Engaging With Place at Coromandel House

Engaging With Place at Coromandel House

Résumé en français

Cet article explore l'aménagementphénoménologique du lieu à Coromandel House et sa relation avec le paysage. Il commence par présenter le sentiment d'appartenance à Coromandel, qui trouve son origine dans son paysage géologique ancien, les vestiges archéologiques plus récents du peuple Bokoni, et enfin les vestiges laissés par les colons agricoles dans la région à la fin du XIXe siècle. L'accent est ensuite mis surla contextualisation de Coromandel House en tant que projet, ses origines etses collaborateurs remarquables, en discutant de leur réponse au lieu qu'ilsont rencontré et des choix faits pour améliorer délibérément une expérience particulière du lieu. Il s'ensuit un résumé des principales décisions en matière de conception du paysage et de l'architecture qui, au fil du temps, ont permis à l'esprit dulieu de s'épanouir. À l'origine, l'équilibre entre l'architecture, l'intérieuret le paysage orchestrait soigneusement une expérience qui exaltait les sens,d'abord de l'environnement plus vaste et de la ferme, puis de l'ambiance immédiate du paysage environnant et enfin d'une nouvelle ambiance hybride qui aémergé de l'interprétation de l'espace par l'architecte. Aujourd'hui, avec letemps et les changements de propriétaires, la présence continue du genius loci suggère qu'il y a quelque chose à apprendre. La dernière partie de cet essai examine certaines de ces qualités en relation avec Coromandel House.

This article explores place making at Coromandel House and its relationship with the landscape. It begins by introducing sense of place at Coromandel as originating in its ancient geological landscape with more recent archaeological remnants of the Bokoni people, and vestiges left by farm Settlers in the region in the late 19th C. Coromandel House is then contextualised, focusing on its origins and noteworthy collaborators’ response to the place they encountered, and their choices to enhance a particular experience of place. A synopsis follows of the main landscape and architecture design decisions which have over time allowed for its spirit of place to mature. In its prime, the balance between architecture, interior and landscape heightened ones’ senses first of the greater environment and the farm through to the immediate sense of place from the surrounding landscape, and lastly a new hybrid sense of place that has emerged from the architect’s interpretation of place. Now with the passage of time and changes to its ownership, the continued presence of genius loci suggests there is something to learn.

Introduction to Place at Coromandel Farm

Coromandel Farm is located in Mpumalanga, a scenic province of South Africa whose diverse habitats have been home to humans for centuries (Delius: 2012:399). The visual allure of the farm itself is derived from the magnificent series of steep hills along its north-western to south-eastern boundary which form a backdrop to farming activity (Figure 1). They create a first impression of the ancient sense of place characteristic to this environment. Upon further discovery on foot, its verdant kloofs[1] and valleys, waterfalls and rich variety of local flora and fauna are revealed along with remnants of previous habitation in the form of the Iron Age Bokoni stone ruins to be found on the crest of the hills to the west of the farm.

Figure 1: Coromandel Farm looking eastwards (Source: Ben Jooste, 2022)

These circular stone structures (Figure 2) enhance the archaic qualities of place so this area and which inspired the design of the most prominent structure on the farm: the modernist Coromandel House built between 1969-1975. Instead of responding to the cues of farming activity such as its vernacular residential architecture, the barns and sheds, and even maize fields and dairy pastures, the architect sought to capture a far more ethereal nostalgia of the ancient geology,as well as the archaic Bokoni ruins.

Figure 2: Bokoni ruins on the farm inspire the design of Coromandel house (Source:  Ben Jooste, 2022)

Twenty years ago, a new extension to an existing residential village was built by under the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing scheme which added a new layer to Coromandel. Currently,the farm is owned by a Trust of 248 beneficiaries many of whom make up the community of over 3000 people living on the farm. Even with such a strong human presence, the landscape remains at the forefront as Jooste (2022) describes, “a productive beauty; that of the relations between man and labour and tools, set out in a series of axes that are framed by tall and deep shadows of Celtis africana”. Each of these various interpretations of place, contribute to the experience of the farm today, which although nuanced for everyone, leaves a lasting impression.

