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 in South Africa and home to humankind’s most ancient origins – pays tribute to these two landmark homes. Scroll through the gallery below (Photograhpy: Greg Cox | Bureaux; Production: Sven Alberding | Bureaux) to dive into the alluring environment:
The 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 the family living on the farm,” as Lee puts it. Lee is partly based in Johannesburg and is in the process of building a studio on the farm, Wesley 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.
As much as the pavilion is a jewel in the landscape, it was conceived as a solution to the questions raised by its setting. “What do you do when you want to live in this landscape?” asks Lee. Ultimately, it became a building that represents a layered, complex relationship with its surroundings rather than the straightforward contemplation of natural beauty.
Even though their land is now part of the Khatlhampi Private Reserve and located next to a beautiful sculpture park and artists’ residency, when the De Wit family first settled there, the land bore the scars of over a century of farming. 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 environment around it.
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. “As much as we were looking for signs of pure nature, we were looking at signs of human nature,” says Lee.
The evenly terraced landscape suggested a flat roof, and the idea of the building rising from the ground 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 natural and what was man-made. The distinctions between nature, landscape and architecture would blur.
Like all the best examples of modernist architecture, the pavilion’s simplicity is deceptive. The stone tower (which was prompted by an existing water tower), the deck that stretches in front of it like a shadow, and the separate, secondary cave-like pavilion on the other side provoke 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 pavilion is also a lifestyle experiment – a quest to discover how much of life’s clutter you can leave out. “The main house has all the facilities,” says Lee, so he reasoned that the experiment in the pavilion could be more extreme. Lee designed a bed unit, a kitchen island and shelf, but there is almost no other furniture – not even an oven – and there are no interior walls.
Even the conventional bathroom was discarded: the toilet is hidden under the stairs, the bath is sunk into the floor between the bed and living areas – a prime spot in 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 it facilitates a careful reflection that the pavilion, as well as the land on which it stands, was intended to stimulate.