I had a gentle and much appreciated start to my explorations as I was met at Cape Town airport by architect and teacher Kevin Fellingham and his wife, curator Winnie Sze who whisked me off to Beau Constantia, a beautiful winery overlooking False Bay. I can think of no better way to get over jet lag than to have a glass of delicious South African white in hand, appreciating architecture in good company. We sat in the tasting room a glass box atop one of a series of pavilions designed by Jon Jacobson that nestle into the hillside amongst the vineyards. The siting of the pavilions, including a converted shipping container took advantage of the topography, creating a synergy between landscape and buildings. Windows framed views into the surrounding landscape – even the toilet pavilion (below) had a spectacular view over the valley with Stellenbosch in the far distance.
We then went on to Klein Constantia, yes, another winery, but at this one it was pure archi-appreciation. Gawie Fagan designed a cellar in 1986 just up the hill from the original Cape Dutch homestead. The building greets you with a wide upward-sloping entrance and gently lures you through a deep archway door and along a solidly built corridor with light filtering down the stepped, side-wall. Lovely details are everywhere – slots in the wall glimpse to a parallel space now a shop, a flagstone in the tiled floor denotes a threshold into a top lit octagon space, and is a sign to look up and glimpse Table Mountain through a specially placed window high in the wall ahead. The simple form of the building can be appreciated when standing in the working yard to the back, with a parred-back facade. It feels like a farm building that has been given just enough intention to feel like architecture.
Down the hill sits the Kramta (Muslim shrines that mark the graves of Holy Men) of Sheik Abdurachman Matebe Shah who was one of the three teachers who brought Islam to southern Africa in the seventeenth century. The more magical Kramat however was that of Sayed Mahmud, 10 minutes further along the road in Groot Constantia designed by Frank Flemming (a partner of Herbert Baker) with gardens and a washing block recently added by Gawie and Gwen Fagan. The whole place has an atmosphere of calm and peace – the shrine located at the vista of a gentle slope that encourages slow movement towards it. The washing building is reached via a simple but subtly joyous concrete pergola covered in vines. The long, facing wall of the washrooms, is adorned with a beautiful mosaic and the inside reveals one of the most serene spaces I have entered in a long time.
My trip to South Africa has begun, and I have been greeted by sunshine and smiling faces on arrival here in Cape Town, filling me with a sense of possibility and excitement. The trip is part an Art Connects Us grant from the British Council, that is aimed at developing connections between the UK and the creative sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa. To give myself what can only be a taste of the local architectural scene in this short period of time, I have arranged to see buildings and meet a few architects of different generations – from young students to the great masters. I will share as much as I can through this blog and on Instagram as I go (although I already a day behind!). These works and conversations will be approached in consideration of what it means to be generous – a quality that I believe should be central to architecture, especially at a time where social and economic inequality is rising across the world.
This ‘research’ is approached without a fixed outcome in mind, instead I wish to pursue ideas and conversations to see where they take me, letting the material I gather and encounters I have help define the product. I have intentionally not overfilled my schedule and am trying to allow time for reflection and absorption, accepting that this will not be a comprehensive survey, but will hopefully give rise to a few meaningful connections.
Where did I begin? Underlying almost everything I have done in recent years is a pursuit of a human architecture. This has often focused on a discussion about experience, because when lived, inhabited and occupied architecture becomes interwoven in our existence, having an impact on our emotions, psyches and bodies – or more generally to our well-being.
I sought a word that would encapsulate my interests. I tried empathy (which I think has both possibilities and problems), and care (which is loaded but interests me because of its ties to the etymology of curating) and landed on generosity, as is a quality I greatly admire in people and is about an attitude as well a quality in architecture. Generosity to me is about listening and acceptance, about give and take, about a relationship of reciprocity and about partaking. A generous building carries these qualities and allows us to be who we are, allows and supports difference, encourages humility and generosity in its occupants.
Generosity also raises questions about the relationship between a benefactor and recipient, of the role of the architect and of the client, of the individual and society. Does a generous attitude of creators of buildings result in a generous building? What are the forces at play that might prohibit a building from fulfilling its potential to be generous? I hope that by involving others in the discussion I can help give greater definition to what might constitute generosity in architecture and how it might be achieved.