© Adam Letch
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The restoration involved a cluster of Cape buildings in a valley beneath the Swartberg mountain range, consisting of a main house and two barns, plus a store. A short way off is a flat-roofed building, typical of the Ladismith style, which was originally used as a wine store. Other structures on the property include a contemporary shed, a cottage further up a hill and a graveyard.
The house, barns and wine store were all restored. SAOTA director Greg Truen, who acquired the farm in 2016, notes that while minor additions and modern alterations had been made to the buildings, the original house, was “in good condition, considering” and that the barns were “fundamentally untouched”. In the main house, evidence of earlier refurbishments in the 1970s, were stripped out, while modern kitchen and bathrooms were inserted in an adaptive approach to conservation. A new pump house was added near the dam wall on the property. Its design and construction were an experiment in contemporary architecture using the same materials and techniques as the heritage buildings, including poured mud or “cob” walls, as well as brick vaulted roofs. The landscaping around the house took the form of a series of low terraces.
The Wine Store
The outbuilding that is referred to as the wynkelder in reference to a time when grapes were grown on the farm, is a small flat-roofed structure that has restored and converted into a living unit. It was badly damaged and had been clumsily altered. An incongruous timber pergola and a brick fireplace had been added to the exterior. The fireplace, however, had delaminated from the wall and was collapsing. The walls were also badly damaged by termites and the floors and ceiling rotted.
When repairs began, it was discovered that the wine store had originally been a single-level building, and its parapet was raised in the 1970s to allow for another level so that it could be used as a house. “When we repaired the plaster, we could see that the bottom part of the building was made out of poured mud, and then as you go up, there are some sundried bricks, and then more contemporary bricks right at the top,” says Truen. A somewhat clunky staircase has also been added.
The repairs and restoration of the wine store involved reorganising the ground level so that it could function as a living area and kitchen, and locating the bedroom and bathroom on the mezzanine above. The ground floor was levelled and paved in stone harvested from the surrounding veld. The rotted upper floor was replaced with SA pine, which was limewashed. The roof upstairs was finished with poplar beams and a rietdak ceiling. “We had to create a new stair between the levels,” says Truen. “Of course, that raised the question of how you insert new fabric into old fabric.”
Booyens designed a new self-supporting steel staircase as a contrasting contemporary insertion. “The staircase doesn’t touch the original structure of the building,” he says. It floats above the floor and is set slightly apart from the walls, connecting at a single point on the floor and at just one point on the mezzanine level. Its contemporary unichannel frame and intricately detailed American Oak treads, suspended by a system of cables, make for a subtle intervention. The modern decorative timber screen is similarly light, but clearly expressed as a contemporary addition, respecting the historical fabric of the building through contrast and a lightness of touch.
The two stone treads at the base of the staircase are also offset from the walls and the staircase, so that they and the staircase appear as “two loose elements inside the original building” as Booyens puts it.
The mezzanine level has a long, narrow en suite bathroom running the length of the front wall, which also contrasts with the historical fabric. It is accessed via a large cut-out between the bedroom and bathroom to facilitate the views to the orchard beyond. “And of course take advantage of the breeze and the natural light,” adds Truen. A curtain provides privacy when necessary.
The bathroom combines contemporary materials such as terrazzo cladding and a laser-cut metal ceiling with a long poplar table that runs the length of the wall in front of the windows, and poplar shutters. The contemporary materials are natural and honestly expressed, as Truen puts it, “nesting in quite nicely”, and engaging with the building’s heritage by expressing time as a continuum acknowledging the contemporary moment.
The exterior of the wine store has been painted pink partly in reference to the historical practice in the karoo of mixing lime to make a light red or pink colour, and partly in an exploration of some of the historical connections between Cape and Mexican architecture. This avenue of architectural dialogue was prompted by a number of trips Truen had made to Mexico as a result of international commissions there. He visited various traditional Mexican buildings, as well as some famous examples of Mexican modernist architecture such as Luis Barragan’s famous Cuadra san Cristobal. “A lot of the historical buildings in both countries are made in quite similar ways, using mud and stone and materials that were immediately available to them,” he says. “And, actually, they have quite similar landscapes.”
He was also interested by what he perceived as similarities between Cape and Mexican modernism. The work of the Cape and of Mexican modernists were both rooted in their respective vernacular architectures, and fused local materials and construction techniques with modernist approaches to forge a rich, sensual regionalist approach to modernist principles.
Both Mexican and Cape modernism were particularly sensitive to the climate and quality of light, which lent itself to the use of bright colours. Cuadra san Cristobal was painted shades of pink. Truen also draws a connection between the shutter door of the main house and Barragan’s modernist redeployment of similar doors and window shutters to moderate heat, light and privacy.
This dialogue between Cape and Mexican architecture is also evident in parts of the landscaping throughout the rest of the restoration project. The pool above the main house and the water channel that runs to the dam, for example, also take cues from Barragan’s use of water features.
The pump house is a new building constructed in response to the need for an irrigation building. “It was an opportunity to experiment and test some ideas we had to do with contemporary architecture built using traditional techniques,” says Truen.
The building forms a connection between the landscape and the dam wall. Its earth-coloured walls take their cue from the poured-mud walls of the heritage buildings. “ It’s a technique somewhere between rammed earth and working with concrete,” explains Booyens. “You could almost say it’s a primitive form of working with concrete, but instead of concrete, we worked with mud.
The walls are more than a metre thick, and have been left unpainted, expressing their materiality and blending the landscape.
The vaulted brick roof was an experiment in construction devised to simplify the expensive and highly skilled labour usually required to construct vaults. It involved creating a system of steel beams and a plywood template, and building the vault one row ar a time, which proved both cost efficient and appropriate for the skills available locally. “When we took the shutter out, it stood up, because it was a real catenary arch.” Says Booyens.
The rest of the roof is planted, and steel waterspouts cantilever far out from the walls so that water draining from the roof does not fall against the wall, a technique adapted from vernacular West African adobe architecture.
“For me it was really a interesting experience to go and find materials on site, and then build something that is so fundamentally in tune with the climate and performs so much better than any contemporary building,” says Truen. “There are definitely lessons there.”