In Johannesburg’s leafy Forest Town, a great example of the African Modernist aesthetic of Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes has been lovingly preserved.
A Modernist Classic Home By Pancho Guedes
There are few African architects who don’t count the late Portugal-born, South African-trained artist, sculptor and architect Amâncio d’Alpoim Miranda Guedes – more commonly known as Pancho Guedes – as an important design influence. Guedes’ Coleman House in Forest Town, Johannesburg, is one of a handful of homes designed and built by him in the city, resulting in it being regarded as a treasure of South African Modernist architecture.
The multilevel property was commissioned in 1984 by struggle veterans Audrey and Dr Max Coleman after their youngest son had studied architecture under Guedes’ tenure at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture. Audrey recalls Guedes’ famously stubborn attitude, saying that she and Max had asked him for an earthen retirement house with no stairs to ease the way into their golden years.
What they got instead was a completely white home, ‘with stairs everywhere,’ she says. Laughing, Audrey adds that a friend down the road from their new home asked Guedes, around the same time, for a white house – and their family ended up getting the earthen house that the Colemans wanted. ‘He was very difficult to work with,’ Audrey says of Guedes, ‘but it’s been over 30 years since we finished this white house, and today we think it looks even more modern than the brand-new houses being built down the road. So it was probably worth it.’
The Coleman House, the Cohen House, a pair of semi-detached units in Melville and a small estate in Parktown North remain today as the best preserved South African examples of what Guedes described as his ‘Euclidean Palaces’ – elaborately planned residential spaces that unfold as spatial tributes to the style and principles of Euclid, the ancient Greek philosopher considered the father of geometry.
Inside, Guedes’ Euclidian Palaces are like giant puzzles. For example, a visitor moves through the Colemans’ front door into ovoid terraces, circular portals, impluviate roofs and almost-Cubist chimney turrets that, from the outside, are difficult to connect to one another, but once inside, join together seamlessly.
The painstakingly preserved house remains replete with furniture and fittings designed by architect Pancho Guedes himself.
He built the homeowners a circular twin study table made of pale Japanese maple wood that fills the round niche of the upstairs office; stepped corner bed units; a fantastically graphic drinks cabinet; floating box lights mounted into the home’s corners and above pillars; and a circular Carrara marble and steel dining table that Guedes insisted should be surrounded by black Mackintosh Hill House chairs by Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Even the kitchen and bathroom cabinets were designed and built by Guedes specifically for the house.
Among all the architectural details and furnishings lies the family’s historic collection of South African contemporary art, with important works by Cecil Skotnes, William Kentridge, Jackson Hlungwani and Karel Nel bringing colour to the interiors.
Beadwork, basketry and carvings found during travels around Africa share space with antique oriental rugs, tapestries and pillows that cover the walls, couches and floors en masse, layering their textures, geographies and histories into the home.
From beyond the windows and walls comes the glisten of tropical palm, cycad and silver birch leaves, which soften the feel of the stippled concrete building despite the rigorous order imposed by the Modernist architecture. All the planting is the work of Audrey’s passion for gardening.
‘I wanted a garden that looked like a forest, but I didn’t want that to only happen in hundreds of years, so I specifically chose plants that would grow quickly,’ she says. ‘Now it is completely overgrown, much sooner than I thought, and I am almost too old to walk into it often. But seeing the garden, and this house, still brings us a lot of joy.’
View our video tour of this house by Pancho Guedes: