Bauhaus Architecture in South Africa

Interior design Hermanus

Bauhaus Architecture in South Africa: The Bruynzeel House, De Hoge Hoek, in Stellenbosch.

It was built by a wood merchant and yachtsman, Kees Bruynzeel, in 1962. He commissioned an architect, Aart Bijl, to design his home.  Aart Bijl was a student of the well known architect Pius Pahl, a German Bauhaus architect who married a South African woman and moved to Stellenbosch shortly after World War II. Pahl opened up a practice in Stellenbosch and designed what is now the biggest collection of private homes in the Bauhaus tradition in South Africa.

Bauhaus, the German word meaning house for building, was a school that originated in Germany and ran from 1919 to 1933. 1933 not co-incidentally was the year that Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany and the Bauhaus leaders left the country. Prior to this however, founding architect Walter Gropius was appointed to head a new institution that would help rebuild the country after the war, and form a new socialist order. The Bauhaus Institution called for housing for the working classes and as such used the principles of Classical architecture in their most pure form. In other words, they shunned ornamentation and favoured functionality.

The Bruynzeel house, built quite some time after the end of the Bauhaus movement example of a modernist Bauhaus architectural influence in South Africa. The Bauhaus school wanted to teach the combination of both art and craft, a marrying if you will of the artist and the craftsman in a highly functioning form. I think that Bruynzeel house is a perfect example of such a marriage.  Here you can see the obvious influence of the builder, a wood merchant and yachtsman in the fine use of wood, and dramatic hyperbolic slanted roof with almost a sail-like, nautical feel to it.  This is combined into a very artistically, aesthetically pleasing architectural building by the architects influence.

Despite the fact that most Bauhaus style roofs were typically flat, this modern take on the style has a roof the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid, but still allows for the straight clean lines which are characteristic of Bauhaus. In fact this style definitely has an Italian minimalist influence: a design style with its roots in Bauhaus that continued into the ‘70’s and experimented more freely with new shapes and materials.

The Bauhaus movement, also known as the International Style, took advantage of the possibilities of new industrial materials like reinforced concrete, rolled steel and plate glass in large sizes leading to much larger windows than previously seen.  They may well have frowned Bruynzeel’s use of materials however. He has spared no expense in building this house which is finished with teak yellow wood, copper and glass. Even the slim face brick used here was commissioned and specially made for this house.  So, not quite the materials that the original Bauhaus architects may have recommended, but then they were trying to build houses for the masses, but certainly an Italian minimalist or Scandanavian influence.

Another modern day departure of Bruynzeel house from the normal Bauhaus style is in the use of colour.  Whereas Bauhaus used colours of white, gray, beige or black, here the raw materials of wood and brick are on display, but they are still featured in such a way that they create a neutral palette and certainly not in bright colours.  Apart from the actual materials and shapes used in the design, in line with the Bauhaus norm there is no obvious ornamentation such as turrets, towers, decorative mouldings and motifs.

One of the key elements of the International Style in Europe was a large window.  Here, the use of windows dominate the façade of this building, creating clean dominantly cubist shapes typical of Bauhaus.  The windows at the top and bottom are of different proportions in line with the favouring of asymmetrical over symmetrical. The windows create a geometric aesthetic without ornamentation of any kind.  The abundant use of windows also leans to the Bauhaus characteristic of space over mass.  The use of these high windows fitted into the amazing roof, are certainly functional and yet beautiful. The amount of natural light that is let into the building and high ceilings create stylish architectural spaces within the house.

Even today, the Germans are world leaders is flat pack, ready-made houses that they export worldwide, and are amazing examples German precision and engineering. What the Bauhaus founders were trying to create back in 1919, has indeed survived, if not entirely in the same form, to this day.

Bauhaus architecture highlights the importance of orientation and space transition.  This house is at peace with the site, its topography, views and sun access. This beautiful and dramatic building sits comfortably in it surroundings.

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