The abandoned South African replica of Villa Savoye

Novelist Katharine Kilalea walks us through a fictional abandoned replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, conjuring up the uncanny sensation of a new place for a familiar icon.

This article was originally published in Domus 1050, November 2020.

“Welcome to False Bay!” a sign said. As the car passed from one side of the mountain to the other, the landscape went from tropical to arid, from fleshy to brittle, as though I’d entered another country with different plants and different animals and different flowers. Signs lined the road: “Slow down please!” “Cayution porcupines!” “Danger falling rocks!” “Beware potholes!” Something rousing was playing on the radio, something by Mahler, and as the car bumped along the tarmac, which hadn’t been resurfaced for some time, I bounced around in my seat in a kind of involuntary dance. As the narrow road dropped to sea level, hugging the peninsula, the town came in and out of view across the bay. I passed roads whose names – Capri Road, Warwick Street, Edinburgh Drive – recalled the wealthy European settlers who’d holidayed almost a century earlier in what was then known as the Cape Riviera. Most of their sprawling villas huddled against the mountain had been converted into youth hostels or care homes.

I passed a boarded-up Edwardian railway station and a strip of beach, a row of colourful but tired Victorian bathing huts whose paintwork looked untouched since they were built. Then, on a distant slope, the house appeared. The grand white box, as in the photograph in the newspaper, rising from the rocks on its thin white stilts as if signifying, albeit tenuously, the victory of architecture over nature. From afar, the house’s stark geometry stood in such sharp contrast to the style of the neighbouring houses – mostly colonial villas adapted for the local climate, Edwardian terraces with louvred windows or Mediterranean villas with thatch roofs – that its presence seemed a form of critique. In the setting sun its walls were as luminous as if lit from within by a fluorescent bulb.

Then, on a distant slope, the house appeared. The grand white box, as in the photograph in the newspaper, rising from the rocks on its thin white stilts as if signifying, albeit tenuously, the victory of architecture over nature

Unlike the Villa Savoye, which is approached by car, the House for the Study of Water was on too steep an incline to drive up and had to be reached by a staircase called Jacob’s Ladder. My first impression of the house, in its actuality, was that it was much smaller than it had looked in photographs. The exterior plaster was weary and sad, with cracks spreading across its surface. I wandered around looking for the entrance, which eventually I found around the back of the house. I had to push past the layer of overgrown ivy which covered the front door as if to deter unwanted guests. Flanking the entrance hall were a ramp and a spiral staircase, while a corridor directly ahead of me led past a small washbasin, the kind for hands, to a door set slightly off-centre at its far end. Assuming a horizontal organisation, I made my way down the corridor towards the door, which opened onto what looked like a disused laundry. Then I backtracked and ascended the ramp that led to the first floor. The white walls flanking the ramp were crumbly and stained, but decorated with patches of light and shadow cast by the striations of the reinforced-glass windows and the vertical lines of radiator bars overhead. A long blue corridor led off the first-floor landing towards the bedrooms, kitchen and living areas.  

Here and there were traces of the house’s previous occupants: something black on the bedroom floor (a rat, I thought, but in fact it was a leather glove), a jar of instant coffee so old its contents had congealed into a single mass. A glass wall separated the living room from a first-floor courtyard whose presence, since it was enclosed by the same ribbon-shaped windows as the rest of the house, I’d not detected from outside. There was some furniture in the living room – a chaise longue, an armchair – but not enough to make the oversized space appear any less institutional.

The ramp continued its journey from the courtyard, rising along the exterior of the house before turning back on itself towards the roof. The final section, hemmed in on either side by head-height walls, terminated at an S-shaped wall enclosing the sea-facing side of the solarium. In the middle of the wall was a hole whose placement, at the end of the ramp, suggested that it was, if not the reward, then at least some compensation for the arduous climb.

Unlike the windows in the lower levels of the house, this uppermost aperture was tall, framing a view of the sea so picturesque it might’ve been a product of my imagination. A concrete slab projected from beneath the window: a table, I supposed, but one with a certain contradictoriness in it, since measured against other tables it seemed too small, and anyway, if it was a table then where were the chairs? In the absence of chairs it seemed logical to rest on top of the slab as if on a high bench, a position which was presumably at odds with the architect’s intentions since it oriented me with my back to the view (which, in any case, was difficult to appreciate since the afternoon sun shone so brightly off the sea that it hurt my eyes to look). I don’t know, I thought to myself. Because on the one hand, it seemed a pity to have reached what was clearly the high point of the house only to turn away from it. But wasn’t it also just a relief to let my legs go for a minute? After all, I’d been climbing non-stop since arriving at the house, so, really, sitting down was not a bad outcome at all.

Opening image: detail of the south facade of the Villa Savoye designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, built between 1929 and 1931 in Poissy-sur-Seine, Paris. Photo Jonathan Eastland / Ajax

Katharine Kilalea grew up in South Africa. Her poetry collection,
One Eye’d Leigh, was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Kilalea’s debut novel,
OK, Mr. Field, was shortlisted for the London Magazine and Collyer
Bristow Debut Fiction Prize.

The text is taken from Katharine Kilalea’s novel OK, Mr. Field, 2018, reproduced by permission of Faber & Faber ©2018 Katharine Kilalea

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