Sometimes, an unlikely pairing of architecture and locale can produce a deeply satisfying and enduring outcome. Set high on a mountain slope above the Paarl vineyards in the Western Cape is a landmark house designed by German-born architect Pius Pahl, a former student of the legendary Mies van der Rohe of the Bauhaus school of design. One of the most significant international movements of the past century, Bauhaus was characterised by a marriage of aesthetics and strict functionality. This house therefore has an unusual pedigree of some heft, and is a distinctively 20th-century creation in a solidly historical 17th-century setting.
In the 1970s, the original owner commissioned Pius, by then a resident of Stellenbosch, to design a home. The architect spent a year on site drawing up his plans, analysing everything from the prevailing winds to the aspect of the winter sun. He believed that the best structures result from ‘adaptations to local climate, lifestyle and available technology’.
Some 40 years later, the house still looks and feels just right. That it does so is the result of informed attention to detail – and a real love for the property. When it came on the market in 2003, architectural historian Dicey du Toit visited it with her engineer husband, Thom, who immediately appreciated its clean-lined structure (‘Does the roof leak?’ was his only concern.) Dicey was less convinced: she favoured the older, more traditional style of the winelands werwe dwellings that she knew so intimately. But she was won over, and the couple moved in with their young children, Magdaleen (now 17) and Duan (now 14).
At first they did little to the property, apart from replacing the heavy curtains at the patio-facing glass doors with wooden shutters and replanting the garden. A year ago, though, Dicey called in her friend, Servaas de Kock from Malherbe Rust Architects in Paarl, to discuss a revamp. While committed to retaining the original footprint, Servaas nevertheless saw ways in which he could transform the spaces, create a visual linking of the characteristic Bauhaus ‘box’ sections, and achieve a powerful indoor-outdoor flow. Working with him, Dicey became as well versed in Bauhaus principles as she was in the Cape Dutch vernacular.
When determining what each family member wanted from the house, says Dicey, they found they ‘all wanted a place where we could listen to our music and somewhere comfortable to read’. This ‘template of purpose’, says Servaas, was a useful discipline: by checking every proposed step against it, he could ensure that the house did not become a haphazard assortment of undefined areas.
The living areas ‘between the boxes’ are flexible, generously proportioned spaces, accented in wood and glass, with bagged walls and flagstone flooring. The large central living room, with a glassed courtyard at the rear and huge glass doors at the front, is comfortably contemporary. A long passage links four bedrooms and bathrooms, and doubles as another relaxation area, which opens into the garden through magnificent wood-shuttered screen doors. This is where the family gathers on sofas for a recap of their day’s activities. The bedrooms, notes Dicey, are relatively small – but, in the modernist style, are adequate for their purpose. ‘It encourages us to use the other areas of the house for living in.’
When all the glass interior and exterior doors are opened up, the sections lose their boxy separateness and the house becomes ‘a giant empty frame, at one with nature’. The garden is now the focal point throughout the house, as, ‘framed’ in glass doors and windows, it essentially takes the place of artworks, says Dicey.
When Dicey and Servaas talk about this house, you can’t help but share their enthusiasm – there’s something stirring about a superb example of an architectural ethos that fits into its setting with such respectful aplomb. It’s a convincing illustration of how mutually complementary the partnership of timeless design and a sympathetic context can be. Pius would be proud.
Malberbe Rust Architects, mrarchitects.co.za; Dicey du Toit, DC Heritage Consulting,
This article was originally featured in the November 2012 issue of House and Leisure.