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Gandhi’s one-time Joburg bungalow is now an elegant space for contemplative urban breaks…

Text and styling Jenny Andrew Photographs Elsa Young

There’s no need to travel all the way to India to submerge yourself in the spirit of Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi when, in the midst of suburban Joburg, the newly opened Satyagraha House provides the perfect retreat. The space – part guesthouse, part museum – exudes a refreshingly unexpected serenity and the overwhelming sense of calm contemplation makes this destination a must for anyone wanting a break from the fast pace of urban life.

The Indian spiritual leader, humanist and political reformer spent 20 years in South Africa, arriving as a young lawyer in 1893. He dedicated himself to the advancement of Indian civil rights and faced imprisonment for his enduring philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or passive resistance. From 1908 to 1909, Gandhi lived in the house named The Kraal that his friend, German architect Hermann Kallenbach, had designed and built in Orchards, before moving to the 1 000-acre Tolstoy Farm that Kallenbach donated to him.

When the Orchards property came on to the market, French company Voyageurs du Monde, which specialises in exotic travel destinations all over the world, couldn’t resist adding the location to their portfolio, and Satyagraha House was established. After extensive restoration, the original bungalow has been turned into a museum dedicated to Gandhi and his philosophy, and the heritage-listed site was converted into a guesthouse. Guest rooms have been added with a strict adherence to Gandhi’s principles of austerity and restraint, resulting in a meditative space.

The sparse but sensitive design by Joburg architect Rocco Bosman has added a fresh new dimension to the project. Adhering to Kallenbach’s original design approach, Rocco kept all the additional buildings separate from each other, just as the original rondavels had no interleading doors to the kitchen and dining areas. The contrast between the old and the new is intriguing. The additional buildings have been added, Bosman explains, ‘in accordance with the heritage principles of leaving history easily readable, with new work being contemporary to the times the addition was built’.

Former Marie Claire Maison stylist Christine Puech and her colleague at Voyageurs du Monde, Amit Zadok, have created interiors that are equally minimal. Natural cotton is reminiscent of Gandhi’s ‘homespun’ movement, where he believed the spinning wheel was the hope of the masses and the centre of village life. These white cottons complement the furniture that is both made locally and sourced from India. Charpoys, or Indian beds, are used as additional seating and day beds, and curtains are made out of cotton dhotis which Gandhi adopted as his dress on his return to India. Of particular interest are the large, free-form, white cotton hanging lamps that were commissioned by Puech and Zadok. Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort’s Parisian protégé, Mark Schooley, came out to construct the cotton khadi and wire-frame lights on site.

The pared-down simplicity of the monochromatic scheme is deliberately without the distraction of colour and is particularly conducive to meditation. Gandhi memorabilia is found throughout the guesthouse, and the black umbrellas similar to those used by Gandhi in the monsoon punctuate the decor in every room.

Guests can expect to be immersed in the experience that Satyagraha House embodies. No alcohol is allowed and only vegetarian food is served. Yoga masters are on call to provide a one- on-one yoga session in the meditation garden. Being a Wi-Fi-free area, the guesthouse encourages calm reflection and relaxation.

Satyagraha House, 15 Pine Rd, Orchards, Johannesburg. For guesthouse enquiries contact Didier Bayeye, 082-673-5671, satyagrahahouse.com; Voyageurs du Monde, vdm.com; Rocco Bosman, RBA and H Architects, roccob@rbaandh.co.za.

Q&A with Architect Rocco Bosman

What’s your favourite piece of design advice? Less is not always more. What, in your opinion, is the worst design blunder? Evidence of a struggle. Of which design are you most proud? The headquarters I designed for the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. And the most exciting project you’ve worked on? Satyagraha House – a completely multifaceted experience ranging from interpreting the philosophy of Gandhi to working with exceptionally well-adjusted French designers, not to mention attending meetings in Paris! What inspires you? A bottle of good wine. What do you love most about summer in Joburg? Cold, rainy nights. What do holidays mean to you? A holiday is a state of mind, but a change of scenery should not be underestimated. And how will you be spending the summer holidays this year? Celebrating in Cape Town with all my friends from Joburg.

This article was originally featured in the December 2011 issue of House and Leisure.