PHOTOS David Ross PRODUCTION Klara van Wyngaarden WORDS Lin Sampson
In the ancient surrounds of the Cradle of Humankind, where life began, modern architecture continues to evolve on Monaghan Farm, the first agri-estate in South Africa.
Let me confess: Monaghan sounded like a hell of sanitised exclusivity featuring banal architect-designed houses. The reality is different: the ancientness of this piece of land permeates the whole area, with its primeval sense of millions of years of compacted history. Although it is not in the Cradle, it is as close to the Cradle as any development will ever be allowed – a place where you might pick up a Stone Age arrowhead, a place where discovery is only just beginning.
In the dense undergrowth of the riverbank there are vervet monkeys, porcupines, buck and a fleeting glimpse of an African Hoopoe or a Black-Collared Barbet.
This is where Prospero Bailey, grandson of financier and politician Sir Abe Bailey, spent his childhood. Prospero’s father, Jim, was a Rider-Haggard character who served as a fighter pilot in World War II, founded Drum magazine and farmed the land with a true understanding of its moon-crater romance, its link with a prehistoric past and its pure, honest beauty.
Now Prospero and his Danish architect wife, Anna, are developing (“creating” might be a better word) this 520-hectare piece of farmland into an eco estate, although Prospero says he loathes the term. “It conjures up dense townhouses called names like Fisheagle’s Nest or Leopard’s Lair.
Monaghan Farm is what it claims to be – a farm where only three percent of the ground will ever be built on. The fact that it dictates a strong environmental consciousness is the very least a 21st-century development should be able to get away with.”
The area is entered through a farm shed – no heroic Palladian gates, no architectural noise – just an ordinary farm shed that enters the eye peacefully, although it disguises a svelte security system. The curves of the road look as if they have been created by a child’s hand and all the original farm structures – drinking troughs, pumps and old barns – have been preserved.
Here, there are no fancy fountains, no coy culs-de-sac, no Gothic signage. The horizons are far, bordered to the north by the Magaliesberg, and the untouched landscape’s roads are lined with eucalyptus trees planted by Jim Bailey.
“When the graders started I could hear the gentle hum of a spinning grave but the noise has stopped now. I genuinely think my father would approve of what we have done,” says Prospero. He describes the countryside, where a herd of Nguni cattle stare peacefully ahead in the distance, as “farmy-farmy”. Each homeowner receives a crate of organically grown seasonal vegetables and fruit every day, and farming is encouraged.
An organic sensibility
Six architects are involved at Monaghan, one of whom is Philip Briel. He explains the intuitive and organic sensibility behind his design featured on these pages. “As this is a working farm, I researched agricultural architecture, which has a tradition of steel farm sheds. I borrowed from that aesthetic and used the I-beam as a linguistic element to establish something I call ‘agri-modern’,” he says.
Part of the steel structure is also expressed on the inside of the house, nothing is hidden and timber and concrete are used raw. The stone, the colour of warm bread, is all natural and derived from the area, while the off-shutter concrete features a timber imprint. The northern side the house is light and open, while the southern side is fortress-like.
“Part of the clients’ brief,” says Philip, “was that every room had to be north facing. They wanted an abundance of light and all rooms had to be open to the outside so that the pool could be accessed without going through the house.”
An unusual appurtenance is a long horizontal window cut into the stone wall like a cruel gash. “I wanted to use horizontal shapes to emphasize the skyline,” says Philip.
The house is powerfully eco-friendly. Owner Richard Bonatz explains, “The plots are 4 500m2 and we love the fact that the house is a single storey with huge sliding doors that connect indoors and out. We don’t need air conditioning: low vents and higher windows are used for ventilation, we use solar energy, the insulation is enviro-friendly, and rainwater is stored on the roof and feeds a wetland behind the house. We moved from a 200m2 house in Fourways where we were paying R1 000 a month for electricity to a 500m2 house where we pay R700.”
What Richard likes most about the house is the way it hunkers down in the landscape. “When we ride to the koppie on our mountain bikes in the mornings, it’s as if there isn’t another house nearby. It’s like being in unexplored Africa.”
Monaghan is underpinned by Prospero’s finessed aesthetics and horror of suburbia. “It is disheartening to bring up children in the north of Johannesburg. While the city centre still holds a wonderful, wild, pioneer- town aesthetic, the new north is devoid of all beauty.”
A thesaurus of sounds and sights
Philip tells how he first became involved with Monaghan. “Prospero said, ‘I need to build a house.’ We went to the farm where I said, ‘Take me to the pigsties’. We renovated them and he still lives there, old roof trusses nailed together, pump buildings beautifully cleaned and linked together with walled gardens and small pools. There’s even a rhino in the garden.”
Richard agrees that Prospero’s involvement was an incentive. “We know the place will never turn into just another estate with glib modern architecture. Prospero is vigilant and the guidelines are stringent.”
Nature provides a thesaurus of sounds and sights. Emotional and physical strengths are derived from these connections between people and place, man and the environment.
“I hope Monaghan will attract an ever more eclectic and entertaining mix of characters who share a desire for a simple, honest existence,” Prospero says.
This is a sentiment endorsed by Richard: “Living in Johannesburg, it was the only way we could bring up our children in a clean and healthy atmosphere.”