Interpreting Place – the origins of Coromandel House

For almost half a century, Coromandel House has drawn the interest of landscape architects and their peers for its powerful sense of place, regarded as an example of the successful integration of architecture within the landscape.

This traces back to the intention to create a house that “was a part of the landscape” (Watson, 2020) Figure 3.  

Coromandel House was designed for Sydney Arnold Press (1919-1997) and Victoria de Luria Press (1927-2015). As Chief Executive Officer of the fashion retail outlet Edgars Stores, Sydney could access a network of pioneering individuals from the rest of the world whom he regularly invited to South Africa to consult on improvements to Edgars or his foundations and alternative business interests.One of these interests was Zwaggershoek Farm acquired in 1968, which was cultivated to reach its zenith, starting with changing its name to Coromandel, followed by the acquisition of further neighbouring farms to create a vast 5600 ha agricultural enterprise lauded as ‘Farm of the Year’ on various occasions (Rheeder, 2012).

Figure 3: Coromandel House as seen from the East at sunrise circa 1980 shows the house integrated with the landscape  (Source: Sydney & Victoria Press Family Archive)

For this new endeavour, they sought to assert their own and distinctive – first a large stables complex designed by Steffen Ahrends (1907–1992) and immediately thereafter, a farmstead for the family to enjoy weekends and holidays on the farm. For the latter, they had in mind a certain aesthetic thanks to the captivating yet spartan Casa Arzale project in Sardinia which they had seen published in an international architectural journal (ZML, 1981; Truswell, 1985).

They turned to its Italian architect, Marco Zanuso (1916-2001), renowned for his award-winning industrial designs, to help them materialise their idea in communion with the impressive landscape. When Zanuso accepted their invitation, he arrived at Coromandel Farm in February of 1969 describing it as “African meadows at 2,000m above sea level, hills, and spruce forests without a living soul” (Grignolo, 2013) - he immediately understood that nature was to be the focal point. The challenge was clear: to channel the palpable genius loci of this ancient landscape within appropriate volumes of a contemporary dwelling for a large and dynamic family enjoying time in nature, far from the city. However, and perhaps most astutely, not to simply arrest the existing sense of place of the greater landscape, but to heighten the experience of it by sharpening our focus onto certain elements therein through contrast and forced perspective: These parallel walls separate yet also unite, like telescopes framing a directional perspective, so that there is a sense that the architecture in this project highlights a point in the landscape.

The effect, a new sense of place, born of the veld, but unique to the house and its new oasis landscape.
Figure 4: Coromandel House positioned and camouflaged at the foot of the hill (Source: Christoffel Mentz, 2021)

Positioning the house was perhaps the first of many significant decisions engaging with a ‘sense of place’ (Figure 4). It was the result of various excursions around the farm until the ideal spot was found: its sheltered position marks the threshold from the grazing plains below to the ascension of the hill above with unobstructed views over the valley. Zanuso added, “Although the steep site was basically treeless and without cliffs or stone outcrops, it was selected because it was sheltered from the prevailing wind and higher than the perennial mists.” (ZML: 1981: 17). The idea of threshold can also be read in the linearity of the building which did not shy away from the untamed veld. Zanuso 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 and water. The atria should be delicately narrow – like the streets of Rome, always in the shade….” (Truswell: 1985) Figure 5

Figure 5: Western elevation of narrow atria, delicately narrow, always in the shade  (Source: the Sydney and Victoria Press Family Archive circa 1990) 
Figure 6: An initial plan of Coromandel House and landscape showing the architectural experience which begins by drawing the veld in between its long stone walls, then leads into courtyards that are neither outside nor inside and culminates at cavernous living areas at the heart of the home, before meandering back though more bedrooms and back out into the veld.  (Source: the Porcinai) 

The architecture is not light: extensive earthworks allowed for a concrete framed column and beam structure to emerge which was later filled in with brick and clad with local dolerite stone quarried from the farm to create the impression of an archaic structure embedded within the terrain (Figure 6). Once complete, the outer skin of the building revealed none of the complex structural and innovative technical refinements within its walls, floors and ceiling. Clearly, this was not an ‘honest’ architectural language where the system could be ‘read’, but rather a neat form that belies complexity (Figure 7).  

