A flair for past and present

Stellenbosch-based architect Carien van der Merwe, known for her warm, elegant and modern spaces, has the ability to create optimal functionality in limited areas.  She spoke to MARGUERITE VAN WYK about the latest trends in architecture, her career dreams and where she finds inspiration.

This residence is directed outwards to incorporate the great outdoors.

MvW: What are the current trends in architecture in South Africa?

CvdM: ‘Living’ buildings with zero carbon footprints and 3D printing of interior designs and houses. There is also a strong focus on incorporating nature into social spaces, both inside and outside the building.

MvW: If you had carte blanche, what would you design?

Carien van der Merwe

CvdM: Buildings with vertical gardens that make maximum use of green technology. The scope for green buildings is huge and exciting. I would also like to restore and modernise more unique, historical buildings, bearing in mind that their specific characteristics should be honoured, while at the same time transforming them into modern living spaces.

MvW: How do you nurture your passion for design?

CvdM: I am inspired by reading, making jewellery, art appreciation and painting.

MvW: What differentiates your work from that of others?

CvdM: I have the ability to make optimum use of limited space to create maximum functionality. Context has a major influence on my designs; I have to understand where and how people move in certain spaces in order to design properly. If I design for an existing house or structure, I try to keep the characteristics it already has and enhance them by adding subtle details that give them a modern twist.

MvW: What do you want to portray with your designs?

CvdM: I try to design elegant and warm, modern spaces that can be used for different purposes. I believe in simplicity. My initial designs are always compatible with long-term alterations and additions.

MvW: What gives you great job satisfaction?

CvdM: It is one of my greatest passions – and challenges – to reno­vate a dilapidated house in a stylish way and yet still stay within the budget. To create a stunning house that maintains its unique character, in line with heritage standards, and not go overboard with the budget gives me a huge thrill.     

Carien was the creative force behind the renovation of this heritage house in Stellenbosch.

MvW: What are your greatest achievements as an architect?

CvdM: The positioning of my own house on its stand, which takes into account the prevailing winds and the movement of the sun, making it a very efficient building in terms of heating and cooling. On a more personal level, I believe in living a balanced life which, as most architects would agree, isn’t all that easy to maintain.

MvW: Who was the greatest mentor in your career?

CvdM: Terry Dwyer, a Johannesburg-based architect for whom I worked when I was starting out. He taught me a tremendous amount about project management and how to deal with large, industrial contracts.

MvW: What have been your greatest challenges?

CvdM: I had to re-establish my firm, Carien van der Merwe Architects, a few times because our family moved around. (Carien is married to Dr Ronnie van der Merwe and they have two daughters who are in their 20s.)