Arcadian living

Edna Peres explores why the Zanuso-designed Coromandel Farmhouse is a legacy worth protecting.

The mysterious structure left locals bemused up to its completion in 1975 some 20kms from Dullstroom, South Africa. It bore greater resemblance to an alien spacecraft resting upon the open veld than to a homestead. To begin with, the pitched roof is missing, instead planted over with grasses and wild figs. The main door could be anywhere, hidden in one of the numerous courtyards punctuating its 200m long walls. But for their size, the spartan stone clad walls offer no clues as to the considered materials and complex technologies hidden within them. A decade on, a Style magazine journalist thought that Coromandel House appeared ‘out of context’, understandably so given that none of the usual clues that scream “house” were present except for the swimming pool.

Image: Margaret Courtney-Clarke and David Goldblatt for Architectural Digest 1980.

But the absence of obvious familiarity is what I consider to be the centre of its timeless design success. Its aesthetics are the result of an astute problem-solving design method of which ‘a house’ was but one of many factors. After having been confined to domestic terrains for an extended period of time during the pandemic, this deeper interrogation of home design seems even more poignant as we search for authentic experiences. And this is certainly a house that deserves to be experienced. Framed views to the landscape, natural stone quarried on site, indigenous timber, varied colours and textures, dark versus bright spaces whose natural light is regulated by shutters, contrast, proportion, engaging veld smells and sounds add to the memorable surprises experienced when moving through its labyrinthine spaces.

Its unusual design is traced back to the clients’ bold ambitions and the innovative architect who was able to articulate them: Coromandel House became their collective monument to the pursuit of excellence. Maverick businessman Sydney Press and his wife Victoria were the duo initiating the project. Sydney rose to fame in South Africa as he built up Edgars Stores from the single shop in Cape Town where he began working as a 17-year-old in 1935, into a leading fashion-retail chain by 1982 when he retired. Victoria was independently esteemed for her art history, antiques and interior design proficiency, exemplified in her atmospheric Cheyne Walk interior design in London. 

When the farm was purchased during the mid-1960s, it was not intended to be a foremost pursuit. But ambition took over. Sydney differentiated himself from his neighbours by challenging preconceived farming notions and hiring the best professionals to implement innovative projects on the expansive 6000-hectare property. Apart from experimenting with agriculture, he also explored the territories of architecture. Three distinctive architectural projects on Coromandel Farm were the result of his ability, both financially and strategically, to constitute his environment to suit his dreams and interests. I believe they are the clearest evidence of his intention for legacy-building. 

The first, stately Romantic styled stables designed by Bauhaus trained architect Steffen Ahrends during the late 1960s, and the last, the incomplete urban-design inspired farmworkers village designed by Glen Gallagher, Erky Wood and houses by Pedro Roos from GAPP Architects in the late 1980s. Between these two architectural undertakings is the most alluring of the three: Coromandel House by the Italian architect-designer Marco Zanuso. In keeping with Sydney’s determination for pushing boundaries, at the beginning of February 1969, he sent a plane ticket to Marco Zanuso in Milan. They had never met. A magazine article about vacation fortresses in Sardinia left Sydney and Victoria mesmerised, convincing them that Zanuso’s austere holiday house in Arzachena, made him the man for the job on Coromandel. The strategy to entice the prize-winning architect was simple: let the majesty of the landscape do the convincing. Numerous horse rides along rolling hills and discovering natural features like the waterfalls and Bokoni stone ruins led to a collaboration between the Presses and Zanuso that lasted for a decade and produced two notable buildings: Coromandel House and the Edgardale headquarters.

Images courtesy of the Sydney Press / Press Family archive.

Zanuso’s effect on South African architecture could be described as a constructive disturbance of norms. The transplant brought new energy, not necessarily better but refreshingly bold and uncommon. The design can simultaneously feel African and Mediterranean depending on your perception. It draws out of nature the space-making qualities that allow us to feel a nostalgia for something stored deeply in our ancestral memory that we didn’t know we missed. 

Building the house was daunting as it took six years to finish. Long-distance correspondence, language barriers, on-going design changes, and infrequent visits by Zanuso were remedied by appointing a local architect to oversee construction work. The builder was regularly demolishing and rebuilding details in the house, for example the stone-cladding patterns for which an English stonemason trained a team from Sekekuneland to clad the walls. Designer fittings and furniture, elaborate air conditioning, a custom-designed audio-visual system and imported sanitaryware all led to delays – and more expenses. 