Coromandel House invokes an emotional reaction between people and the place they are interacting with, an essential ingredient in place making.

Pallasmaa (2009: 34) suggests that the architect’s role “is to establish frames of perception and horizons of understanding”, which sensitise participants to the place, and become the “projection screen of remembrance and emotion”.  The unique quality of place,therefore, lies in its “power to order and focus human intentions, experiences,and actions spatially” (Relph, in Seamon & Sowers, 2008: 45).

Figure 7: Northern facade of Coromandel House where the atmospheric qualities of the architecture encourage one’s sense of the landscape to be more heightened (Source: Edna Peres 2012)

Building the hybrid Landscape: intention and implementation

Whilst the architecture provides the functionality for dwelling within its landscape, it is only complete when understood as being a part of the greater landscape. Following his discussion with his clients on site, the recurring theme in Zanuso’s sketches was to bring nature closer to the architecture (Peres &Zamboni: 2022: 103). His design allowed for this in four direct ways: the planted roof, the linear courtyards with crevices which allowed for plants to grow in close proximity to the house, the arched buttresses which created rhythm and shade on the northern façade and lastly, carefully placed windows and doors that could open up completely to dissolve the line between inside and out.

To give effect to this continuum of the veld into which the house merged, on 9 July 1969, Sydney wrote to Zanuso inviting “his friend the landscape architect” to join him on his next visit, adding “we would of course prefer a landscape architect for this project who is not, repeat not, committed to formal patterns, but rather one whose designs are likely to blend with the character of the farm” (ibid, 77). Zanuso confirmed by telex that Pietro Porcinai (1910–1986) had accepted. He was renowned for creating gardens that appeared ‘natural’.

Figure 8: Pietro Porcinai Landscape Master plan for Coromandel House &Stables. Following his visit to Coromandel his role expanded to creating a masterplan for the farm and advising on numerous projects including the nursery.  (Source: the Porcinai)

At the house, Porcinai’s plans suggest a garden around the house that could appear wild through primarily indigenous planting, but also offer practicality for the family living there (Figure 6, 8). Porcinai took great care in designing the approach toward the house. He provided guidance on the construction of the meandering driveway with small bridges over furrows that connected the stables to the house. Together with one of the smaller dams and canal, the driveway was one of the few elements that were implemented – albeit with construction challenges.

Porcinai insisted that the effect of grading the road above and below the datum of the natural ground line would enhance the dramatic effect of moving through the veld to create a sense of arrival more interesting than “a continuous movement along an untouched hillside” (Press, V. 1971).

Whilst the final driveway constructed did not exactly follow Porcinai’s plan, its meandering approach was maintained and contributed toward the sense of arrival at a place of significance (Figures 9 & 10).

Figure 9: Major (car) and minor (walking) routes with vignettes in Jooste(2022, 48-49)
Figure 10: Atmospheric sketches illustrating the journey and arrival at Coromandel House in Jooste (2002, 72) 

Due to being overseas, Porcinai requested bi-weekly updates from someone with significant botanical knowledge appointed to oversee the growth of trees and the rest of the works. Without regular updates however, Porcinai’s direct involvement had ended by mid-1971. Victoria later cited how influential he was in establishing the natural gardening strategy so integral to the experience of Coromandel House (Chia, M: 2015) which she would describe as “the most marvellous house built with grasses growing over the top and it was just blending into the landscape” (Katsikakis, D, 2020). Her understanding of landscape, however, touched on a sensitivity towards its important role as a functional ecology and for this she turned to Patrick Watson (b. 1947-) whose innate ability to create natural indigenous landscapes seemed ideal. They sourced wild flowers and ferns from the veld to bring the wilderness closer to the home, in a considered way. Watson managed to reintegrate the house with nature while allowing the architecture to remain visible. In this way, nature was returned to Coromandel House and thereby completed the architecture so that it would read as one continuous landscape. It is also interesting to note how the ecology has evolved from a grassland to savanna landscape evident in Figures 11 & 12.

