Where the mountains meet the sea at the home of Gwen and Gawie Fagan in Cape Town
Gawie Fagan is one of South Africa’s most renowned architects. His wife Gwen is a researcher and landscape designer who has contributed considerably to Gawie’s work. We visited the couple, who have been taking on life’s challenges together for 70 years now, in their house on the Atlantic coast, which they planned and built themselves. The Fagans discuss their first meeting, the start of their careers, the challenges of combining work and family, and their passion for architecture and plants.
Depending on where you stand, the Fagan’s self-built home ‘Die Es’ has a mountain or seaside backdrop. ‘Die Es’ – meaning ‘the hearth’ – is situated on the Atlantic Seaboard in Camps Bay, but it feels more like it’s on a little farm with its own private nature reserve. The house itself and most things in it are handmade by Gawie and Gwen Fagan, their son, and three daughters.
As one of South Africa’s most celebrated architects, Gawie’s ideas concerning connecting architecture with the natural landscape were revolutionary. Over the years, Gwen played an instrumental role as a historical researcher and landscape planner in Gawie’s practice. Together they share a love of designing new buildings just as much as restoring old ones—with careers that have spanned over 70 years, 65 of which as a married couple.
The roof is probably the only one of its kind in the world.
How did the two of you meet?
Gwen: My mother died of cancer when I was 18 and then I came to Cape Town, and started my second year at university. That’s when I met Gawie.
What made you and Gawie start working together?
Gwen: An earthquake. In 1969 there was a bad earthquake in the Western Cape and Gawie was on the Institute of Architects committee and they sent him to assess what harm had be done to important buildings in the area. He decided that the best thing would be to spend all the money that he had been given on this project on one town. That was Tulbagh. I was employed to work on this project with him. Also when he couldn’t go out to Tulbagh to take notes on site, I did that for him and that’s when I came into the office. He found I was quite useful and so I stayed there, and I’m still there! I work on the the landscaping and interiors. I help with all the research. So whenever there is a historical building we’re working on, I do the background history. I decided to specialize further and in 1995 I got my PhD in Landscape Design. Once I gained this qualification, specifically in this field, it allowed me to have a little more authority.
Gawie drew the house on a cigarette box first, as he didn’t have paper with him at the time.
Gawie, you have had a major influence on South African architecture. How did everything start for you?
Gawie: I was employed by the bank Volkskas as an architect on a salary basis.
Gwen: At that time Volkskas was starting to build small Afrikaans banks all over the country. Gawie designed 50 banks from scratch in 10 years.
Gwen, how did you get started professionally?
Gwen: I was qualified as a doctor and worked full-time in the military hospital in Pretoria while we were farming and while Gawie was working for Volksk.
How did you manage with a young family?
Gwen: I never left them at home, I dragged them around wherever I went and when they were big enough I put them into nursery schools. We became very interested in farming. We started keeping cows and we got more and more until we were milking 18 cows a day. We used to get up very early to be able to milk them and come home and milk them in the evening after work.
Gawie: There was no such thing as a weekend ever.
Gwen: At that time no-one was doing organic farming in South Africa.
Gawie got an airplane because he couldn’t keep up with the work in a car.
Was Gawie ever at home?
Gwen: He had to be. Gawie got an airplane because he couldn’t keep up with the work in a car.
Gawie: I had to do an enormous amount of traveling. Eventually we had almost 200 branches across the country and the bank sometimes had these big American cars. Very often they didn’t have a car available so they asked us to use our private cars for which they paid nine pennies a car mile. I found I was half the week away from home so I said to the general manager that I’d like to get a plane and he was very amused by that.
Gwen: Gawie got a pilot license as a student.
Gawie: I was quite an experienced pilot by then. The manager had a good laugh and said “forget it”. He thought it was a big joke. I said “alright, I’ll buy the plane. You lend me the money for the plane and you pay me nine pennies a car mile for the use of the plane.” With the compensation for the car miles the plane paid for itself in about four years. It was a very nice plane, a Tri-Pacer, a workhorse plane.
You have an amazing knowledge and a brilliant understanding of material. What does a typical Fagan-building look like?
Gwen: I would say that Gawie’s work is highly inventive. He never copies anybody else and it’s inspirational. Like this house that we built ourselves. We bought the plot. Gawie was sitting in an airplane when he got the idea about how the house should look. He didn’t have paper with him at the time and the guy next to him had a cigarette box, so he drew the house on that cigarette box. If we wanted to scale anything when working on the house we referred to that first drawing.
In 1964 you started building your house ‘Die Es’. What made you move to Camps Bay?