A further source of angst was the garden. Sydney was president of the Tree Society and both he and Victoria admired horticulture, so this combined with Victoria’s design sensibility gave them an edge when it came to their prize-winning gardens. For Coromandel, Victoria intended to create a wild-garden that suited the context. At first, Italian landscape architect Pietro Porcinai created a masterplan that connected the house to the stables, but only the meandering driveway was built. Next, Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle-Marx proposed an unused ‘sculptural’ planting scheme. Finally, the landscaping fell onto a young Patrick Watson, who had been employed by the Presses at their Inanda garden. Today, he is regarded as South Africa’s foremost authority on indigenous gardening. Like the Cathedral builders of yore, Coromandel House accrues these many contributions which 46 years later, are a testament to collaboration and perseverance shown by the architect, clients and builders, to stand by their vision. 

It’s taken almost half a century for mainstream architecture to catch up to that vision. Its passive design strategies are now the basis of ‘green’ design, but then they sought to temper the climate: a turfed roof, thick wall, small windows, courtyards, water features and overhangs keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter. Local dolerite blasted from the farm gave the house the outside patina to blend into the landscape, while light indigenous timber gave the house warmth inside and allowed for more light to be reflected. Complex systems and technology were all hidden to keep surfaces clean and clear. And the senses were engaged, both in the layout of the house with its three meandering corridors connecting open-plan bedrooms in each wing, and in the form with its constant blurring of the line between nature and building. Today, these are hallmarks of biophilia.

With ambition, there is always the risk of going too far. While the house was not the ideal family home, it made a larger contribution to South African architecture and in that sense, it went just far enough. Initially, word of mouth and a smattering of photos taken by the lucky few who were able to visit the private house became the sole means of sharing the ideas so boldly imported by Zanuso. These included his reading of the landscape and rational responses to it.

Nowadays, Coromandel House has become an example of how one might “build the landscape” and conjure up a building that sensitively yet boldly blurs the line between inside and out.

Among many of the new generation of award-winning South African architects directly inspired by this project are Frankie Pappas, Karlien Thomashoff, Nicholas Plewman, Pierre Swanepoel and Sean Mahoney. Each takes something different out of the building, but what is clear is how deeply Coromandel House’s spirit is reinterpreted in their work. 

The future of Coromandel House sits at the cusp of dissolving into oblivion, or a revival. Preferably, it should be revived to inspire a new generation of architects and empower the local community who are its current owners. In 2002 the farm was sold through the Land Redistribution policy to the Coromandel Farmers Trust consisting of many of Sydney’s previous employees. Almost twenty years on, the house has suffered unsightly yet superficial changes from the original. I marvel how it simultaneously feels like a time capsule transporting me to the past, while at the same time it seems dateless. Although it was built to last, it’s in need of overdue maintenance, its technology has become obsolete and upgrades are not in keeping with the quality of the original design. Expensive maintenance costs and the absence of strategic investment with specialists to advise on appropriate upgrades are the biggest threats to the future of the house. Compounded to this is the increasing pressure that the community faces from mining interests wanting to exploit resources on the pristine hills of the farm in an area along the Machadodorp-Lydenburg Road and Dorps River. But I am an optimist and I believe that Coromandel’s days are not numbered.

Coromandel House continues to challenge and inspire those who understand the power of architecture to manifest people’s dreams and desires. Its growing significance as a Modern Movement masterpiece and as a lesser-known project in Marco Zanuso’s portfolio, are opportunities for collaborating with the Coromandel Farmers Trust to safeguard its legacy whilst developing architectural consciousness. By breaking away from the norms of South African architecture at the time, Coromandel House pre-empted the architecture of today. Its quiet and timeless relevance reminds me that architecture is most enchanting when it is deliberately aiming to be expansive: in this case, connecting to our ancestral reminiscences through nature, whilst reflecting our imagination for the future. 

For more information on Coromandel House, please visit @friendsofcoromandel. We have created this platform along with one of the daughters of the previous owners to try to boost visits to the house and support the Farm Trust who owns it in generating income to maintain much-needed aspects of the house and provide assistance. Also, to share the magic of the place!

WORDS: Edna Peres
PRODUCTION: Mila Crewe-Brown and Edna Peres
PHOTOS: Dewald van Helsdingen, DvH Architectural Photography  @dvh_photography and others as credited.

Edna holds a doctorate in architecture from the University of Pretoria with research interests covering resilience thinking, regenerative design, heritage and sustainable urban development. She has researched Coromandel House extensively and is currently co-authoring a book on the property.