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Archetypal Architects

Three legendary South African architects define what shapes their creative vision: Revel Fox speaks about ‘making space’, Stefan Antoni says his name can invite typecasting but still holds secrets, and for Gawie Fagan, the thing is always to carry a knife.

Original publication: TopLife, 1999.

revel fox

1. Revel Fox: Enclosures and Intervals

Whether they know it or not, there are few South African urbanites who have not had the honour of meeting Revel Fox in one guise or another. In a 50-year-long career, the broad scope of his imagination has helped shape the nature of the country’s urban landscape – often subtly, sometimes controversially. Even at age 75, Fox is a spry and silver-haired doyen of architecture who charges up the stairs of his office, virtually slides down the banisters, and generally shows no signs of letting up.

‘Architects try to enhance and advance the human condition by creating healthier physical environments,’ says Fox, whose concerns with ‘city-making’ and wholes greater than the sum of their parts led to his lifelong involvement in conservation and low-cost housing. Fox chairs the council of the University of Cape Town, and recently extended his portfolio of public positions when he became a City councillor, a move he considers an extension of the ‘idealism’ of his profession.

‘Architecture’s an idealistic, artistic career,’ he says, ‘but it’s a dilemma applying these principles in a very tough industry. There’s little patience if one says, “I have a dream or idea beyond the short-term objective.” Those dreams have to be subsumed into whatever you’re doing.’

Subsumed or not, Fox’s dreams have been big. They have encompassed projects that range from mining towns, the Cullinan Group head office, and the pedestrianisation of St Georges Mall, all the way to the Durban beachfront and Johannesburg’s monumental BankCity.

‘BankCity became a great inner-city campus,’ Fox says, describing it as ‘one of South Africa’s bigger design exercises’. Although it sought to centralise First National Bank’s operations in the inner city, thereby creating a ‘buttress against dereliction’ and making the bank accessible to disadvantaged peoples, the building was slated in the architectural community owing to the historical overtones of what Fox calls its ‘granite-faced and conservative’ façade.

In many ways architecture is at the coal-face of the country’s political debates, and given his interest in urban planning, Fox doesn’t believe in shying away from wider civic issues. He cites his restorations of historic buildings as an example, hinting that his understated work on the UCT Graduate School of Business, site of the old Breakwater prison, is a personal favourite.

However, Fox also contends with social issues besides conservation. He’s famously associated with the V & A Waterfront development, and at the time of interview he was awaiting the outcome of a dispute about the public’s right of thoroughfare in the affluent residential area planned to border the Waterfront marina development. Prospective buyers were threatening to withdraw unless access were limited to residents alone.

As Fox explains, phrases like ‘exclusive’ and ‘absentee ownership’ carry heavy baggage in South Africa; at the same time, these sore points need to be balanced by recognition of the need for investment and physical security.

The latter requirement, Fox says, ‘is increasingly a feature of residential accommodation, not just putting walls around an apartment but around a whole environment.’ For instance, at Steenberg Golf Estate, another of his projects, ‘you see children playing far from home, women walking prams – things that are growing less commonplace. Here you have an artificial normalisation.’

Access-controlled enclaves of this kind are becoming prominent in Fox’s portfolio, and if this is a response to external pressure it’s also consistent with his far-reaching vision. After all, what are these protectively enclosed estates if not cities in miniature, spaces in which ideals of community living are sketched out in the hope that they will one day take effect in urban society at large?

When Fox expresses regret about having to close places to public access, he means it, for open walkways closed to cars but inviting to human traffic are among his signatures. Indeed, the variously interconnected open spaces in and between buildings – amphitheatres, arcades, arches, open ceilings – preoccupy him as much the buildings themselves. ‘Making space’ is Fox’s motto, even his mantra.

‘When you make buildings, you’re not only making spaces inside them, you’re creating plazas between them and so on. Buildings have consequences – whether it’s in the surrounding space, the intervening space, or in the intervals between spaces. Whatever you do,’ he says, ‘you’re making new spaces.’

2. Stefan Antoni: What’s in a Name?

It’s a stupid question, a vapid ice-breaker, but for all that it unveils a wealth of information about the young architect called Stefan Antoni: So, your name – is it Italian, or what? Antoni laughs and drops his head in disbelief. It’s evidently a question he is often asked, and it’s more than merely an irritation. In a way it’s dangerous. If people assume he’s Italian, they’re likely to think his designs are also exclusively ‘Italian’ and ignore the versatility of his achievements.

Antoni chuckles at the stereotypes his name evokes. ‘I have a reputation as a playboy, this high-flying schmoozer with models draped around my neck. I’m mortified when people ask me where I come from because I don’t think it means anything. Today’s world is becoming such a single global entity that the different [regional] influences are interconnected. Cultures are mingling. I’m a product of that.’

Born in 1963 of Polish parentage, Stefan Antoni Okreglicki has been in professional practice for 12 years, in which time his firm has received various commendations for both architecture and interior design, among them a 1996 ISAA Award.

Antoni is renowned for his multi-tiered Mediterranean-inspired homes on Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard. But those who regard this as confirmation of his ‘Italian’ origins will be surprised to learn that he adopted his name for business reasons – few clients could pronounce the Polish surname.

‘I’d heard that John Wayne’s real name was something ridiculous, so I swopped my middle name and surname around,’ he explains. The new name’s easier to pronounce but exposed him to a degree of ethnic typecasting. ‘People see the more flamboyant projects, especially in Bantry Bay, and think: Milan, the fashion capital, probably the Mafia! It’s amazing … Maybe John Wayne really wanted to play sensitive roles but no one let him.’

