Bill Watts, retired architect and writer has his say.
Okay, now that I have your attention, let me explain. The blight on the face of South African architecture in the ‘noughties’ has to be the widespread adoption of Tuscan architecture. It has encroached on the suburbs like the Parktown Prawn in built form, and like the Prawn’s themselves, it is almost impossible to destroy.
But who is to blame, the architects that designs these houses and complexes or the general public who wishes to buy them and live in them? It’s a tough question as many an architectural firm would be reluctant to turn down good money, even if it goes against the principles of the practice. And furthermore, how many of the architects that design with a Tuscan flavour, or the homeowners who wish to live in a home of that style, have ever stepped foot in Tuscany (and gambling away your salary at Monte Casino doesn’t count)? I have (not gambled away my salary, but been to Tuscany), and it looks nothing like the Tuscan villages in Centurion or Bryanston or wherever.
Tuscany, to give you some background, is a region of central Italy, bordering Emilia-Romagna to the north, Liguria to the north-west, Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, Umbria and Marche to the east and Lazio to the south-east. The territory is two thirds hilly and one fourth mountainous. The remainder is constituted of the plains that form the valley of the Arno River. Tuscany is known for its landscapes and its artistic legacy. Six Tuscan localities have been UNESCO protected sites: the historical centre of Florence (1982), the historical center of Siena (1995), the square of the Cathedral of Pisa (1987), the historical centre of San Gimignano (1990), the historical centre of Pienza (1996) and the Val d’Orcia (2004).
It is beautiful, nevertheless, and I would dearly love to return back there someday, especially as I have now seen South African ‘Tuscan architecture’, to see whether limestone is used as ubiquitously as it is here, if terracotta is the only colour in the world and whether all Tuscan buildings include wrought iron of some description.
But by now I am sure that you are willing me to get to the point – how can I possibly believe Tuscan architecture to be a good thing. Well, let me tell you. No other style, form or concept in architecture in South Africa has experienced as much of a backlash as Tuscan has. The ‘Tuscan-style’ is based on European needs – we are African, we need big windows, we don’t need the pitched roofs synonymous with these houses.
And luckily our architects are starting to take a stand, and while I do not wish to call it ‘anti-Tuscan architecture’, that may be the best way of putting it. Young firms, young minds and fresh ideas are producing architecture of a better quality than we have seen all decade, and gasp, the public too seems to also be behind this movement. Although there will doubtless still be the odd Tuscan development on the horizon (and unfortunately Balinese too), those that are actually spending the money are becoming more discerning with the way that it used. Perhaps it is the whole environmentally friendly movement that is to thank for a rethink of the basics of architecture, but I think that Tuscan could also stand up and take a bow. Its time may be up and I am sure that I am not the only one rejoicing. I have even seen a bumper sticker stating, ‘Do Drugs. Do Crime. Just Don’t Do Tuscan’. I like that.