Gwen: We had friends living on the plot next door. It was an open plot and they said “Come buy this plot.” There weren’t many open plots like this. This one has a nature reserve on its boundaries that runs right down to the sea.
Gawie: Nobody can ever build in front of us.
There are certain elements of your house that are significant: the unconventional roof that emulates the waves of the ocean, the big fireplace, the views...
Gwen: The roof is probably the only one of its kind in the world. It consists of slats of wood. I laid all these little stones in the passage as well so this is significant for me. The house is also positioned to have its back turned to the howling winds that sweep down the slopes of Table Mountain.
Gwen, I heard you collect plants.
Gwen: I became a very ardent collector of heritage roses. We were asked to restore the Tuinhuis and its garden, which is a government house in Cape Town. The garden had roses from the early 1800s so I began research on old roses and how they got to the Cape, where they were planted and how they were treated. It became a passion. In the end I decided to publish a book on my findings.
How many years of research did this take?
Gwen: About eight years. I published the book in 1988. We finished the restoration of the Tuinhuis garden in 1974. I asked Gawie to take photos for the illustrations as he is a very good photographer. You can see that the book has been designed to be published in full size so readers see the exact size of the roses.
Gawie: That determined the size of the book. That’s why we had to do our own publishing.
Gwen: Yeah, publishers wouldn’t do a book as big as this. So we had to do it ourselves. So we sold some of our shares and started our own publishing business.
Gwen, you have a wealth of gardening knowledge – what was the trigger for your interest in landscaping?
Gwen: As a little girl I grew up on a farm in Morreesburg in the Karoo and we were very much involved in day-to-day work on the farm. My mother was an Afrikaans farm girl and also a very good singer. She studied singing in Stellenbosch and then she went to Upington to teach there. Her father could see his daughter doing well by teaching in London. So he insisted that she go to London to undertake further studies. In the meantime she went to Upington to teach and she met a man there who she wanted to marry. He had already married once and had a child. She said to her father that she wanted to get married and he said: “You can’t marry this man. He’s an Englishman and it’s just impossible.” But she wanted to marry him. Her father finally agreed under one condition: she could go to London and get her qualifications and then come back and get married. That’s what happened. She came back, got married and they had me.
My grandfather said to my mother: 'You can’t marry this man. He’s an Englishman and it’s just impossible.'
One week her husband went away to arrange a concert tour and didn’t come back. She heard from her friends that he’d be going out with another woman and the next thing she heard was that he had left the country with all her money. Her brother heard about this and said: “you come back home at once to the family farm, you cannot raise this child. I will raise her until she’s eight and then you can take her.” That’s what happened. So I went to live with him and when I was eight I went to Stellenbosch. We stayed in a room at the top of a shop. I asked the shopkeeper to give me an area in the backyard and I started making a garden. This was my first interest in gardening. We used to eat vegetables from our garden. It was such a contrast between life at the family farm and the life with my mother—two distinct lives, really. So I wrote a book about it.
Do you collect anything next to roses?
Gwen: I’m a collector of succulents and I’ve got a very wonderful collection of rose books as you can see.
Gawie: Architectural books.
Gwen: I also collect lithops, stone plants, they’re all in the kitchen. They break up in the middle and a flower comes out. They’re also called ‘baby bottoms’ – you can see why. I started collecting these when I was a little girl. I’m also a bit of a pottery-collector as you can see. I love the work of Esias Bosch.
Our office staff go at five but we often work much later than that in order to catch up on the day’s work.
What’s a typical day like for you both?
Gwen: Now that I’m older I don’t like cooking that much. For lunch we go to the Royal Cape Yacht Club. That means I don’t cook in the evenings, we just have a light meal. Our office staff go at five but we often work much later than that in order to catch up on the day’s work. Then we come home and that’s it. Gawie enjoys reading the paper. He reads everything and picks up all the mistakes and makes little circles around them. I like to read all kinds of books. Then we look at the evening news and watch an interesting program. We usually go to bed at about 10.30pm. Next day, same thing. On the weekends we see our children. On a Sunday I often cook and they all come here. We take the weekends off.
What do you love most about Cape Town?
Gawie: It’s the nicest city one can live in. How privileged are we, from when we leave the office, over the hill, you see the sea, it’s a different world. I say to Gwen, “thank goodness we are here.”
Gawie and Gwen, thank you so much for such an inspiring day. It was an honor to meet you both.
Photos: Desmond Louw & Antonia Heil
Interview & text: Antonia Heil
Production: FvF Productions UG
We visited Gwen and Gawie Fagan for our ‘Spaces full of life’ series, in which we introduce inspiring working and living spaces and the people behind them. We hope you enjoyed this article.