JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Long characterized by grassy hills and flat-top mine dumps, the high plateau that is the center of South Africa’s economic and political life has welcomed an unexpected addition to its landscape of late: Tuscan villas.
In recent years, Tuscany-inspired architecture has been the style of choice for many South African suburbanites and guesthouse operators seeking to add a dose of European refinement to their dwellings. Terracotta-colored walls, tiled roofs and cobblestone driveways have mushroomed across the region surrounding Johannesburg and Pretoria, even leading some to rename the South African capital “Little Tuscany.”
The “Boere Toskaans” architectural fad has not converted everyone, however. Local architects argue that the design is inadequate for the local climate, inauthentic or simply ugly.
“I think it’s horrendous,” said Kate Otten, a Johannesburg-based architect. “Tuscany itself is a completely beautiful place of the world, and what they call Tuscan architecture here is not architecture and it’s certainly not Tuscan.”
From the moment Dutch colonists settled in the Cape more than 350 years ago, South Africa’s architecture has been strongly influenced by imported styles. Some local designs developed as a result, such as Cape Dutch houses with their thatched roofs and elegant white facades. The trend has intensified recently, with architectural motifs from Spain, Bali and Provence all finding their ways in South African homes, but no region has provided more inspiration to local home builders than the homeland of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
No one knows for sure when the Tuscan trend started, but Steve Howell says that the gaming, shopping and restaurant complex he manages has had a lot to do with it. Montecasino, located north of Johannesburg, was built in 2000 as a replica of a typical Tuscan village. The resort proved extremely popular with locals, providing them both an escape and inspiration, Howell said.
“Ever since we built Montecasino, we’ve seen a proliferation of these townhouse complexes,” Howell said. “I think we were actually a catalyst for a lot of that Tuscan architecture.”
Howell makes no apologies for the fact that the resort’s architecture, like that of any themed-casino, is fake, but he said Montecasino’s architects took extraordinary measures to make sure the result was as close as possible to the original: photographing Tuscan buildings for three months and going as far as painting bird droppings on rails for authenticity’s sake. Lesly Tshiredo, who works at the casino’s management office, has never been anywhere close to Tuscany. “But I feel like I’ve been,” he said gesturing toward the complex’s rampart.
Jason Weir-Smith’s Little Tuscany Guest House also has a claim for pioneering the Tuscan genre. The property, located in one of Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs, was built in the early 1990s by an Italian and is complete with indoor murals, a pizza oven and a pair of cypress trees in the front. Weir-Smith said he tried to preserve the original Tuscan design as he expanded the residence in recent years, but he said the guesthouse’s architecture plays a minor role in his clients’ satisfaction. Case in point the reaction of a group of Italian journalists who stayed there for the recent Confederations Cup.
“They didn’t really feel like it was an Italian place,” Weir-Smith said.
Yolanda van der Vyver, a local architect, said modern Tuscan buildings are not built for the local climate. The small windows don’t let in the warming sun during the cold winters. The orientation often doesn’t take the local weather into account, and makes the houses vulnerable to the region’s strong summer storms, leading to precocious deterioration. In addition, Van der Vyver said, huge villas are often built on plots of land that are too small for them.
“It’s a cheap way of making you look rich, and it’s a bit pretentious,” said Van der Vyver. “People want to be something which they’re not.”
Van der Vyver said the demand for Tuscan designs shows signs of slowing down. She said her office hasn’t received a request for a Tuscan house for the last couple of years, and anyway, she said, “We try to discourage it.” She and other architects said high fuel costs and the financial crisis were also contributing to making customers more receptive to energy-efficient designs. Recent projects, such as some of the new World Cup soccer stadiums, have a more African flavor and also may serve as inspiration for new constructions, she said.
One person satisfied with her Tuscan home is Lynne Dowse. The owner of the Amber Rose Country Estate passed visited Italy only once, but said she was looking for something “pleasing to the eye” when she bought her property four years ago. The Tuscan-themed house sits on a small hill outside of Johannesburg, and while its style is Italian, it is close enough to a local game reserve to hear the roar of lions. “It blends very nicely with the surrounding country here,” she said.