Travel, Gardens

Second Nature: Architect Peter Rich's Terraced Parktown Garden

Peter and Diane Rich’s Parktown garden is a bold reinvention of a century-old design.

Christoph Hoffmann

There’s a magical street in Parktown where the steep, rocky ridge commands some of Joburg’s most spectacular views. In the early ’70s, renowned architect Peter Rich and his wife Diane bought a property here – a 1918 cottage with a precipitous terraced garden, its stone walls hewn from the neighbouring quarry. ‘What we bought was an Arts and Crafts spec house,’ explains Rich, ‘and we grafted on a whole new wing.’ 

Completed in the mid-1980s, the now double-storey space serves as their home as well as housing Rich’s architectural practice. Looking onto the soaring garden – a mass of summer colour topped by an extraordinary stone folly – this has to be one of the coolest working environments in the city.

The organic aspect of Rich’s work, seen in groundbreaking designs like the Mapungubwe Interpretive Centre in Limpopo’s Mapungubwe National Park, and the Stone House development in Anji, China, has its roots in what he calls ‘African space-making.’ He says, ‘Early on in my studies I learnt that African cultures, particularly the then-rural Ndebele, had a completely different world view on the homestead. They created a forecourt with side courts and then articulated the residual space, and in that way started to build a village.’ Applying this thinking to his own home, Rich’s garden layout connects structures and open spaces in an engaging flow. ‘It was essentially a palimpsest, incorporating the existing terraces and contours and layering them with new spaces, which we’ve grown into over time.’

While Rich is responsible for the garden’s structure, Diane is the plantswoman – a talent she says she inherited from her father. Together we amble along the switchback paths, taking a breather on the steel garden chairs that are straight out of my Joburg childhood. From the street-level patio, pathways meander past a pair of stone cottages, diverge at the peak’s undulating monolith, and descend via the pristine pool and a series of lawned mezzanines. 

'I knew I wanted to retain the garden’s Victorian persona,’ Diane says. ‘I’m not particularly drawn to succulents, though we do have a bed of echeveria and some beautiful aloes that thrive here.’ What the couple inherited 45 years ago, however, was a site almost devoid of nutrients. ‘These slopes are mostly rocky shale, – just scree and stones – so I began by adding piles of cabbage leaves and earthworms. We dug down almost half a metre and replaced all the soil. Compost and kraal manure did the rest and, as a result, we now have the most wonderful bird and insect life.’

This bold, multisensory garden reveals something intriguing around every corner. ‘I looked at what was in flower every month and made sure to plant some of those,’ says Diane. ‘I love colour, and much of the garden began as slips shared by friends and neighbours or picked from the roadside. I don’t think there’s anything here that came from a nursery.’ Early summer foliage is offset by jacarandas, felicias and Geranium maderense – a gorgeous shrub that has colonised the poolside in a cheerful mass. Softening steps and crevices are swathes of pale pink evening primroses, while remnants of spring linger in bright red poppies, tall hollyhocks and clivias. ‘I like to have cut flowers in the house, and the roses and alstroemeria always oblige.’

The couple have spent the majority of their lives here, working tirelessly on what Rich describes as ‘a glorious obsession’. On a hot summer’s afternoon, I walk up to the stone folly, a many-tiered acropolis with extraordinary views to the south. Thunderclouds are gathering, throwing the Hillbrow and Brixton towers into sharp relief. ‘It’s all about finding solace with nature,’ says Rich. ‘I think we managed to create our own piece of paradise in the city.’