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House Cole-Bowen
The Willows, Pretoria, Gauteng

Robert Edward, (Coley) COLE BOWEN: Architect

A transcribed extract - from a contemporary publication describing the house - is provided below:


As told by architect/owner R. E. Cole-Bowen

We discovered Portion I of Portion A of the Willows No. 23 on a January afternoon of 1945. A shaggy, rocky koppie - its dolomite outcrops, bush and twisted trees almost completely overswept by the long summer grass; above us, the clouds massing up towards the sunset; lapping at our feet the rolling Transvaal Highveld - and somewhere between Heaven and the Highveld a "monstrosity of a house," a speculative builder's "moderne" of pimply plaster blinking out at the view through bullseye windows and horizontal orange painted bars, with a curved concrete hood supported on shiny red grano steps by a pair of bright black pipe columns over an obscurely glazed front door.

A "monstrosity of a house" which a fellow Old Andrean found for us, reluctantly, arguing that this wild koppie would be too much for my brand new aluminium leg. It became our refuge from a home front engrossed in the problems of acquiring whisky, cigarettes, tennis and/or golf balls, nylon stockings and petrol coupons.

The "monstrosity" had this one redeeming feature: On coming in at the front door you looked clean through it and out onto the koppie behind and you were carried away from the complexity of corrugated iron hips, valleys and lean-to's, sagging gutters, creaking floors, and the dreary complacency of "bijou" planning.

This was a dare that I could not resist but - we had our problems: Elizabeth had three children – John and Oliver at St. John's and Moge at St. Andrews. And I had two, June at the D.S.G. and Patrick in Natal. The girls had a three term curriculum, the boys had four - but we had to reckon on the Christmas holidays when they could all be concentrated under this one small roof. Then the house was literally hewn out of the rock face jamming any expansion to the south or west. Building control was in full spate, and petrol rationing, and all the contractors I had known were involved in bigger and better jobs in town and nobody seemed very interested in our own particular problems - except a certain Mr. J. G. Barkhuizen whose first job this was as a building contractor and who went to work with a will. He was concretor, bricklayer, carpenter and joiner and I never saw him use a ladder to get down off the scaffolding - and with him, Mr. Erasmus, a sprightly, spade-bearded septuagenarian who ran over the rafters like a rock rabbit and danced a jig on our new laid paving.

The first development stripped off roof and ceilings and replaced them with a dual plane monopitch, ripped out the flooring to form a storage loft over the bathroom and W.C. and wiped out the concrete hood and the bijou planning. It left the bedroom-bathroom complex much as it was before, pulled the kitchen together a bit and fitted in two east-facing cabins for the boys and a third (south-facing because their holidays fell a month or two either side of mid-winter) for the girls. The rest of the space - every square inch of it - went into a fluent zone for living, except for the bathroom lobby now fitted up as a sort of dressing bay for Elizabeth. There were no corridors, movement through the living zone being guided and controlled simply by the arrangement of the furniture.

The living room with its brood east-facing window seat and its four-leaved folding glass doors giving expansion northwards onto a tree-protected terrace we thought of as a sort of controllable verandah, a day room, but we allowed for extension eastwards to a more formal lounge should this experimental space prove uncomfortable. (It will be noted from the plans that it did not.)

The final effect was one of extreme simplicity – polished slate floors with Zebra skins or circular Native mats, white-washed walls and oatmeal covered upholstery. For our bed we procured a magnificent "muishond" (mongoose) kaross which pleases us to this day.

We supplemented an existing 2,700 gal. (12,258lt) storage tank with a 20 ft. (6.1m) diameter by 6 ft. (1.83m) deep swimming pool to be used for garden irrigation, and we traded in the windmill for an electric pump.

We then started in on the garden, and from the original levelled quadrants upon which the house was built we extended a system of contour paths, steps and ramps to terraced lawns and soil pockets, to link up our new planting with the indigenous trees (burkeia, klapper, ochna, mispel), aloes and ficus. There was no hard and fast geometrical lay-out, there were no pegs or levels or lines; we simply worked from outcrop to outcrop and tree to tree in fluent African curves. It was backbreaking work to start with. We had one gang of workers wheel-barrowing stone down from the crest to fill a helical terrace to the swimming both, and another gang working upwards with garden soil from the valley below; but gradually the place took shape - the contours and shape of an African koppie.

On June 17, 1946, Bitha was born and I planted a rose terrace in commemoration of the occasion. In 1947 we embarked on the second development which extended a bedroom wing westwards, cutting deep (and expensively) in the hard blue dolomite, but opening up the living zone to the south to recapture the original in-at-the-north and out-at-the south effect, broadening out the dining space sufficiently to provide a generous work bay and drawing table to myself, and making a pavilion of the entire living zone through which the hillside seemed to flow.

In principle this is the house as it stands to-day, but when John left for Cambridge in 1951 I expropriated his room for my drawing office, and last year, with Oliver and Pat off our hands, their room became a dark room. We both work hard, Elizabeth in her career and I in mine, with photography our common enterprise, and the house has developed around us. As it stands we are short of dining space for formal entertainment, and our older guests need something more than a cabin to sleep in, and this has led to what will probably be the final development, in which the whole of the existing bedroom wing will become our workshop and a completely new line of bedrooms will be built, jutting out over the terrace and enclosing, in a cobblestone courtyard a pool, a rambling ficus and the lemon tree.

This has been no ordinary house, crystalline shape pre-ordained by conferences, sketch plans, working drawings, details, specifications and contracts, no compromise between architect and client, but it is rather the expanding growing shell of a living organism creeping out over the koppie face to enclose, shelter and give background to the eccentricities of its creators. Designed from within and related as much to its surroundings as to our own requirements, it may not be slick architecture but it certainly is great fun.

Ref: Wale, Laurie (editor) c.1959 Home Building Ideas – Architects' Plans for Southern Africa. Purnell & Sons, Johannesburg: pgs 55 - 64

[Submitted by William MARTINSON]

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.