A life built by design

The upstairs hallway in the Fagans Camps Bay home which they built themselves with the help of their children.

Gwen and Gawie Fagan may be in their nineties, but they are still very much young at heart.

The Camps Bay residents released a new book, Gwendoline’s Gawie, at the end of last year.

It is a memoir written by Gwen, 92, on the couple’s life but it also delves into the architectural history of Cape Town.

Gwen started writing the book a few years ago, and this is her sixth self-published book.

The Fagans met as students at UCT.

Gwen was studying medicine while Gawie was studying engineering. Gawie moved to Pretoria to study architecture.

“After two years of studying engineering, his mother realised that he should be studying architecture. He went up to Pretoria to study and never looked back,” says Gwen.

Gwen finished her studies in medicine before joining Gawie in Pretoria. The couple got married in 1949 and lived in Pretoria for 10 years before returning to Cape Town.

They have been living in their Camps Bay home since 1964.

They built with their four children Henry, Helena, Jessie and Alida.

Their children are all in their sixties now and they often work on projects with Henry, who is an engineer.

Their unique house, say the Fagans, has appeared in 14 different architecture magazines.

Gwen says of the home: “It wasn’t about trying to be different. It was just about designing whatever came into his head. The whole concept of the house came into his mind in a flash. He was sitting on an airplane, and we had just brought this piece of land. The whole image of the house came to him, and he wanted to draw it but he didn’t have a piece of paper. So the guy next to him offered him his cigarette box.”

Gawie, 91, adds: “It was back when they had bigger cigarette boxes, and I sketched the whole house there and then.”

When the family started building the house, it was exactly to the scale of the original design on the cigarette box. This is one of the many stories in Gwen’s new book. There is even a picture of that original drawing on the cigarette box.

The book also tells the story of why they built the house themselves. “We didn’t have enough money to pay someone else to do it. We had two small cars, and we sold one to buy a concrete cement mixer with the money. We were then able to start working,” says Gwen.

They started the concrete work after getting help to dig for the foundation of the house. Gawie would run back and forth and get the concrete from the mixer. Their children also helped, either by laying stones or sand in the building process.

“Each of the four kids were given various jobs according to their ages. That’s the way we got the cement mixer going.” .

The family stayed in a small flat nearby while they were building the house. They brought the plot of land for R6 000 and the house still stands out from some of the other more modern buildings. “We like a house if it is well designed, it doesn’t matter whether it is modern or ancient,” says Gawie.

He adds that they do a fair amount of work on restoration, which means working with old buildings.

Gawie’s list of architectural honours include civic honours from the City of Cape Town in 2010 and being named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

There are three important things that need to be accounted for when designing a house, says Gwen: landscape, what the people want and the weather. “You have to do it in an honest way and consider everything,” she said.

Gwen never initially planned on working in architecture. But after the famous earthquake in Tulbagh in 1969, Gawie was commissioned to do the restoration of 28 houses that were damaged.

“Each house needed a lot of background research, so Gawie asked me to help with that. After that, he found that I was quite good in the office, so he kept me there,” joked Gwen.

“It was very nice for us to be able to work together,” says Gawie.

The book was launched at the Cape Institute for Architecture in November last year. Gwen says the feedback has been positive so far.

Gwen’s advises youngsters interested in architecture to be honest and not to try and copy anyone else. “Try and solve the problems as they present themselves in an honest way.”

Gawie’s advice to budding architects is to study it at university if their parents can afford it. If university is out of reach, start as an apprentice in a firm. “If you are passionate and you go to speak to the boss they might be prepared to take you in.”

When asked why they haven’t retired yet, Gawie says, “my friends retired early, and I attended all their funerals.”

He firmly believes that being busy keeps your body and mind active. “We have lovely staff, so it is actually a pleasure to go into the office.”

They still go to work five days a week at the Gabriel Fagan firm in Bree Street. One of their big jobs they are working on at the moment is building a clinic for the local government in Beaufort West, and the pair have no plans to put down their pencils soon.