The University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Architecture recently lost one of its longest-living alumni, Gabriël (Gawie) Theron Fagan, who passed away at the age of 94.
Fagan graduated with a BArch in 1952 and was a recipient of the University’s Chancellor’s Award in 2003. He practised architecture for almost 70 years, amassing a portfolio of more than 500 projects, for which he received over 35 awards.
He is best known for his domestic architecture, which is a unique style that merged international tendencies with local Cape Vernacular influences. His own house, Die Es (The Hearth) in Camps Bay, Cape Town was a labour of love, built by himself and his family in the late 1960s. With its syncopated roof form, roughly plastered walls, overscaled chimney and floor-to-ceiling sea-facing windows, the house epitomised everything that the architect stood for during his 68-year career: a sensitivity to the landscape, hand-forged materials, an appreciation of history and, above all, the creation of place for modern living.
It is fitting that he spent the last few months of his life in Die Es surrounded by the mountain and the sea, and with his wife of 71 years, Gwen, a qualified doctor that gave up her practice to join her husband in his office.
Fagan was one of four brothers born in Newlands, Cape Town on 15 November 1925. Music, motorcycles and maidens took up much of his engineering study time at the University of Cape Town, after which his mother encouraged him to study architecture at the University of Pretoria. He excelled academically and displayed great skill as a designer, with his prize-winning projects being featured in several South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) journals.
Fagan began his architectural career with Volkskas Bank in 1952, designing several branch buildings across South Africa, always with great contextual sensitivity. In 1964, he set up a practice in Cape Town and undertook his first conservation project, La Dauphine, in 1966. This was followed by Tulbagh Main Street renovations in 1969, then his longest-running project to date, the Cape Town Castle, for which he won the SAIA Award of Excellence in 2002. In 1988, Fagan received a Gold Medal from SAIA, the organisation’s highest honour for local architects.
He is also regarded by many as a polymath, having made an epic journey from Portugal to Mossel Bay in a replica caravel to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Bartolomeu Dias in the Cape in 1488. Then in 1982, he won the Transatlantic yacht race from the Cape to Punta del Este and the 2003 race to Bahia.
Fagan has left behind a unique architectural legacy. May his architecture continue to serve as a lesson for all.