HEART OF GLASS

This minimalist pavilion set in the landscape of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site – the world's richest human-ancestor fossil site – is a modernist-inspired yet uniquely African ‘glass box’ structure with a rich and complex local resonance, which offers a thoughtful and sensitive setting for entertaining guests.

The most famous mid-century-modernist ‘glass box’ houses are, more than anything, architectural tributes to nature. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House might have been experiments in the cutting-edge use of concrete, steel and glass, but they were romantic more than industrial: part house, part garden pavilion, part shrine. The De Wit family’s glass pavilion in the Cradle of Humankind – the rolling grasslands northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, and home to humankind’s most ancient origins – pays tribute to these two landmark homes. 

This pavilion was the first building the De Wit family completed after they settled here about seven years ago. Brothers Lee and Wesley and their parents wished to ‘separate out family living on the farm,’ as Lee puts it. Lee is partly based in nearby Johannesburg and is in the process of building a studio on the farm, Wes now lives in Germany, and their parents live in the main farmhouse. The pavilion serves as a base for Wesley when he visits, a place for overnight guests to stay and, perhaps most of all, an entertainment spot for sundowners, barbecues, leisure and relaxation. 

But, as much as the pavilion is a jewel in the landscape and a space for the enjoyment of its setting, it was conceived of as a solution to a difficult and complex series of questions raised by its setting. ‘What do you do when you want to live in this landscape?’ asks Lee. Ultimately, the pavilion became a building that extends the possibilities open to a modernist architectural heritage by mediating a much more layered, complex relationship with the landscape than the straightforward contemplation of natural beauty.

Even though their land is now part of the Khatlhampi Private Reserve and located next to a beautifully landscaped sculpture park and artists’ residency, when the De Wit family first settled there the land had been farmed for a century and bore the scars. The pristine natural landscape that Van der Rohe and Johnson had envisioned their glass houses artfully disappearing into simply did not exist. ‘This was very different,’ says Lee who, together with his brother, Wesley, was responsible for designing and building the pavilion and shaping the surrounding landscape. 

The site they chose for the pavilion was home to a cluster of unremarkable farm sheds on a series of manmade terraces. There were some undeniably beautiful features: a stream, a row of plane trees flanking the approaching road, a wooded area and some other landmark trees. But, as Lee puts it, ‘As much as we were looking for signs of pure nature, we were looking at signs of human nature.’ Attempting to superimpose a complete return to nature would represent ‘a bad version of history’. ‘Besides, we probably would never have decided to build here if we didn’t have signs of and clues from its previous use,’ he adds.

With that in mind, the De Wits discarded the possibility of a vernacular architecture drawing on the language of sheds and farm buildings as a superficial stylistic solution. The thatch-and-bluegum poles of typical African game-lodge architecture were an equally inappropriate romantic gesture. ‘We wanted to use an architectural understanding to engage with the space in a different way,’ says Lee.

The evenly terraced landscape suggested a flat roof, and the idea of the building rising from the ground like another layer seemed to have the potential to set off a dialogue between land and building. A simple glass-box design would raise the question, in Lee’s words, of what was nature and what was building. The distinctions between nature, landscape and architecture would blur. And, like the structure’s predecessors, its transparency and outward orientation would frame its surroundings, encouraging a thoughtful, contemplative relationship with them. With Wesley’s landscaping in place, these surroundings would be very beautiful indeed.

Of course, like all the best examples of modernist architecture, the pavilion’s simplicity is deceptive. The stone tower (prompted by an existing water tower), the deck that stretches in front of it like a shadow, and the separate cave-like pavilion or ‘fire house’ to the other side set into motion a delicate interplay between volumes and levels. Together they attain a balanced asymmetry – the hardest of visual harmonies to achieve. 

Like its American predecessors, the De Wit’s pavilion is also a lifestyle experiment – a quest to discover how much of life’s ordinary clutter you can leave out. ‘The main house has all the facilities,’ says Lee, so he reasoned that the experiment could become quite extreme. Interior walls are all but nonexistent. Lee designed a bed unit and a kitchen island and shelf, but there is almost no other furniture, not even an oven. (There’s a dedicated barbecue area outside.) Even the notion of a bathroom was discarded. While the WC is secreted away under the stairs, the bath is sunk into the floor in a division between bed and living areas (making it a prime spot from which to submerge yourself and enjoy the surroundings) and the shower is outside among the trees. Lee finds the simplicity you attain in crossing the ‘point at which you leave convenience behind’ exhilarating, and believes that it facilitates the kind of reflection the pavilion was intended to stimulate. 

A number of artworks in the pavilion extend the dialogue between architecture and landscape. A painting by world-renowned early-20th-century landscape painter Jacob Hendrik Pierneef draws in the purples and blues of the distant mountains. It is set on a wall with a mural by Wesley’s wife, contemporary German artist Tatjana Doll, painted using pigments from the surrounding landscape. She also dyed the curtain with algae from a nearby pond, and painted the ‘fire house’ with local mud. Lee says these artistic interventions have allowed the pavilion to evolve and adapt as clues from the landscape continue to reveal themselves. ‘Otherwise, it’s just maintenance,’ he says.