PHOTOGRAPHS Jan Ras PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Sam Woulidge
Between two Boland mountain ranges, just off a dirt road, stands a chapel, solemn and inspiring.
The Stofberg family is intensely private. So when they commissioned and built one of the most striking contemporary chapels in South Africa on their farm near Worcester, it was not to be ostentatious or to draw attention to themselves; it was because they are deeply religious and wanted to build a chapel to the glory of God. The curvilinear roof of the glass-walled chapel is reminiscent of a powerful white bird in flight. This is what architect Coetzee Steyn of Steyn Studio intended.
The brief was both simple and complex. The family wanted a chapel inspired by Psalm 36:7, which holds special meaning for them: “How precious, O God, is your constant love! We find protection under the shadow of your wings.” There can be no mistaking that the building with its glass walls was also designed to reflect the magnificence of the surrounding mountains. The chapel is a place of quiet contemplation, an inclusive space where people of all religions can find spiritual connection. With its minimalist interior, it was meant to be a place of calm. The simple lines of the custom-made brass and oak pews display a deliberate lack of ostentation, and the solid brass pulpit is striking in its solemnity and in the way its shiny surface reflects the surrounding beauty.
The Bosjes Chapel is a remarkable piece of modern architecture that, somewhat surprisingly, fits in perfectly on a working farm with an original Cape Dutch manor house, built in 1790. Bosjes, Dutch for small shrubs, is the new name given to the former Bosjesman’s Valley, a farm that has been in the same family since 1831 and that produces wine grapes, olives, peaches and proteas. And now it is a wedding and function venue, part of a long-held dream of the family to create an environment that would draw more visitors to the area, so benefitting the local community.
In addition to the chapel, Coetzee Steyn also designed a restaurant, Bosjes Kombuis, with high ceilings, glass walls and a wooden deck. Visitors can also relax and enjoy refreshments in the tea garden adjacent to the thoughtfully landscaped chapel gardens, where only plants that are referenced in the Bible grow. The universal appreciation of the earth and what it produces makes Bosjes a sacred space no matter what your religious affiliation.
Q&A WITH ARCHITECT COETZEE STEYN
The owners wanted a chapel inspired by Psalm 36:7. How difficult was this for you to translate?
I originally wanted to make a thick flat slab of concrete levitate without obvious signs of how it is supported, almost like being held in suspension by some divine power, however still allowing people the confidence to enter the chapel despite the mass of concrete overhead. In the end gravity won for the better, and not only physical gravity, but also that exuded by the majestic mountainous landscape and the Cape Dutch manor house. It gave the chapel its personality. I also researched the Moravian missionary stations of the Western Cape, which had a utilitarian simplicity to them and most notably lacked the spires of traditional churches, only being adorned with gables. The verse added the poetry to the form as a final touch.
What was it like working on a structure so creative but also so technically complex?
It was an honour and privilege. Nothing of this nature had ever been done, to my knowledge, in South Africa. Being London-based had its challenges, but we worked with a great core team in South Africa, TV3 Architects and structural engineer Henry Fagan & Partners. The distance was easily shortened by modern communication, supplemented with three monthly face-to-face meetings and inspections. The biggest challenge was maintaining the integrity of the original concept and ensuring that this was carried through and executed properly right. We had a half-scale prototype built, by PERI, of part of the chapel, which ended up being a working model on which various problems were resolved. The process was as interesting and exciting as the end result.
Upon completion, what was your reaction to the work?
There are many things you can control during the design process, but there are always things that just happen without control. It is these unconscious happenings that surprised me, seeing and experiencing the chapel in its context. Like the acoustics inside the chapel when it is empty, echoing the sound sensation of the much older and grander Gothic cathedrals of Europe. I can go on… These days you can simulate almost anything digitally, but nothing truly prepares you for the real experience.