Wild imaginings

PHOTOS: Lien Botha & Dirk Kleinschmidt | PRODUCTION: Sumien Brink | WORDS: Sam Woulidge

When a chef with a dream, an artist with a vision and an architect with a passionate practicality embark on a project, you can be sure that it will be as impressive as it is creative.

It sounds as if there should be a punch line in here somewhere… “What do you get when you cross a chef, an artist and an architect?” But this is no joke. Casparus – a restaurant in a reinvented historic building in Stellenbosch – is an artistic and architectural marvel, the brainchild of three remarkable visionaries.

Etienne Bonthuys is a celebrated chef. His reputation for creating culinary magic is firmly established and his passion for design well documented. But he has taken things a step further with the opening of his restaurant Casparus. Here he has established himself as an innovator with a bold respect for art, aesthetics and architecture. He has encouraged land artist, Strijdom van der Merwe and architect, Johann Slee to reimagine an old building, to push boundaries, to be even more creative and to pay tribute to nature in a sophisticated, authentic way.

Casparus is a building unlike any other. It is primarily a work of art. The original façade remains untouched, but the inside has been opened up. The foyer, showcasing Strijdom’s installations and projects, is the entry point for a large cavernous space. Here, a narrow kitchen is hidden only by moveable screens imprinted with examples of Strijdom’s work and, against one of the few permanent walls, films of Strijdom’s transient land art are projected. The cement floors have wooden inlays; on one side of the space is a wall on wheels, featuring metal and red-and-blue shards with the appearance of glass, and on the other side is an open wall, with optional shades that can be brought down in case of inclement weather.

Mostly the restaurant appears to be open; part of the garden. In a strange way it feels as if you are deep within a tree, among its roots, looking out at the green leafiness, blue sky and wooden branches around and above you. Exposed as you are, you feel the slight breeze, the hot sun, the cool night air. A distinctive wooden crisscross installation, typical of Strijdom’s work, reaches up into the sky.

A work in progress

This is a building that remains a work in progress. Not because it is unfinished, but because it is not meant to be completed. Not ever. Johann explains: “Etienne insisted that the land-art building be transient; that the building be dynamic, growing with creative solutions to manage seasonal changes.”

Strijdom says Etienne was adamant about a building that continually evolved, in exactly the same way his own art does. “He wanted a building that could change from one week to the next; where walls could move and the seating etcetera could move from one place in the building to another. Initially I was focused on designing a restaurant, but Etienne would remind me that we were primarily creating an experience, where you could, by happy coincidence, find an amazing plate of food. Etienne must get the credit for having such an open, creative mind. But what with my being an artist and Etienne being a chef/artist, we were not always very practical and that was when Johann gave his much needed practically creative input.”

According to Johann (the uncontested practical one), “The building of Casparus followed the exact route one takes when creating a work of art. This was a symbiotic intertwining of creative thought and ideas between Etienne and Strijdom and I entered occasionally to weave a building into the work of art. We respect one another’s work and could each contribute in our areas of expertise. It was interesting to see the creative process developing. My work, the building shell, needed to be subservient to the artwork; in the background all the time.”

But as much as the building has been reinvented, it still stands as an example of architecture circa the 1800s. Strijdom credits Johann for dealing with the challenges encountered when working with a historical building. “Johann faced the various councils and had to plead our case and assure them that we wanted to embrace and honour the history of the building; that we salute historical Stellenbosch as the photographs and artistic installations in the foyer indicate.”

Says Johann: “We decided not to tamper with the original 1800s structure, as we felt that it was fulfilling its rightful place in the historical layering of Dorp Street. We concentrated on the insensitive 1972 and 1980s structures at the back, but keeping the existing foundations so as not to disturb this archeologically-sensitive site any more than was necessary.”

And what does Etienne think of all this? He is serenely happy, he smiles when he refers to the structures he particularly likes, he loves that the structure is vulnerable to the elements. That the rain may seep in, that heaters may be needed to guard against the winter cold. He shrugs, not-so-secretly thrilled. “This is freedom. The freedom to create.”  

More information: Casparus, 59 Dorp Street, Stellenbosch, 021 882 8124