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17 Glen Avenue
Higgovale, Cape Town, Western Cape

studioMAS: Architect
Sean MAHONEY: Design Architect
Michael LUMBY: Design Architect

Date:2015
Type:Homestead
Status:Extant

Award for Excellence Citation

This sanctuary is situated just below one of the world's (and nature's) most iconic and memorable landmarks: Table Mountain. The view, both up and down the slope, is the attraction and reason for anyone to find themselves in the vicinity. It is without a doubt powerful, and this sense of power challenges one with a near-hypnotic desire to look at the bay and the mountain. Possibly, it also provides a sense of privilege by giving those who live in close proximity an ownership of it i.e. that privilege can buy private pleasures of this nature.

It is only the brave, the self-aware, the well balanced and the truly humble that would be able to make the choice to proverbially turn their backs on this 'gift' namely the view onto Table Mountain and Table Bay. This inspired and conscious choice applies to the site itself, in that it was cleared of the built actions of previous occupants and, quite possibly, restored and enhanced to much more than it was before. The built form is not the centrepiece of attention and attraction, but rather the power of the site itself. The architects understood that the building should not be the central focus, but that the potential and the beauty of the site would only be realised via the relationship between the natural and the man-made. In this, they also understood that the man-made should be subservient and act as if it was not there. In many ways, it is clear that the most energy has been spent on restoring the site and realising the potential that nature has created.

The primary choice of avoiding the obvious power of the view has given the sanctuary a near-monastic quality. The project, as designed and realised, hardly gives any clues to the public realm and possible passers-by as to what might be hidden within. It is a place for personal reflection and renewal, in the midst of nature. It can be viewed as an indulgence but then it is an indulgence that has made the space where it has been constructed so much better than it was before.

The architecture is devoid of any embellishment. It is what it is and what it should be. It is a self-contained and consciously sculpted form. It creates the impression that it is at one with, and equal to, the large boulders of Table Mountain sandstone that define the character of the site.The building is made of brickwork, left in its original state on the outside. Like lichen grows on rock, this building is also being covered by plant growth.The individual bricks are shaped and chiselled, like a sculptor would shape stone to reveal a vision.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this building is the series of eight doors to its most important space. These enable, firstly, the direct relationship between the interior and nature outside and, secondly, defy any idea of the scale of the building. The door is often the signifier of human scale in a building. In this case, the door as a single opening plane protrudes above the horizon line, giving no indication of human scale. Upon using the doorway, humans realise just how small they are in comparison. This scale relationship can also remind humans of how relatively small they are in relation to the natural world, and how they should live in unison with and in reverence for nature. From the inside of this space, these openings frame glimpses of nature and, from the outside, the possible unintended consequence is that the glass reflects nature. The mechanism designed to make these giant doors work seamlessly is a delight and testimony to the design team's ingenuity. The reflections of nature in these glass panels are, in a way, emulated by the reflections on the water in the pool created among the boulders on the site.The depth and resulting dark colour of the water also evoke the idea of infinity, and of the relationship between earth and sky. The small seating bench on the edge of this pool reinforces these meditative qualities for anyone sitting there. The shape of the rocks gives the pool area a room-like interiority in the garden, which seems equal to the memorability and power of the single room of the sanctuary. In many ways, the one would have no meaning without the other.

What has been created here is a benchmark of restraint.This quality of restraint enables poetry and spiritual influence to flow from it. If the architects and their client chose to exploit the view from the site, its spectacular qualities would not have been realised. If the view were there for daily 'consumption' from this sanctuary, its uniqueness would have been lost. A mutually beneficial binary of introversion and extroversion has been created. Now, the introverted and reflective qualities that have been so masterfully created in this project underscore the unique and celebratory qualities to its fullest extent. Upon summation of the totality that has been created here, it needs to be admitted that it is difficult to imagine a different approach or solution which is then the ultimate accolade to the architects and their client.

The architects' statement that '17 Glen is a sanctuary for life itself' is no empty claim but will be true for many generations to come.


Writings about this entry

South African Institute of Architects. 2016. Awards : South African Institute of Architects. Awards for Excellence, Awards of Merit, Regional Awards for Architecture 2015/2016. Cape Town: Picasso for SAIA. pg 18-19