Keeping it real

Award-winning Stellenbosch-based architect Johann Slee is known for designs that are sleek and creative, devoid of fuss. He spoke to MARGUERITE VAN WYK about where he finds inspiration and the major trends in architecture today.

MvW: What inspires your designs?

JS: I have always been drawn to the authentic, ingenious and uncomplicated; any design that is honest, clever and simple. Our South African vernacular architecture is the inspiration for my buildings. I appreciate the honesty of the design, the sincerity of the materials, the resourceful and uncomplicated methods of construction, as well as the care with which the buildings were placed in the landscape.

There is always reference to vernacular architecture in my work, such as the ‘corrugated’ studio I built for myself. I was inspired by the corrugated hay shed next to the Heidelberg turn-off from the N2 highway in the southern Cape.

My choice of materials and finishes relates to our history and reflects the muted nature of South African landscapes, as well as their rich texture. My buildings ‘absorb’ landscapes while allowing their inhabitants to experience the surroundings in carefully captured views.

Architect Johann Slee

I have always been a staunch fighter for historical buildings. In my matric year in Ermelo, where I grew up, I witnessed the total destruction caused by the Group Areas Act. A whole commercial street owned by our Indian community was bulldozed to the ground. Irreplaceable historical buildings dating from the period 1888 to 1910 were lost forever. The only means of protest I knew then was to make a photographic record of this barbaric act and paint images of the buildings before they were destroyed.

I’m also inspired by the emotions buildings evoke. Anyone can draw up a plan, but few people can ‘make’ a good building. I am moved by the raw emotions of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, or the feeling of calm when I step into a cathedral, or the effect of light entering one of Le Corbusier’s chapels.


MvW: What differentiates your work from that of others?

JS: Hopefully the simplicity and honesty of my buildings and the emotions people experience when entering my spaces.

MvW: What is your greatest challenge as an architect?

JS: To keep my work honest, inventive and uncomplicated.

MvW: And your most treasured compliment?

JS: When clients knock on our door again to have another building done by us.

Peartree Photography | Slee Architects |

MvW: What do you think of current trends in architecture in South Africa?

JS: Thanks to the World Wide Web, design ideas are readily available and, as a result, architecture is suffering. The analytical design process is often replaced by the copy/paste process and that leads to generic buildings; we refer to it as Google/Pinterest/Instagram architecture.

Building green is all the rage at the moment. Of course, sustainability is a valid factor in architecture today, but incompetent so-called green consultants soothe their clients’ consciences by persuading them to use expensive systems that often are not appropriate. Well-designed green buildings should adhere to basic design principles such as incorporating the path of the sun and choosing the correct materials for proper insulation, minimising the need for these unnecessary systems.

But I’m excited about the new South African vernacular architecture I’m seeing, with some designers taking inspiration from masters like Gawie Fagan and Michael Sutton, who instilled a respect for our unique heritage. We are demanding more from our buildings, moulding them around how we want to live in them, harnessing our climate and respecting our surroundings. Buildings outlive us and we have a duty to keep them alive. Restoring old buildings to their original state often turns them into lifeless museums – modern interventions in old structures are successfully applied and applauded throughout the world. V