Freunde von Freuden, the Berlin based international interview magazine is releasing their second book this November: Friends of Friends. Inside, they interview creatives from around the world to get a glimpse of their daily lives and inspirations. One day, they spoke with Gwen and Gawie Fagan – two of South Africa’s most famous architects – inside of their beautiful Cape Town home that they built by hand in Camps Bay.
What is your regular routine?
Gwen: We start at 8.30am. We’ve got very nice people working for us, all of them are talented and very friendly. We do a lot of interesting and varied work. Some restorations combined with new stuff. At the moment we are working on quite a large clinic in Beaufort West. We’re also doing a new building right next to our office that has 18 stories and a number of restoration things like a student hostel. We are very busy. We can’t keep up with work actually.
Gawie: We are altogether ten people. I can manage that. I’ve got personal input in each job.
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 Volkskas.
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. For instance, we didn’t know how tall to make the fireplace and went back to the cigarette box drawing to scale it accordingly! We still have a photograph of that sketch. I think Gawie is pretty much inspired by the local architecture and has given many lectures on what moves and inspires him and what he finds beautiful.
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.
Gwen: We decided to buy. It worked out well for us.
Tell me about the building process.
Gwen: The building took two years. My son and three daughters each had a job. One had to put the water into the concrete mixer, the other one the sand, the other one the stone and I tilted the mixer. We published a book about building our house.
You built the house while working full-time and finished it in two years. How did you do this?
Gwen: I used to work in the mornings at Carl Bremer hospital. In the afternoons the kids came from school and then we started working. We also built on weekends. I think people thought we were mad.
Gwen, I heard you collect plants.
Gwen: My roses are my biggest collection. I became a very ardent collector of heritage roses. I found that Tuinhuis, a government house in Cape Town, had roses in the garden from the early 1800s and we were asked to restore the Tuinhuis and it’s garden. I’m always responsible for the landscape part of our work. I started my research on old roses and how they got to the Cape, where they came from, 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.
Gawie: We tried every publishing house and a publisher said years afterwards to me: “You know the biggest mistake that I’ve ever made was to refuse to publish your book.”
Gwen: After work we used to drive around on a motorbike. I knew where these roses grew by that time because of all my research.
I know it’s a silly question, but I’m going to ask it anyways. Do you ever think of retiring?
Gwen: No. Unless we get so sick that we can’t work anymore. Why should one stop doing what you enjoy doing?
Gawie: Gwen, I think we did decide that at 100 years old we’ll consider it.
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.”
Gwen: And the sunset is beautiful and it is different every evening.