by Anmol AhujaMay 05, 2022
San Fransisco architect Stanley Saitowitz thinks of architecture as a way to contribute to building a city. His buildings are conceived as part of the urban fabric with the intention to continue and repair the city if needed, one piece at a time. Yet, the architect has a vision of his own and he feels much more at home in Los Angeles where he builds often and where modern architecture is more accepted than in his adopted hometown, which he considers quite conservative. Saitowitz’s practice is focused on multifamily housing projects, although he also realised houses, hotels, synagogues, museums, libraries, and restaurants. His widely published Transvaal House was built in South Africa in 1979. Less than 20 years later it was named a National Monument by South Africa’s Monuments Council. There are now plans to turn it into a museum. In America, Beth Sholom Synagogue, built in San Francisco in 2008, is one of the architect’s most praised works.
Saitowitz was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1949. He studied architecture at the University of Witwatersrand in his hometown. After obtaining his Bachelor’s degree there in 1974, he continued his education at the University of California at Berkeley where he earned his Master of Architecture in 1977. After completing several houses in South Africa, he returned to San Francisco where he has been running his practice, Natoma Architects, named after the studio’s street address. The architect is Professor Emeritus at his Alma Mater.
Describing his work, the architect uses such words and phrases as biomorphic, cosmological, earth-centric and cosmos-centric, cave-like, and what I particularly find fascinating, geological forces. His early buildings—single-family residences in South Africa—were built as a sort of continuation of a geological process that has formed the land. Moving to United States impacted his architecture dramatically. Yet, the architect understands the city fabric as a sort of geography, not that different from what he experienced in his native country. He tries to bring a similar sense of continuity to his urban buildings. In the following conversation with Stanley Saitowitz, we discussed his key influences, intentions behind Transvaal House, and how the architecture he has been producing in America contrasts with the work he built in South Africa.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once said, “We think of buildings as instruments rather than objects, more like telephones than conversations, more like cameras than photographs.” Could you elaborate on that?
Stanley Saitowitz: I think the role of architecture is to provide opportunities and liberate the buildings’ inhabitants. The idea of an architect expressing himself has become an important factor. Self-expression is a significant aspect of the current architecture. In contrast, I am more interested in giving opportunities to inhabitants to express themselves. So, instead of thinking of architecture as a painting, I think of it as a frame. It is up to others to turn their house into a painting of sorts to express their own lives. I see architecture as an instrument, not a monument. I like it when architecture facilitates something. That’s why to me, architecture is more like a camera than a photograph.
VB: You dedicated your most recent monograph of your work to your mother who you said was the first person to encourage your interest in architecture. Could you touch on your upbringing and what triggered your interest in architecture?
SS: I grew up in the early 1950s in Johannesburg’s suburbs when there was still a lot of construction taking place. My family’s house was one of the earliest on our street. So, as a child, I saw all of those buildings emerge one by one. The transformation of the empty land around us was magical to me, seeing buildings grow from nothing. I still remember the smell of bricks and mortar and wood being cut. And I would sneak into the houses after the contractors left to imagine how those spaces would be once completed. That’s how I developed my passion for construction. But there were no architects in my family. My father was a businessman, he had a wholesale business, and my uncles were lawyers and accountants. My brothers were not interested in architecture either. My older brother became a dentist, and my younger brother a doctor.
You are right to point out that my mother encouraged my interest in architecture. She always reminded me that whenever I came back from birthday parties, rather than talk about the cake I would describe the house. [Laughs.] Also, my parents saw my pleasure in drawing and making things, and they would take me on the weekends to an independent art school on the other end of the city, which was situated at a private house where a garage was converted into a classroom; we had our classes in the garden.
VB: Growing up in Johannesburg, were you aware of the work of Rex Martienssen, one of le Groupe Transvaal architects?
SS: I would often ride my bike by a house near where we lived, which was outstanding and unusual, a cube with a flat roof on a beautiful lawn plinth with a cantilevered entry canopy, V-shaped columns, and extensive glazing. It was completely abstract and different from any of the other houses in the neighbourhood, which were conventional pitch-roof ranch-style brick houses. Every time I saw that house, I marveled at it.
