A tribute to Gabriel Fagan - on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, 15th November, 2005


Author:MEINTJES, Clyde

A tribute to Gabriel Fagan - on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, 15th November, 2005.

A friend for more than fifty years, with whom I worked at Volkskas Argitekte from 1959 to 1961.

That period was quite short, but it led to a lasting friendship. (It also led to a madness of sailing).

After the National Party election victory in 1948 Afrikaner business was on the threshold of unprecedented growth. Volkskas was expanding and had the first real opportunity of giving the long established "English" banks – Standard, Netherlands, Barclays - serious competition.

In the early 1950s Volkskas were persuaded that they needed an in-house architect. Gawie Fagan was the first Volkskas Argitek, his brief being to design and supervise many of the banks and agencies that the bank intended for its expansion, especially into the platteland where the farms (and some money) were in Afrikaner hands. (The bigger, more prestigious Volkskas design appointments went to members of the Broederbond).

The Volkskas image had to be different from its competitors. No closed facades with small windows and neo-classical columns, but something more contemporary, with bright interiors visible from the outside through large panes of glass, illuminated at night to discourage burglars. The only conservative touch was the large Roman letters, individually cast in bronze, for the name on the outside of the bank.

Gawie's office was on a south-facing upper floor of the old Volkskas building in Pretoria, with a good view down onto Pretorius Street. Here we worked in one quite intimate space with room only for three or four drawing boards and a few filing cabinets. It was relaxed and informal although, as Volkskas amptenare (officials), we were required to wear a jacket and tie to work. Volkskas would have liked to see Gawie in a dark grey suit (like the rest of the "grey" men in the bank) but he always wore a sports jacket and flannels, like we did, and his tie was always loose and skew.

Volkskas General Manager was Jan Hurter who gave final approval on everything, in consultation with the head of Persele, Mr Engelbrecht with who Gawie spent many hours explaining his design concepts, architectural ideas, and vindicating the work we were doing. Compromise is not in his vocabulary. The large body of work produced in that office, in a relatively short time, under Gawie's guidance, was inventive, innovative, unconventional, and often controversial. Each building was unique and only once did we use a mirrored plan.

It was a pioneering time. Banking hall furniture was designed from scratch while finishes had to be economical and functional. The sit- and staanskryf with their pigeonholes for deposit slips, blue battleship lino on the floor, contemporary Ogro lettering and numerals, carefully chosen door furniture and light fittings. We sometimes used a solid timber entrance door that was pivot-hung (off-centre) with the wider section opening inwards so screening the wider Blanke (White) entrance from the narrower Nie-Blanke (Non White) one on the other side.

Building specifications were minimal and avoided duplicating what could be said on a drawing, once. To Gawie the purpose of drawings was to facilitate a building. Once it was complete they had little further value. Many of the contracts were on a cost-plus basis using carefully chosen, trustworthy contractors who sometimes were employed for successive contracts. When an existing building, with many structural unknowns, was being refurbished to accommodate a new Volkskas branch, cost-plus was often the only method.

Gawie's dislike of any South African architecture post 1806, especially anything Victorian, must have influenced his design approach. He admired the earlier Cape Dutch, French and Portuguese influences and the more recent European and local Modern Movement. Wherever he worked his designs acknowledged the context. Hence the use of local sandstone in Ladybrand, the whitewashed plaster in Montagu and the saksmeer of Lydenburg.

Each design was done applying the principles of CORBUSIER's The Modulor - the red and blue series were gospel - further reinforced by The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry of Jay Hambidge. There were key dimensions, and the diagonal angles formed by combining the square, golden section and root five proportions were meticulously checked to produce an harmonious whole.

Travelling to far-flung platteland (country) towns, on bad roads, to supervise the building work wreaked havoc on the bank’s Mercedes fleet. It was also tiring and time consuming.

Gawie was a pilot so he persuaded the bank to purchase a light aircraft which he would own, while repaying the loan based on a tariff for (road) miles flown on supervision for the bank.

So began the period of "Zed Es Delta Golf Oscar". A call sign frequently made to the nearest flight control tower to advise that a small fabric-covered high-wing monoplane – Gawie's four seat Piper Tri-Pacer, ZS-DGO – was in the air (the trailing wire aerial, with a little cone at its end, had been unwound). Usually from Wonderboom airport, having first done the pre-flight checks, draining any water from the carburetor or fuel tank, checking the controls and setting the gyro-compass. Then, as soon as it was possible to vaguely make out the horizon in the breaking dawn, we would take off.

We were always fetched from home by the Volkskas driver (with a normal surname that Gawie liked to change to "van Derm Erwe") at some unholy hour, summer and winter, when it was still pitch dark and often very cold. First me, and then on to fetch Gawie at his farm in Kameeldrif, and so to Wonderboom airfield.

