, but also for the community around it.

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