PHOTOS: Greg Cox | PRODUCTION: Etienne Hanekom | WORDS: Alma Viviers
A modernist Stellenbosch home designed by architect Pius Pahl, has had several alterations over the years to meet the needs of two generations of the same family.
Laugh if you like but the “last” – and biggest – alteration began with the theft of the intercom at the gate some time in 2007.
“I was so upset about it that I asked architect Hein Visser to relook the gate – in fact, the entire entrance,” explains the owner.
But once Hein began, and after several planning sessions with the owners, they soon had a number of other plans up their sleeve. “We worked on just about everything except the bedrooms and wine cellar, from a walk-in fridge and home automation system to a new lean-to for the car, a laundry room and a dressing room for our bedroom.”
According to the owner the most radical of the lot was a new unit at the bottom of the plot near the street: The ground floor accommodates two bedrooms and bathrooms as well as a small kitchen, while the top floor is a studio space.
“We decided to set up the house in such a way that we will be able to remain living here until we leave feet first. We currently use the new building to sleep guests and our children when they visit with their friends but it can later be used as private accommodation for a live-in carer.
The project presented two major challenges: Firstly, the old house and new structure had to be reconciled with one another without detracting from the original Pahl design. Secondly, everyone, from the architect to the builder, was threatened with death if anything should happen to the 100-year-old wild olive tree that presided between the two buildings.
According to experts, this tree once stood on the banks of the Eerste River, which nowadays flows past the Coetzenburg sports grounds several hundred metres away. If you dig here, you will find only river stones…
Visser Kapperer De Bruin Architects, who also designed the family’s office in Stellenbosch, came up with a solution to the first problem by designing a corridor on three levels that also incorporates the new entrance hall. The new front door is announced by a sweeping copper roof, which will develop a green patina over time, while the simple minimalist design of the new bedroom-studio unit ensures that it doesn’t intrude on the existing house.
Problem number two, the wild olive, demanded precise measuring: A branch or two were sacrificed and the roots had to be wrapped in sacks to prevent them from being damaged by the concrete for the foundations. Now, more than a year since the departure of the building team, the bright green tree happily occupies exactly the same spot it did when the owner’s parents built the house back in the day.
“This was one of the last two plots sold off from the original Mosterdsdrift farm,” he explains. “I was about five years old, around 1959, when my father asked Mr Pius Pahl to design the house for us.”
Pahl, originally from Germany, had immigrated to South Africa in 1952 and settled in Stellenbosch. Having studied under the likes of Mies van der Rohe at the famous Bauhaus school, which strove to bridge the gap between craft and disciplines such as design, architecture and fine art, Pahl applied the principles he learnt there to his South African designs.
“I remember how many of the local residents would park outside our house on Sunday afternoons to view the unusual design,” the owner remembers.
Modern then, modern now
A Modernist house was quite revolutionary at the time, especially in a town where homes are mostly built in the Cape Dutch and Victorian styles. The architect’s background was given away not only by the flat roof but also by distinctive details such as “Pahl’s picket fencing”, a front door of wood and brightly coloured linoleum, as well as the large windows and thin steel columns.
The owner’s parents sold the house in the late 1970s after his graduation and wedding. Years later, while participating in an Old Boys’ golf day at Paul Roos in 1990, the owner met an estate agent at the club house, who let slip about a house in Jonkershoek Road that had been put on the market the day before.
It was indeed the owner’s childhood home and, although it had been somewhat neglected, the two previous owners had not made any significant changes. The family bought the house that same day and appointed an architect to conduct the “first” alteration.
“Unfortunately, we changed much of Mr Pahl’s original detail, including the front door with its bright blue linoleum insets, the slate tiles, a built-in study table the architect designed himself, as well as tulip lights in the sitting room,” the owner recalls with regret.
However, the family did invite Pahl around for tea after the renovation and, apart from the pedestrian gate, which he said he would not have changed, he gave the balance of the alterations his blessing. The owners add that, although Pahl passed away in 2003, they are confident that the additions by Visser Kapperer De Bruin Architects would also have received his stamp of approval.
This is because, although much of the architect’s unique detailing have been sacrificed, the old part of the house remains pure Pius Pahl, testifying not only to how easily Modernism copes with metamorphosis, but also to the robustness and adaptability of this particular master’s design.
• Visser Kapperer De Bruin Architects: 021 880 2991, www.vkdb.co.za