For Volkskas it was a period of intense building activity. Warmbaths, Lydenburg, Leeudoornstad, Brandfort, Christiana, Calvinia, Ladybrand, Kenhardt, Winburg, Cradock, Montagu, Humansdorp - just a few I can remember working on.

The small platteland airstrips (sometimes only a sports field) that Gawie had to land on were mostly unmanned, without telephone, sometimes in an adjacent town, so it was his practice to fly low over the bank or building site to alert the manager or contractor to fetch us. Gawie would never hang around waiting for them and we always started walking. Brief case in one hand, Linhoff camera over his shoulder, while I carried the dumpy and tripod, trudging down some hot, dusty road, grumbling until we were met by our lift.

When our work was done and it was time to leave it was often necessary to refuel ZS-DGO before take-off. For this Gawie usually took along one or two five gallon jerrycans on the back seat and he would funnel the fuel through a chamois leather into the wing tanks. Sometimes it was necessary to overnight and then we shared a room in the local "Grand" or "Central Hotel". Volkskas was thrifty and always checked our "S&T" receipts.

He often flew alone, sometimes to Cape Town, and when these trips took him over the northern Cape he would from the air identify the (then) numerous brakdak farmsteads, later to go back and record them photographically. He always used his beloved Linhoff camera with its six-by-nine centimetre format and rise and tilt movement. There exists here a wealth of invaluable historical material on this South African vernacular architecture, recorded on black and white film, exteriors and interiors, waiting to be published. Once or twice I accompanied Gawie to Cape Town. It was a ten hour flight, with one brief stop at Victoria West to refuel. A pleasurable stop!

On one occasion on our way to supervise Volkskas Calvinia, we stopped at Upington. Gwen had asked Gawie to bring back a few small kokerbome for the garden on the farm. After leaving Upington Gawie flew low over the koppies to the west where groups of Aloe dichotoma, including some small ones, were spotted. Looking for somewhere close to land, with fewer stones and less thorn scrub, Gawie decided where to put down. We made the final approach and landed, weaving between the obstructions to a tense stop. Up the koppie scrambled Gawie and soon had three or four small specimens that would fit behind the seat.

Now taking off was something else. One needs more length than when landing. But Gawie's technique was simple. Brakes on, power the engine, brakes off. And when you have flying speed pull full flaps down. ZS-DGO would "jump" into the air and he would gently ease the flaps back up until we were no longer in an incipient power-stall but were flying level and could start climbing under control. When we landed after this sortie we found thorns in the tail.

Gawie was an experienced pilot with more than a thousand hours in his log book and he took his flying seriously. It was for business, seldom, if ever, for pleasure alone. On many occasions when things seemed chancey my main troos (comfort) was that Gawie had a wife and four small children and was responsible enough not to leave them widowed and orphaned.

But a tribute to Gawie covering a friendship of more than fifty years cannot only be about our time together at Volkskas – he some eleven years my senior, me as a student about to qualify. I also worked with him in Cape Town six years later. (I have a feeling that Gawie preferred people working with him - not for him). Nor can it ever exclude Gwen, even though its not her birthday.

Equally, it cannot be without some indelible images of a more personal nature. A Fiat Multipla delivering melkkanne (milk cans) destined for the Volkskas restaurant on the floor above our office. Gwen phoning about their tractor, broken down on the road, with a trailerload of pig manure. Being told to try blowing into the fuel tank. Phoning back a while later – no that didn't work. Try cleaning the plugs.... no that didn't help either. Later.... try cleaning the points. Later.... until she got it going. Today Gwen has a cell-phone – but, alas, no tractor to fix.

Four small children, Lida still an infant, Hennie and Tutti going to the German school. Piano and blokfluit (recorder) and Bach. Building the hangar on the farm with its home-made post-tensioned lightweight steel roof trusses with a span of 10 metres or more. The circular brick water tower with corbelled courses for the flared top. A few bricks laid early every morning before coming to work, and eventually with patience everything is finished.

Beautiful jersey cows, TB tested regularly, milked twice a day and the yield carefully noted. Midnight, with the cows having strayed onto the road in a storm. Gawie in his nightshirt chasing them home. The children having their regular skim-milk breakfast egg-flip before going off to school, or coming back from a birthday party in tears because there was only soda-pop to drink – no milk.

Endless discussions and arguments about sailing yacht design and construction. About Mary Blewitt's Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen with chronometer, sextant, Nautical Almanac and Sight Reduction Tables.

So - for the forthcoming Cape to Bahia yacht race we wish the oldest skipper, in one of the smallest boats - Good Luck and Bon Voyage! to Gawie and Suidoos II. Ons hou duim vas! (We're holding thumbs)

[Clyde MEINTJES, 2005]