A house of peace and simplicity

[Image]Today the house stands in lush, peaceful
settings even though it’s in a busy suburb.

[Image]  The buildings in their original state.
(Images: Voyageurs du Monde)

Eric Itzkin, City of Johannesburg
Deputy director of immovable heritage
+27 11 373 7516 or +27 82 454 3381

Lorraine Kearney

Tucked in a busy corner between Louis Botha Avenue and Ivy Road in the Johannesburg suburb of Orchards, a family house is being transformed into a little pocket of peace.

French travel company Voyageurs du Monde bought the thatch-roofed house, once home to Mahatma Gandhi, in September 2009. The Kraal (Afrikaans, meaning “cattle enclosure”) is now the property of Voyageurs subsidiary, Satyagraha Guest House.

According to Fabrice Dabouineau, the group’s Africa director, the renamed Satyagraha House is to become “a unique project never accomplished anywhere in the world”.

It will soon be a bed and breakfast where people can spend time according to Gandhi’s principles.

Designed and built in 1908 by German architect Hermann Kallenbach – Gandhi’s great friend and supporter – it was called The Kraal because it combined African elements in a European dwelling, says Eric Itzkin in his book Gandhi’s Johannesburg.

The men shared the two rondavels on and off between 1908 and 1911. Kallenbach sold the house after Gandhi left the country in 1914 and a succession of families has lived in it ever since.

On board for the changes are Itzkin, the City of Johannesburg’s deputy director of immovable heritage; architect Rocco Bosman; and curator Lauren Segal, who is responsible for the Gandhi exhibition at Constitution Hill, seat of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

The City has reviewed the plans and given its approval for the renovations and the project as a whole, says Voyageurs. Dabouineau explains it as rehabilitating and creating a new heritage piece in Johannesburg.

Satyagraha House director Didier Bayeye says the site is important because it was during his time here that Gandhi conceived his philosophy of satyagraha, which focuses on leading a struggle without violence, but rather with meditation, prayer and fasting.

Legacy of the great man

“Also, there is no place in the world where the legacy of Gandhi is conserved in this way,” Bayeye says. “Here, guests can live a simple life, the way Gandhi wanted to live. The guesthouse will be adapted to his principles.”

Dabouineau explains that the house will be divided into several parts: a new part is being built where guests will be able to spend the night “in a very specific ambiance”. There will be a museum dedicated to Gandhi, to satyagraha and to South Africa.

In all, there will be eight rooms on the property, as well as a meditation garden and a spiritually oriented library. Guests will dine on vegetarian food. In keeping with Gandhi’s call for simplicity, there will be no wifi, no television, no pool – in fact, no entertainment at all will be provided, “except the privilege of walking and living in Gandhi’s path”.

For those who simply can’t live without modern communication, Bayeye adds: “If a guest has a laptop and a 3G stick, then he can use it in his room. But not in the rest of the house or garden.”

Furniture will be adapted to the time and although the pieces won’t be original, Voyageurs has consulted with antique specialists to ensure the furnishings will be based on the early 20th century. It will be comfortable, Bayeye says, but not modern luxury.

Building began at the beginning of September, with completion expected in about eight months. If all goes according to plan the house will open at the beginning of May 2011.

One portion of the original house will be dedicated to an exhibition space, a library and a meditation space, Bayeye explains. There are also three rooms already here.

New additions

Outside, builders are adding cottages, providing three more bedrooms and a kitchen. A two-roomed cottage already stands, but this will be a family suite. All the rooms will be en suite and will operate on a bed and breakfast principle.

Bosman, a heritage specialist with an architectural background, says the original house will not be changed, except to undo the alterations made subsequent to Gandhi’s leaving. For example, the dormer windows that were added will be restored to the original. “It is a restoration rather than a renovation,” he says.

Already, some 20% of the construction has been done, with most of the brickwork already completed, says Bosman. The restored structure will have a minimal impact on the environment and is to be equipped with energy and water management control.

The new architecture of the outside rooms is completely understated, with no decoration on the contemporary buildings.

“They are very different from the rondavels. They are very plain, very modernist, so that you can see clearly the original,” Bosman stresses. “It is important to be able to read history.”

Intimate portrait of Gandhi

The museum is being designed and curated by local specialists, namely Itzkin, who curated the permanent exhibition Johannesburg: birthplace of Satyagraha at Museum Africa; and Segal, who curated the exhibitions 466/64 – A Prisoner in the Garden for the Mandela Foundation and Gandhi: A Prisoner of Conscience at Constitution Hill, among other major projects. The two are working closely on the development.

Segal explains that the exhibition will be a much more intimate portrait of Gandhi and Kallenbach and their relationship. It will differ from the Constitution Hill exhibition, which focuses on Gandhi’s prison years.

“It was a very seminal period in both their lives,” she explains. “There were deep changes in their lives at the time, in diet, in politics, spiritually.”

She will also focus on the influence of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, on the two men. It was during this time that they founded Tolstoy Farm, south of Johannesburg, to put these principles into practice.

Segal hopes to obtain artefacts from the Kallenbach family in Israel. The architect moved there after the end of the Second World War, taking with him many of the tools he had made in South Africa, as well as his letters and diaries. “It is these precious things that we are hoping to return to South Africa,” she says.

The script for the museum has been finalised and more details will emerge when the programme is complete.

Itzkin explains that a good amount of research has already been done and the exhibition team is in search of objects. “We have got together some interesting and exciting research material.”

Segal expects the museum to be ready by March 2011, in time for the opening of the guesthouse.

With support from the Indian consul-general and various groups in India, the company believes the venture will be a success.

“Inside there is no noise. It is very different from outside. There is magic vegetation in the garden,” Bayeye concludes, referring to the traffic of the nearby Louis Botha Avenue – one of Johannesburg’s busiest roads – but perhaps also unconsciously to the peaceful simplicity that Gandhi espoused.