Architects Gwendoline and Gabriël Fagan have been creating economical, intelligible designs that respond to the environment for more than 50 years, promoting considered, sustainable building, championing vernacular construction and influencing the aesthetic of South African architecture.

There is a new clinic in the Karoo town of Beaufort West. Although recently built, the walls are earthen and the structure blends into its residential surroundings of low, flat-roofed buildings. In summer, saffraanbome (saffron pear trees), which are widespread in the area, flower in the grounds, providing shade in the courtyards and wide- windowed rooms. Sun filters through their bare branches in winter. Big chimneys funnel down to rock beds that form part of the foundations of the building, creating natural cooling through-drafts, lessening the necessity for air conditioning. The layout is simple and largely open-plan, with colour-coded sections and cheerful murals. The clinic’s flowerbeds are planted with indigenous medicinal plants, used for generations by the Khoi. The Hillside Clinic building is pioneering yet unassuming, economical, functional, place-specific and sustainable, although architects Gwendoline (Gwen) and Gabriël ‘Gawie’ Fagan would just describe it as ‘a job well done’.

For the Fagans (92 and 91 respectively), whose architectural practice spans more than half a century and whose work has influenced both the construction and aesthetic of South African architecture, ‘inspiration’ and ‘style’ are not concepts that are particularly important.

‘You adapt according to the needs of the job. We’re not concerned with what other people do or think,’ says Gwen. ‘We do our own thing according to what we honestly believe is the right solution.’

Gwen, who originally practised medicine, was ‘roped in’ to help Gawie in 1969 when an earthquake flattened a street of houses in Tulbagh. The work required restoration and Gwen took on the research aspect of the job, later training as an architectural historian. ‘I went out twice a week on my own to make notes, chop off plaster, see what the brickwork was like and take photographs. It was very necessary work, but a bit boring after 26 houses. Then Gawie found I was useful in the office in all kinds of ways – I’m also a very keen landscaper and so I was drawn in to do the landscaping for all the rest of the work we did after that,’ she remembers. Gwen was later awarded the University of Cape Town’s first ever PhD in Landscaping.

Gawie began his career as an architect for Volkskas bank in 1951, designing and supervising the construction of some 50 new buildings across the country. ‘I attempted to capture the spirit of each particular town with my designs,’ he says. At the time, responding to the environment through architecture – which today would be called sustainable or context-specific architecture – and the championing of vernacular was a way of working and thinking that went against the grain. Maximalist structures that looked ‘modern’ and were built and fitted with the latest technology were in. Conversely, Gawie was particularly impressed by the simplicity and ingenuity of brakdak (flatroof) dwellings in the Karoo, an approach and style of building that continues to influence him. In 1964, the couple established Gabriël Fagan Architects.

The Fagans’ own home, ‘Die Es’ (The Hearth) in Camps Bay, was self-built by the Fagan family in a style that draws on traditional Cape architecture with minimalist modern details. It came about from an idea Gawie jotted down on a cigarette box. Economical and sustainable, the house exemplifies the couple’s practice. For Gawie, the challenge of a new commission and seeking a solution to a problem created by its setting is a great joy. ‘[Each project] has a very specific approach and a very specific solution,’ explains Gwen. ‘The challenge is to solve it to your own satisfaction. We’ve done such a range of work, including over 200 different types of restorations. We take any work that comes and do it to the best of our ability. It’s a very wide way of working if you’re earnest about architecture. You’re trying to improve people’s lives and give them what they want as economically as possible, and so that you feel satisfied that you’ve done your best. That’s what it’s all about.’

The simple way of life that necessitated the brakdak style of building in the Karoo has all but disappeared, but thanks to the Fagans, the hard-won knowledge of how to build structures made to last in a South African landscape and climate has not been lost. The Fagans’ buildings are not showy. In fact, you might not notice them. These are the clinics, apartments, shops and structures that seem like they’ve always been here – perhaps because they are the ones that will be.

Text and portrait: Alice Inggs.