Antoni concedes that his stereotyping as Italian has some basis in truth. For starters, he says his work draws on his intuitive qualities, and he seldom pre-designs buildings, preferring to receive inspiration from on-site visits. He’s quick to add that while his work is strongly aesthetically driven, particularly in the case of private residences, where owners can let their imagination roam free of the constraints on commercial or public facilities, he respects the value of functionally-oriented buildings – ‘the fabric that holds cities together’.

‘I suppose the work I enjoy and the kind of person I am is more Latin in its vibrancy and energy, its swirling forms,’ Antoni says, adding that this is in part due to the Mediterranean climate of the Cape, where most of his work is done – although he’s taken commissions as far apart as Sydney and Spain, he believes that within South Africa clients tend to opt for architects based closest to them rather than faraway designers whose work they might admire more.

Nevertheless, Antoni says his styles are as varied as the Cape landscape. ‘In one general area you have desert, mountains, sea; you also have Paarl and Stellenbosch, with cultures of their own. One city allows you a wide repertoire.’

For instance, he contrasts his flowing, outdoor-oriented buildings on the Atlantic seaboard with his cosier, more traditional, designs in Constantia and Bishopscourt – or with his whitewashed Cape-style houses in Rooi Els.

‘Critics who don’t know our work better claim it’s always modern and flamboyant. My answer is – look at 85% of the work you haven’t seen on the main roads or wherever, and you’ll see how radically different it is.’

Antoni is emphatic that his firm’s work should be seen as the result of a collective initiative by a group of young architects. ‘I stress that because we’re a generation that regards architecture as part of the excitement of everyday living, not as a heavy field where you’re oppressed. In the 60s to the 80s, many buildings were dogmatic in style. Architects saw themselves as missionaries or crusaders, and the mission was to change the world and people.

‘Now we’re in an amazing period where we’re looking back to the early twentieth century for quality architecture. That’s linked to understanding the way people dress, furnish homes and lead their lives. We’re not building shells – we’re interpreting how clients themselves want to live.’

3. Gawie Fagan: Earthy Hands, Fresh Waters

Somewhat startlingly, 74-year-old Gawie Fagan, son of the writer H. A. Fagan and a grand master of South African architecture, mentions over coffee in his soft spoken voice that he always carries a knife, and proceeds to draw out, not the street-fighting weapon that at first comes to mind, but a Swiss army knife, which he twiddles about to illustrate a central feature of his artistic vision.

‘The brain shouldn’t develop apart from your motor senses,’ he says. ‘I always have a screwdriver or something like that with me because I like doing things with my own hands. That way you’re competent to judge what different materials, pieces of plastic or steel, can do. I don’t know how people can design if they keep their hands clean.’

Were it not for his greater interest in ‘playing the guitar in nightclubs’ than in his engineering studies at university, Fagan might never have switched to architecture (the career his mother wanted for him) and become the award-winning doyen of the profession that he is today – a figure celebrated for work on, among others, Government House, Klein Constantia Wine Cellar, the SA Breweries Visitors’ Centre in Newlands, and the restoration of Tulbagh town after it was struck by earthquakes in the 1970s.

Then again, Fagan’s natural impulses would perhaps have steered him towards architecture anyway. Shifting his pen-knife in small, shaping motions, he says, ‘You’re born with that urge to model things and improve them.’ Even the criticisms architects make of one another should be seen in a ‘constructive sense’, one which Fagan, winner of the 1982 Cape to Buenos Aires race, adopts when he contemplates the yacht he recently bought.

‘I’ll think, hell, I’ve got this boat: now I can improve the keel, move the forestay up, make it faster. I don’t expect to win, but nevertheless …’

Not only is Fagan a dedicated yachtsman, he’s also a photographer, and believes he made important innovations to botanical photography through the work he did on his wife’s book on roses.

He sees crucial overlaps between these extracurricular interests and his profession. In the case of photography, this overlap concerns composition and attention to the way light falls. In yachting, he says, ‘You’re dealing with wind and weather, with protection and making the best of small spaces.’

But perhaps the most crucial overlap between Fagan’s nautical passions and his architecture is his long-standing and pioneering involvement with the VA Waterfront. He remains a consultant to the Waterfront, reportedly the most visited destination in the country, but in the early Eighties, at which time technological advances in shipping had turned many harbours worldwide into derelict no-go backwaters, Fagan took up the cudgels amidst great debate and became a far-sighted campaigner for the development to be able to proceed at all its present form.

Yet although he has undertaken close on 200 restoration projects in his career – among them the Mossel Bay Museum Complex and his 30-year-long involvement with the Castle – Fagan insists that his passion lies in new designs, comparing restorations to nursemaiding old, sick horses back to their former glory. But his heart’s desire lies in breeding and riding the young horses.

It is this boldness and will to be of the modern age, Fagan suggests, that informs even his restorations and concretises his respect for both the past and present. ‘I make no bones about where I’ve intervened and added something new in contrast to the old style.’ In the case of the Klein Constantia winery, he told clients, ‘We’re not going for anything pseudo-Victorian or pseudo-Capey. We must be proud to say the existing buildings are 200 years old, but that in 100 years’ time, people will also look at the new ones and say – how beautiful!’

Fagan describes the trend toward imposing ready-made historical styles as ‘an absolute sickness’. ‘I don’t fuddy the old up. The new is clearly distinct. How can we go forward into the next century if we have so little pride in our time and hark back to Victoriana? The flavour of one’s age is very subtle, but it can come through if you’re drenched in your time.’

His words evoke a fitting self-image: the make-do mariner cresting ever-fresh waves into the future.

 

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