WORDS Kerryn Fischer PHOTOS Lar Leslie/Frank Features
An architect’s decision to restore rather than renovate her 60-year-young modernist marvel of a home is a timely reminder of the movement’s roots – and a valuable lesson in the power of longevity.
When architect Lisa Rorich and her partner, Garth Robinson, bought their iconic home on Durban’s Berea four years ago, it was the realisation of a long-held dream. “I’d put the word out that we were looking for a mid-century modern home,” says Lisa, who felt they had outgrown the Victorian semi-detached they’d lived in for years. Now, standing in the spectacular courtyard of her Hans Hallen-designed home, she recalls the old adage, “be careful what you wish for”. “It’s powerful stuff, as not long afterwards I got a call from interior architect Mario Rodrigues, who had heard this house was on the market.”
By a stroke of serendipity, Lisa realised that she not only knew the owners but had been into the house – and had loved it. “It was the childhood home of architect Janina Masojada, in whose architectural practice I’d worked, and at whose invitation I had attended a party at the house a few years ago,” she says. “I remember walking into the courtyard and being totally blown away. The entire house is cantilevered off a slab and a staircase – a feat of engineering no less impressive now that I am its owner.”
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The house was commissioned in 1960 by original owner Shirley Masojada, a Mauritian remedial educationalist. Her husband Milek was the structural engineer on the project, and their good friend Hans Hallen, the architect. “They were all mates and hung out together, so it was really more of a collaboration between engineer and architect than any formal arrangement,” recalls Janina, Shirley and Milek’s daughter – herself a successful architect, whose practice won the design and build of South Africa’s Constitutional Court. “But my mother was most definitely the client!”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Lisa and Garth bought what was very much a well-loved, lived-in family home. Situated high up on the Berea on a 1 000m2 narrow plot, the house is laid out over two floors in a T-shape, with the living areas running lengthways down the plot, while the upstairs bedrooms form the stem of the T. This section is supported at the protruding end by a reinforced concrete wall, embellished with a contemporary relief-moulded sculpture that Lisa likes to call “the fossil”. The house was built in two stages, with the living areas and tiny kitchen on the lower level, while the three bedrooms on the upper level were cantilevered off a slab-like support of relief finish to provide a veranda and link to the staircase.
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“The first phase was built at the time of Durban’s Ocean Terminal, a project on which my father was the chief designer,” explains Janina. “And so the house was very much a laboratory for the structural systems and integrated artworks that he was working on then, and much inspired by the Ocean Terminal. Of course, he and Hans were also influenced by trips they took to international expos during that emerging modernist period.”
A second phase of the house became necessary in the late ’60s as the Masojada family grew – they had five children – and an L-shaped wing was added to the courtyard at the back. “There is something in this modernist design that, combined with the authenticity of the materials used and the extreme level of detail found here, surpasses anything I’ve encountered to date,” says Lisa, who runs her own architectural practice. But for her, the most extraordinary feature of the house is the constant play of light throughout the day. “There are several textures of glass in the windows that look out to the courtyard, and there is an exact rhythm to the way the light falls here during the course of the day,” she says. “It is the best quality of this house – and what I find is most lacking in architecture today.” It’s clear she feels a responsibility to honour the original principles of the design while modernising the home to suit her and Garth’s needs.
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