Nestled in the foothills of Mpumalanga's sweeping escarpment lies Coromandel Farm, South Africa's poster child of land reform. (Hofstatter, 2006). The 5800Ha Farm is situated in a pristine environment of extensive open veld, mountains & rivers. From 1968 the estate was assembled from 24 smaller farms by the South African Industrialist, the late Sydney Arnold Press (1919 – 1997), who turned his weekend hobby into a promising farming enterprise. His vision was to create the best farm in the country, which he achieved by employing only the best agricultural experts to manage his model estate. Agricultural assets included; the first Blueberry orchard in South Africa, the biggest Holstein Dairy, yellow and white maize, potatoes, wheat, sugar beans, sunflower, soya, peaches, nectarines, a packing facility, immaculate stud-breeding, a yearling barn and wool farming.
Being captivated by the work of an Italian Architect Marco Zanuso (1916-2001), Press and his wife Victoria went on to appoint him to design & build their new weekend home on the farm. Casa Press or House Press as it was known as at the time was completed in 1975, six and a half years later. Zanuso appointed his own team of builders from Italy as only the best was good enough.
Additional to the Africa Manor House, (as it is renamed today), the prime estate boasts a yearling barn, an architectural designed stable complex (to host the once most expensive horse in the world), 24 managers’ residences, an administrative block and an airstrip. Two employee villages including a school was added in the 1980’s, designed by local architects Glen Gallagher (1935-2010) & Erky Wood (Born in 1954) of GAPP Architects.
During a decade-long legal battle prior to his death with his ex-wife Victoria and some of their children, the farm was increasingly neglected. Eventually his children won control of the trust that held the family fortune and Press had to get their permission to visit his own farm. He died of a heart attack soon afterwards. "That's what killed him. He loved this place." says Brian Phokane, his general farm manager. (Hofstatter, 2006)
In 2001 the trust controlled by Press's children living abroad appointed a curator to auction what was left of the farm. Today the estate is owned, entirely staffed and managed by the Coromandel Farmworkers Trust as an empowerment project, purchased through a government land reform grant.
AFRICA MANOR HOUSE : CONCEPT & INSPIRATION:
The following extract explaining the architectural concept was taken from Edna Peres’ article in Issue 62 July/Aug of Architecture SA: ‘The journey towards the Africa Manor House is mysterious – along the winding driveway a thicket of trees conceals exquisitely carved and crafted dolerite stone walls which overlook the scenic estate from their raised position on an ascending hillside, and hide their contents. Conceptually, the house reflects the qualities of an Italian town, a public piazza in the middle for gathering in, with narrow roads leading into more private dormitory spaces.
Press remarked that anyone having visited Rome would forever be touched by the patina of its cobbled streets and the spaces for living that its piazzas offered. Zanuso further observed that on a South African farm, there is really too much sun, heat and glare. So the structure must provide copious shade, coolness, greenery & water. The atria should be delicately narrow – like the streets of Rome, always in the shade. Traditions of the region, local stone pebbles, cross cut timber as floor finish that emphasizes the rustic qualities of the natural palette, deep shaded veranda’s & windows, was a response to harsh climatic variations and a deep sensitivity to the grasslands, farming landscape and natural features.
The entire structure is tied together by a 700mm deep soil covered indigenous roof garden. Two sets of parallel wings are offset from a two-tiered central living area, and extend towards landmarks in the rural landscape in an east-west direction. Each wing is framed by roughly one hundred meter long stone walls that partially enclose narrow four meter wide ‘streets’ or densely planted atria.
Press appointed landscape Architect Patrick Watson (Born in 1947). Watson recalls it as his first major commission and he diligently applied himself to the project by hiking through the farm to gather botanical specimen for propagation in the Coromandel nursery where they could later be planted around the house. While today the Manor House garden is overgrown, the successful approach that Watson has applied is visible in the manner that the plants have appropriated the building as an extension of the veld.
Fortress like arches anchor the structure in a vast landscape enclosing interiors that in turn reconnect to the landscape. The arches define the threshold into the living areas on the northern facade while the main access occurs from the south. Technologically, the house is a luxurious time capsule of international design excellence and industrial design with features such as electric sliding doors & central heating. The house achieved the goals of both client and architect – a delicately poised sculptural shelter in the landscape, capturing the spirit of the veld.
The house can be described as a dramatic manipulation of the landscape that offers practical, periodic shelter within its organised spaces and rational lines. Deeply rooted in Zanuso’s architectural ethos, his regards for context, typology, image, spatial organization and rational technical construction is revealed in all layers of the design.’
To date, this mysterious building has captivated and inspired many South African Architects. ‘Part building, part landscape, part historical tragedy, today its attraction lies in its embodiment of a ‘ruin’ that has seamlessly adapted and fused with its natural habitat.’ (Peres, E. 2013:32).
It could be romantic to describe the house as ‘a ruin in the landscape’, but it would be a sad reality to allow it to go to ruin. Looking at the immense attention to detail and the technologically advanced elements that the house holds for the time in which it was constructed, we should strive to protect this eminent building and allow it to continue to inspire designers by illustrating its successful integration of structure, ecological design and technology.
PERES, E. (2013). Architecture South Africa. Issue 62 (July/Aug) pp.32-37. South Africa Info. From Farmworker to Farmer. Available from: http://www.southafrica.info/business/trends/newbusiness/coromandel-120805.htm#.U9zGHPmSySo. (Accessed: 02/08/2014) Artefacts. House Press (Coromandel). Available from: http://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=7588. (Accessed: 02/08/2014) Coromandel Estate. Available from: http://coromandel.za.net/. (Accessed: 02/08/2014),