houses, Indoor / Outdoor

Modern Storey

Elsa Young


The idea of renovating a dream house seems paradoxical. If it is already your dream house how could you improve it? The answer in Gert and Leonie Steyn’s case was quite simple. Their dream home was a 1950s modernist gem in Gezina, Pretoria, set high on a rocky ridge, peeping through the treetops, but soon enough it needed a bit of maintenance. Historical houses, even modern ones, take a bit of looking after. After consulting with Inge Wilkinson of Solo Architect, who has an interest in Pretoria’s unique brand of modernism, Gert and Leonie realised they could make it more itself: closer to the original architect’s dream, too.

Although they are only the home’s third owners and much of it had been well preserved, some changes had been made along the way. It was a classic mid-century white box raised on slim stilts, built in 1958 and designed by Johan De Ridder, a well-known Pretoria architect, famous for, among other things, building about 35 churches, some quite radical.

Here, crisp horizontal lines and wall-to-wall windows let the spectacular view into the thoughtfully configured spaces inside.

It has an innovative butterfly roof with a box gutter running inside the ceiling along the spine of the house, which creates an interesting play of volumes. ‘Wherever you walk, you’re aware of the scale,’ explains Inge. ‘There is a very definite, low, human scale in the centre, which opens up as you step outwards, compelling you to engage with the view.’

The built-in bookcase is an original architectural detail that inspired the new bar downstairs. The butterfly ceiling rises from the intimate, low space in the centre of the house to emphasise the high windows and the view. Lights are concealed in the gap between the two. The sofa is from Weylandts (weylandts.co.za). The built-in bookcase is an original architectural detail that inspired the new bar downstairs. The butterfly ceiling rises from the intimate, low space in the centre of the house to emphasise the high windows and the view. Lights are concealed in the gap between the two. The sofa is from Weylandts (weylandts.co.za).

Inge immediately noticed that a section underneath the structure had been bricked in, which detracted from its light, floating quality. Also, over time, little bits and pieces had barnacled their way onto the building: burglar bars, film on the glass, ceiling panels over an unusual gauze ventilation system. Inside, floors had been tiled and parquet carpeted.

Leonie and Gert had Johan’s original architectural sketches, however. ‘It’s a beautiful set of drawings and from that we could see what the original intention was,’ says Inge. So they set about stripping away the debris that had accumulated. ‘Rather than add, we took away,’ she says. Where they did make adaptations they went to great lengths to keep them in the spirit of the original design.

The biggest change involved opening up the downstairs entertainment area by introducing stackable wooden doors so that it could be free flowing again. The only other modifications were to the bathrooms, which were modernised, a little alteration to the kitchen and scullery, and tweaking the entrance security. In that, Inge was very careful to design a delicate pattern that picked up on the subtle vertical grain of the more emphatically horizontal house and, as she points out: ‘Now it seems more crisp and distinct. Even from further away the house seems to stand out more.’

owner Leonie Steyn in front of the fireplace. Throughout the house an eclectic combination of classic mid-century furniture designs have been combined with inherited pieces. Owner Leonie Steyn in front of the fireplace. Throughout the house an eclectic combination of classic mid-century furniture designs have been combined with inherited pieces.

They paid careful attention to the interior finishings and worked diligently to replace inappropriate updates with materials reminiscent of the originals. The black-and-white marble tiles in the kitchen and passage, a previous attempt to add a contemporary touch, already looked dated and out of place. Instead they put down reclaimed parquet in the passage to match the living area. In the kitchen they used black vinyl flooring, a close match to the original linoleum, and white in the bathrooms.

One of the most powerful cues was tiling on the fireplace in the living room. ‘The fireplace had a very interesting tile finish from Dykor Tile Centre,’ says Inge. Dykor was a renowned and long-running local tiling business. Inge was keen on replicating the finish on the fireplace downstairs ‘but Dykor Tile Centre closed its doors years ago’, she says. They eventually matched it with a mosaic finish. A blue mosaic finish in the downstairs bathroom, also from Dykor, was meticulously preserved.

Inge and the Steyns may have taken the ‘nova’ out of ‘renovation’ but modernist architecture has become paradox of sorts: modernism is now historical and in staying true to the spirit and the materials of this remarkable home they have at once recaptured what made it so modern and made it more historically authentic. Inge Wilkinson, Solo Architect, 084-567-5068

Originally published HL June 2015