A large galvanised-steel electricity pylon imposes itself on the ‘messy’ but remarkable view from artist Roelof Petrus van Wyk’s Parktown West house overlooking Auckland Park and Melville. He loves the untidiness of it. In fact, this remarkable steel-and-glass house is in many ways directly inspired by the city’s urban-industrial materials and geometry, and nothing so much as that pylon. ‘The idea for the design of the house is a pylon that fell over,’ says Roelof. ‘It is a bit like a sculpture that I live in.’
The house is 42 metres long and just five metres wide. Its functional materials – steel, glass and corrugated iron – are reminiscent of its urban context and the industrial roots of Joburg’s architecture. ‘I wanted to reflect Johannesburg without sentiment or nostalgia,’ says Roelof. ‘I wanted to make a building that is home to Johannesburg and could only belong here.’
The architectural dialogue between his house and the city is sustained throughout the design, down to the details. Roelof originally qualified as an architect and studied with Karlien Thomashoff, who designed The Last Glass House, as they named it, at university. The shape of the house evolved with a ‘push-pull’ design conversation between the two that lasted two years and which helps to explain how comprehensively the ideas that inform the design are explored.
The brightly coloured windows, quite like the famous Eames Case Study House #8 in Los Angeles, are a homage to the colours used in the high-rises of 1960s and 1970s Braamfontein and Hillbrow. Roelof says its sunset colours tend towards an African De Stijl. Details such as the airbricks used to create the sunscreen around the granny flat were common in mid-century Joburg houses. The front wall, reminiscent of a dry-stacked slate wall, is made with precast Vibracrete panels. Banal materials playfully reinterpreted make for an unsentimental relationship with the past and make a profound point about cultural and material transformations.
The ‘as-found’ aesthetic continues in the shipping containers used for two outbuildings – the granny flat and guest suite. Back in the 1990s, before it became fashionable, Roelof wrote a thesis on building with shipping containers. ‘The idea is to articulate the nature of the container, not treat it like a dumb object,’ says Roelof. So in the guest room, for example, rather than using the container door as it is, Roelof and Karlien created a little covered balcony. Similarly, the two six-metre containers that make this room are set slightly apart. This approach makes each container unit a little more porous and playful but, at the same time, more expressive and humane, and the spaces around it more liveable.
As much as the house is aesthetically rooted in its context, its orientation and passive design mean it is completely of its place in response to its site and the climate. It is designed to allow in the low winter sun, warming the slate tiles which release warmth into the night. In summer, the sun just skims the window line and cross ventilation does the cooling. The house might be inspired by an Eskom pylon but it is off the grid: its electricity is generated by the sun and gigantic tanks store enough water to last the winter. ‘The structure of the roof is a gutter,’ says Roelof, its functionality not preventing an asymmetrical butterfly-shaped flourish.
Inside, the long narrow building is more or less a single, open-plan space telescoping towards the view. With the kitchen at one end and the studio at the other, living spaces, work spaces and the bedroom are spread out, cleverly using the changes in level rather than walls to create privacy and a sense that there are distinct areas.
Even inside, Roelof has played with the language of functional design rooted in the history of the city: exposed plumbing and mining lights in the bathrooms, altered concrete storm-water drains as plinths for the basins and a screen for services in the kitchen. Functional design becomes culture, and through such aesthetic reinterpretations, transforms culture yet again.
Roelof’s furnishings mix vintage and contemporary local design. ‘I’m not so much interested in style as form and non-homogeneity,’ he says. So mid-century pieces picked up in second-hand shops rub shoulders with pieces by Dokter and Misses or Tonic Design – themselves expressions of local modernist-derived design.
Roelof’s art collection continues his interest in culture and context. Some are stored and some displayed, so they make an ever-changing exercise in curatorship. At the moment, some works from his own series of portraits, ‘Jong Afrikaners’, are combined with works by the likes of Anton Kannemeyer, Wim Botha, Nico Krijno and Wayne Barker, all in their ways questioning culture and identity while forging new ones, just as this house does architecturally. It is indeed an inhabited sculpture. thomashoffstudio.co.za
Originally published in HL September 2016.