city, houses

Urban Viewpoint


Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young

The most famous view of the Johannesburg skyline belongs to Sarah Calburn. For an architect who is both dedicated to and infuriated by this city, it is fitting that Jo’burg’s most iconic image has become an extension of her home.

‘I see one of my more crucial roles as an architect as engaging with the city,’ she says. She’s sharp, funny and outspoken – well known, among other things, for pinning a pink box on top of a Parkhurst house to create Jozi’s Paul Smith store. (She considers it an attempt to take on the shopping culture of this city at its own game, and perhaps transform it. You see: playful, but intellectually serious.) Part of Sarah’s reason for living where she does, on the outskirts of Kensington, is to keep in touch with the reality of the city. ‘Living here forces me to drive through Hillbrow every day,’ she says.

‘It reminds me that this is my city.’ The first time she walked into this house it looked vastly different from the way it does now, but she immediately knew that she wanted to live here. On that occasion, she was doing a renovation for its then owner. Later she had the opportunity to buy the house, and seized it. That was 10 years ago. She has since renovated it again, the latest change was completed six months ago.

The first two renovations coincided with the births of her children, Cleo and Jack. ‘The thing about this house is that it has a very powerful garden,’ says Sarah.

‘Renovating it involved getting the inside spaces in tune with the garden.’ She opened up the ‘divided apartheid space’ of the house so that rooms now connect and flow, and extended it to make the colourful cubes that are her children’s rooms. ‘I tried to frame the exterior as a picture,’ she says. ‘The views are as important as the art inside. When you have a view, your thoughts go into the future. Your thinking can roll out over that view.’

But she takes this philosophy further: ‘Architecture frames your point of view and, in the process, makes you. I believe that the quality of a space affects your state of mind.’ Sarah sees art as a dynamic part of architecture. (She believes it is wrong to ban graffiti, because doing so limits people’s interactions with their architectural environments.) In her view art plays a creative role in our experience of space. She doesn’t collect it in any methodical or premeditated way. ‘I have collected mostly my friends’ work. My art collection is like a diagram of my friends, relations and relationships,’ she says.

Beyond that, you could say her artworks are mostly by young South African artists. She hangs them where she likes – ‘a dynamic dispersion’ – and doesn’t regard them as part of a fixed arrangement, but rather as an ongoing interaction between art and architecture. She muses, however, that her collection does have some unifying themes. ‘I suppose it all has to do with reconstruction,’ she says.

‘My favourite works all make something new out of something we have at our disposal.’ Gerhard Marx takes maps and turns them into alternative realities. Lyndi Sales cuts intricate, fragile patterns from Lotto tickets, money and safety cards found in planes. Joanne Bloch takes mass- produced plastic toys and arranges them in a way that they become part of something else.

Jiggs Thorne takes soapstone, a traditional medium, and makes unmistakable pop references.

‘It is all about recasting ourselves, which is what we have to do.’ And it’s what Sarah aims to do, too. Outside, the skyline reminds her of the city she works to recast. Framing it all – the personal and the political, art and life, work and home and Sarah’s beloved city combined – is the art of architecture. A point of view reinvented.

SARAH’S HOME TRUTHS

  • I love being in contact with the city every day. Jo’burg pulls the carpet out from beneath you at every turn. It’s a dynamic, historical city.
  • My favourite part of the house is the view – it’s my room.
  • When it comes to living with art, there are no rules. I’m allergic to rules. I believe in architecture, not decoration.
  • Buildings are in conversation with humans all the time. They are sensitive to the moment. Any place is inspiring when it has a potent sense of itself.
  • Style is the least of my worries. The best definition of style I’ve ever read was written by the closest thing I have to a hero, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: ‘Style is a linked series of postures.’
  • I couldn’t go a day without work.
  • I buy everything impulsively; it’s not a rational affair. There’s a good chance I might hate what I’ve bought by the time I get home.
  • On my CD player is Bvuma-Tolerance by Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi. I don’t have one most treasured artwork; I don’t see my artworks as isolated objects.
  • My hidden talent is writing poetry.