It was years later when I started studying architecture at the University of Witwatersrand that I found out about its history. The house was built in the late 1930s and it was one of the last works by Rex Martienssen. It was a kind of transitional structure. By then he had shifted from purist International Style architecture towards a more vernacular version of modernism. The use of brick introduced a local character. There was a strong Modern movement in the 1930s in Johannesburg. Martienssen knew Le Corbusier. Some of my professors worked with him and maintained a very close link to International Style Modernism.
VB: Let’s talk about your Transvaal House. The house is based on vernacular ideas that contrast greatly with International Style Modernism.
SS: I designed the house shortly after I graduated. But it wasn’t my first house. The first one was designed while I was still a student. It was my thesis project, a house for an artist. I was then interested in the local architecture of African tribes. The idea was to take lessons from the local vernacular and Europeanise it. The same idea was pursued in the Transvaal House, which was finished in 1979, after I graduated from Berkley, as I was still going back and forth between America and South Africa at that time.
VB: You imagined the design of the Transvaal House as “three huts loosely woven with the earth.” There were three parts—the house, the workshop, and the garage. You cited traditional African beadwork as one of your inspirations. Could you touch on those references in your early work?
SS: The Ndebele people were the original inhabitants of Transvaal who built their houses out of mud blocks and painted them in multicolor geometric patterns. And the geometric ornament they used was very similar to their beadwork designs. The patterns would be washed away during the rainy season, and they would be repainted every year. I photographed the process for several years watching the buildings being repainted in the spring, washed down by the summer rains, and looking bleak in the winter. The men did the construction work by cutting the mud blocks and putting on the roofs, and then the women would do the plastering and painting. I was inspired by this local architecture and wanted to build on its traditions. I particularly liked the strategy of plans for those houses, which incorporate a series of courtyards and gates, which are quite sophisticated in terms of placemaking.
When I was a child, these traditional houses were dismissed as of no importance. In contrast, there was a remarkable Portuguese-born architect, Pancho Guedes who practiced in Lourenço Marques, modern-day Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Pancho became my teacher and helped make the indigenous world visible to me. Guedes studied with Martienssen at Wits and was an important architect, a member of Team 10, and a very accomplished practitioner. He was my model for developing an idea of contemporary African architecture. While he worked in Mozambique, I became interested in his ideas and discovered my own local version of African architecture in buildings by the Ndebele people in Transvaal.
VB: In his book Green Architecture, James Wines said that you “welcome the surrounding structure of nature as the primary generator of form.” He said your buildings, “reflect the rhythms and patterns found in air flow, water surfaces, geological strata, characteristic typography, hydrological cycles, and the seasonal changes of botanical life.” Do you agree and are these inspirations still relevant?
SS: I do agree. At the same time, the forces that shape my buildings, especially the urban ones, are somewhat different now. For example, most of our roofs house energy sources. That’s where we place equipment to power and heat our buildings. A lot of my buildings have operable shading devices. So, the occupants can choose the qualities of their interiors. Air, light, and space are very critical. My buildings are urban versions of Wines’ description of my early projects which were set in nature.
VB: I like another one of your quotes, "Machu Picchu's terraces are an after-image that haunts my work in the landscape." You referred to those occasional houses that you get to design in the landscape, right?
SS: Yes, Machu Picchu is such a wonderful collaboration between manmade and nature. It is basically building contours. Ever since I saw it in photographs, I used it as a model for my houses. I eventually visited the place. It defines the geological architecture we talked about earlier.
VB: How would you describe progression in your work? Wouldn’t you agree there is quite a contrast between the work you did in South Africa and in America?
SS: Stylistically there is a definite change because the conditions in South Africa and in America are so different. In South Africa labour is plentiful and materials are expensive. In America, it is the opposite. So, these are completely different realities. But in principle, my work is quite consistent. My Transvaal House is also an instrument. It is a landscape framework to allow occupation and I am still looking to do that kind of operation of creating a kind of landscape with the house and threading and weaving space and material. Sure, my language is now more geometric, but the principles are not different from the earlier houses.