The art historians, Mary Cook and Hans Fransen, write that the three most important and influential architects in the Western Cape during the middle of the previous century were Gawie Fagan, Pius Pahl and Revel Fox. All three did important architectural work in Stellenbosch. Gawie Fagan died recently.
Gawie Fagan’s work in Stellenbosch includes the university residences, Helshoogte, Erica, Nemesia and Serruria, which were designed and built in the 1970s. Another project in the Stellenbosch area is in Idas Valley, where he designed four cottages for farmworkers. The design of these cottages is in sympathy with the historical farm homestead and environment and takes the lifestyles and privacy of the farmworkers into account. Restoration projects in the Stellenbosch environment include Rust en Vrede, Boschendal and Coetzenburg.
In 2006 Peter Buchanan wrote in Architecture South Africa that while Fagan might be associated with exemplary restoration work, his approach to architecture is urgently relevant to our times and immediate future. His architecture re-connects with nature, both human and environmental. It belongs to the Cape Town region and connects to its landscapes, climate, culture and history. His own house (Die Es) is a masterful demonstration and a convincing synthesis of modernity and local tradition.
According to Buchanan, Fagan’s constructional syntax is rooted in contemporary idioms, but is also related to the vernacular. His work is a probity that reflects a love of how buildings are made. This particular sense of probity is achieved through the approach of appropriateness. His 30-year restoration of the Castle of Good Hope is a tour de force and his new insertions into the renovation of the South African Breweries are bold and consistent with the robustness of the 19th-century complex. The 19th-century complex plays a unique role in the 21st-century conditions. This is propriety at its most effective.
Buchanan also refers to the thumbnail sketches that Fagan used extensively in his work. These sketches are about cyclical movement between decision making at the form level and that of making. Fagan’s work has a particular syntax and grammar which grows out of the doing.
Also, Frieda le Roux, first a student and later a friend of the Fagan couple, echoes Buchanan when she writes about the way in which Fagan combined modernism with heritage. Le Roux refers to a lecture during which Fagan warned students that the experience of architecture should be based on the underlying principles and disciplines of architecture, and not based on a superficial knowledge of architecture’s visual charms. Fagan himself never expected of his craftsmen that which he could not do himself.
Martin Kruger refers in his tribute to the homes that Fagan designed, some of which are beautifully depicted in the book, Twenty Cape Houses. Kruger points out that Fagan’s own house, Die Es, was already a predecessor of Green Architecture in 1960.
Dolf Wieërs, a lecturer in architecture at the University of Hasselt and who met Fagan on student exchange schemes, refers in his tribute to Fagan not only as a brilliant architect but also as a great-hearted gentleman. Frieda le Roux, as well as Martin Kruger and Henk Stander notes the humble and approachable nature of Gawie and Gwen Fagan.
The companionship and teamwork between Gawie and Gwen Fagan has inspired many tributes. Gwen Fagan closed her practice when her husband began the restoration processes in Tulbach after the earthquake, to support and to help him with research. She also completed a PhD in rural architecture. Amanda Botha explains in her review of Gwendoline’s Gawie by Gwen Fagan, that the stories and insights into the Fagan’s family life reveal the sense of adventure, wonder and hope with which the couple approached life, as well as their joint dedication to their work.