Figure 11: View toward the Eastern wing circa 1980 (Source: Sydney &Victoria Press Family Archive)
Figure 12: View toward the eastern wing in 2012, with mature trees (Source: Edna Peres, 2012)

Reflections on place

In various essays, Zanuso explored the complex exercise of designing appropriately. His design methodology proposed that an object functions best within its context and for its intended use. “Modernness” was rejected as a style in favour of a contemporary response to the “tensions of a society undergoing profound structural transformations”, and architectonic experience is always one where organised space conditions human experience (Peres & Zamboni, 2022, 117). From these three criteria, it could be argued that Zanuso interpreted cues from the Coromandel valley landscape that he then used to curate experiences between dwellers and their context, whilst remaining functional. Its poetic practicality resulted in a new sharpened sense of place unique to the house but born out of the ancientness of the site. Jooste (2022: 63) describes it as such: “The house acts as a condensed haptic experience of the archaic of Coromandel. Like entering an expansive kloof, the scale of the walls [is] daunting,but one is relieved by their strength. Looking out over the landscape from the house one can see that these two narratives meet along an axis of water flowing north through a series of constructed dams. If one ventured farther west, the archaic experience would only increase from the lack of technology and artefact, but to the east, the agriculture provides a quiet calm of civilisation. And yet, there is a stillness. There is a sense of half-habitation, as if the landscape is dormant, resigned.”

Figure 13: View from Atrium Westward fusing Zanuso’s architectural ideals with the client’s love for nature (Source: Edna Peres, 2021)

Zanuso’s design rationale was in response to contemporary lifestyle, production process and qualities of a natural setting, its palette and resources, and demonstrates that his response was not purely aesthetic, but also reflected a holistic response to technology,which included the interpretation of the genius loci or the archaic spirit of the veld (Norberg-Schultz: 2000,89). The qualities of Coromandel House are rooted in the making of a new place in which modern life can ‘take place’ and are congruent with aims of modern architecture (Norberg-Schultz:2000,113). Zanuso may have imported his fascination with holistic technology based on a rational typology of modules into a remote South African farm, but he adapted it to the clients’ love for nature.

The architectural result of this fusion recalls Pallasmaas’s suggestion that a memorable design should “slowdown and focus the experience of the place” (2009:35).

Its ancestral form, akin to a ruin in the process of erosion over time, prompts a strong emotional response magnified by the silence of an uninhabited place (Jooste 2022:31, 63).

Figure 14: Drone photography of showing a mature Coromandel now completely mergedwithin landscape (Source: Christoffel Mentz, 2020)


There are seasons when Coromandel House’s long stone walls and linear courtyards are hardly distinguishable from the terrain surrounding them (Figure 13). It seems that its return to nature has been completed and the result is a unique place which each person interprets through their own emotional lens. To achieve a timeless and transitional architectural landscape, Zanuso and his long-standing collaborator, Pietro Porcinai, devised foundational ideas for a design that would blend inside and outside as a full sensory experience as per their clients’ brief of “the house becoming part of the hillside”. This was then brought to life with Patrick Watson, who for a decade created and tended to an ephemeral indigenous landscape design.

Today, the sense of place at Coromandel House can be interpreted in two distinct ways: one, an urge to be camouflaged within the greater landscape which is understood in contrast to all the other experiences on the farm leading up to it, and two, the curated experience of a distinct new landscape which is congruent with the architecture honing in on qualities of the greater landscape in an attempt to suspend their perception of time.

[1] A deep ravine


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