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Some reflections on Helmut Stauch

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Author:NATION, Shelagh Suzanne
In:Unpublished
Date:2011
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Helmut Stauch

FIRST WORK IN PRETORIA

Aubrey NUNN had been in practice for 3 years, producing architecture which was pleasant, romantic in style, but workmanlike. He had sufficient work to keep the pot gently simmering and needed an assistant, but the arrival of this new and unknown talent in the shape of an athletic and volatile young architect must have set the practice into a ferment, for Hellmut would never meekly conform to the ideas of others or points of view with which he disagreed. The projects which he now designed had an unusual individuality in design, showing a superb understanding of materials, form, space and light, and the houses he designed had a tremendous appeal for those who lived in them.

Aubrey NUNN allowed him a fairly free rein and although it was not possible to offer him a formal partnership, since he had no qualifications recognised by the Institute of South African Architects, he was recognised in other ways and eventually held the unofficial status of associate in the firm. The Architectural Review credited the design of various buildings in this period to 'A V Nunn with Hellmut Stauch.'

The buildings listed under this credit were mainly houses, schools, office buildings and flats, and two of these were particularly noteworthy. Marchie Mansions was a block of flats with an exceptionally long life, by South African standards, largely because its thoughtful planning and meticulous detailing made it easy to let and to maintain. Hochstetter House, another noteworthy office building, was unique in that it was probably the first building in Pretoria, if not South Africa, to express totally the concrete frame and facebrick infill panel of which it was constructed. It was modular in design, well proportioned and precisely detailed, and architectural students were referred to it as a model by their lecturers. Unfortunately, within a scant ten years it, together with a neighbouring building, fell victim to the wrecker's ball and it was replaced by a large and unremarkable building for OK Bazaars.

ISAA

Eventually Hellmut applied to the ISAA for registration as an architect, stating that NUNN's firm might close down and adding that 'through a physical disability he was not eligible for military service and might have to practice on his own.' The ISAA's Board of Education, in February 1943, just a few days before he left the employ of NUNN, informed him that he would be exempted from the first three years of study but would be expected to allow for a further 2 years of study, culminating with a Final Year examination. This could not have pleased Hellmut, for he ignored it for 14 months, and set up his practice anyway, first in offices rented from the Johannesburg Building Society and subsequently in Bureau Lane, in RSE Chambers.

PRETORIA UNIVERSITY

The Pretoria School of Architecture had known a good thing when they saw one, and employed Hellmut as a part-time lecturer from 1943. It was an association that would last until 1951. Probably encouraged by the School, he ended his resistance to the ISAA and wrote his Final Year exams on 14 January 1946.

His comments were usually limited to a piercing look from hooded blue eyes, a half-smile and a couple of lines sketched on a drawing in 6B pencil. In fact he tended to approach the teaching of design on a one-to-one basis, coming quietly into the studio and discussing individually but briefly with each student the work on his board. He did not, as far as anyone can recall, give group lectures.

It was a positive and encouraging attitude that brought out the best in each, stimulated the imagination and broadened the approach, without losing sight of practical considerations. He had the ability to see immediately the weak point in a drawing – not just the trained eye but also the understanding and discipline to recognise the essential and discard the non-essentials – and in dealing with students would in the same way locate the good points of poor designs and encourage them to build on these. Although he could be really scathing about a sloppy approach to design, he somehow left the students working harder, and with greater insight.

They were not at all sure how they had learned from him – perhaps it was by osmosis, they thought – but all were sure that they had. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he had often used them as free and willing assistants in the building of various boats on his farm, where they probably learned some of his personal philosophy over a generous supply of beer.

The School, at the time, tended to discard anything traditional and although they dutifully studied the history of architecture, they paid more attention to Bauhaus-based principles. There was a tendency to subordinate the teachings of LE CORBUSIER in favour of those of Niemeyer, Wright, STAUCH and EATON, and an inclination towards a get-down-and-draw approach with reduced emphasis on design philosophy and increased emphasis on form following function.1

In fact, the pre-war depression years together with 5 years of global conflict had marvellously focussed the mind of most architects and students. The Bauhaus philosophy of a frugal and practical architecture stripped of the ornamentation was universally welcomed, as well as reflecting the material shortages of the time. Under prevailing conditions, space wastage was also unacceptable. Hellmut STAUCH had arrived in South Africa at exactly the right time to introduce the teachings of the Bauhaus to students who were receptive and enthusiastic about a brave new future. In retrospect, it does seem that Hellmut's influence on the school, at that time a leading one in South Africa, was huge. As his reputation grew, students from other universities also began watching his work, and many were prepared to work in his office for a pittance in order to be able to learn from him more directly.

With the confidence born of consistent success, Stauch would draw out all the buildings that he designed in preparation for their publication in architectural magazines, so that at one time their was a comprehensive record of the best of the practice's work. Unfortunately most of these interesting records were later discarded in the interests of 'making space' for new projects.

1 S A Architectural Record 1965, article on Personalities of the 30's working today

MEAT BOARD BACKGROUND INFORMATION

His visit to Niemeyer surprised him in many ways. Although he had a deep admiration for the South American architect, Niemeyer's disregard for such practicalities as whether or not the roof leaked or the building weathered badly dismayed him. But Niemeyer's emphasis on aesthetic values appealed to him strongly; this was a strong and dominant factor in his own architectural philosophy.

When, shortly after this trip, he was commissioned for the Meat Board building in Pretoria, the Niemeyer influence was clear. His design for this building aroused a great deal of interest, both locally and abroad. Writing on the architecture of Johannesburg and environs, Nikolaus PEVSNER discussed the lagging behind (in architectural character) of its public buildings in general and went on to say 'As for the public buildings, a similar change is perhaps imminent. There is at least one extremely encouraging case. To design the new building for the National Meat Board a private architect, H W E Stauch… was commissioned and the result is excellent.'

COMPETITIONS

(In Berlin he won the competition for the design of the Olympiajolle – a yacht to be used in the 1936 Olympics.)

In the 1950s frequent competitions gave Hellmut the opportunity to make even more of a name for himself. In 1952 he won a competition for the design of the Windhoek Library, Archives and Museum. He was awarded first and second places and two honourable mentions in a competition for low-cost housing, a third place in the 'Star Housing Competition' of 1954, a second in the Virginia Housing and a third place in the Pinelands/ Bishop Lavis competition. In 1961 he took a joint first place overall with a second place on detail design in the Johannesburg Civic Centre competition.

Although he continued to take an interest in competitions, Hellmut began to find that the pressure of work inhibited his participation; over the years he drew documents for several, but those few that were submitted were unsuccessful. In the last of these in 1969, for the Vereeniging Civic Centre, and again in an international competition for the Kiel yacht club, he agreed to an experiment in 'team design,' but the results were disappointing to all concerned; they did not bear his stamp, in the way that all the other work in his practice had done – and perhaps a strong and successful design needs the clear stamp of a single virtuoso rather than the collective input of a team.