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House GabriŽl Fagan - Die Es
Camps Bay, Cape Town, Western Cape

Architect
GABRIňL FAGAN ARCHITECTS

Design architect
FAGAN, GabriŽl Theron (Gawie)

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Date:1965
Client:Self
Type:Homestead
Status:Extant

The house was built for and largely by my own family of six, using weekends and time after school. By starting with the basement workshop, all joinery and metal work could be made on site. Labour and love were more available than money, which is reflected in the design ó from the roof to the hand-wrought details. We all make and enjoy music, and wanted a generous space for very informal communal living, but with seclusion in the study-bedrooms.

The site is narrowly pinched between neighbours, falling steeply from the street, and commands a beautiful view over a small reserve to the coastline and Adantic Ocean. Violent south-east winds rake the site from the street side, so the house turns its back on wind and street, with openings only for approach and the high mountain views through carefully positioned windows arid skylights.

The car port with grille wall and the stair leading down to the entrance form an air lock protecting the heavy front door. The entrance passage - confined at this point so that taller friends enter bowed - increases in height and widens out under a little skylight, before ending on a platform where one is brought up by the hollow sound of the timber underfoot and by the magnificent view of the sea beyond. An open stair leading from this platform to the bedrooms suggests screening, before one descends a few more steps to the spacious living room. This living-dining-patio-kitchen area can be screened in various combinations, from an intimate dining room to a small auditorium, for which it is often used.

The bedrooms above provide privacy. The roof shape conforms directly to the plan by enhancing the cell-like separateness of each room, while lifting to frame alternate western sea and eastern mountain views. Constructed of straight 1in x 3in boards on edge, glued and nailed, covered by a waterproof membrane, the roof contours over the bedrooms form a syncopated rhythm over the large scale of the communal space, and present a formality to the grand view. From the street side, however, the reverse contours are more intimate in scale, suitable to the smaller space of the rear garden.

Directly facing the afternoon sun, the western facade has horizontal sliding shutters protecting the bedrooms, and deep slots with vertical sliding shutters for the living room. By controlling the amount of sun falling on the immense heat sinks - provided by the lower floor quarry tiles on concrete, and the 10in concrete slab of the upper floor - excellent natural heating is achieved, so that the electric underfloor heating is seldom needed; and the much-used fireplace is rather for getting together. The generous hearth is tucked off the main living space and truly forms the heart of the house, symbolized by the large chimney.

Materials are burnt brick, plastered; concrete; teak windows and doors and joinery in local yellowwood - almost all the timber is from old beams, sawn up by ourselves on site. Timber is used solid, complete with cracks; this quality is enhanced, for instance, by sculpting door handles out of the material of the door itself, and by generally softened edges.

The whole design is regulated in three dimensions by my particular application of Hambidge's 'Dynamic Symmetry' from the overall down to details, and abounding in Corbusier's favourite blue and reel Fibonacci series measurements. But this should hardly be explained, rather experienced.

(Gabriel Fagan in UIA, 1985: 48)

Perched on the Atlantic face of the Cape Peninsula, this house is in an area which was practically uninhabited until the 20th century. Its savage climate, with wind and rain coming in off the southern ocean, discouraged development, even though the district is only two miles from the centre of Cape Town. But changing sensibilities about the picturesque, and modern building materials which can withstand the climate have enabled the area to become popular.

The house is a personal statement. It is hand-built (craftsmanship is very expensive). It relies on a poetic reading of the site and a feeling for the vernacular, which is abstracted in a sensitive modern manner without any him of kitsch or pastiche in the white stuccoed walls and Cape Dutch chimney.

The plan is rich in delightful changes in level and minute deflections in the angles of wall planes, particularly around the processional entrance. Here the materials are selected for their visual and tactile and also their audible qualities. The lower level of the house has a concrete slab roof, forming the floor to the bedroom wing above. This concrete plane is played off against the similarly monolithic structural concept of the laminated timber plate roof, distorted into waves to span the distances.

The architect is among those attempting to create South African architecture which understands historical vernacular without duplicating it, responds to the site and the particular environment generated by the climate, light, etc, and develops the free plan - an appropriate form to the casual way of life.

(UIA, 1985: 45)

Read an article Memory in Architecture by Arthur BARKER on FUTURESPACES


Writings about this building

Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pg 48-49
Fagan, G. 2005. Twenty Cape Houses. Cape Town: Breestraat Publikasies. pg 26-41
Muwanga, Christina. 1998. South Africa : a guide to recent architecture. London : KŲln: Ellipsis : KŲnemann. pg 52-55, 92-93
Fagan, GabriŽl. GabriŽl Fagan. Architect's House, Camps Bay, Cape Town: in Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8): pp 48-49

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