A Timeless Architecture

All the buildings at Towerland have been designed – and the building activities managed – by Keith Struthers of Natural Architecture (based in Cape Town). Using local materials (stone and clay) as far as possible, the forms of the buildings are designed to fit in with – to echo – the context within which they are located, and at the same time to follow a certain natural ‘lawfulness’ (by working with proportions and forms found in nature and captured through projective geometry).

For example, the golden mean is a form that Keith has used frequently in the design of the buildings. His intention is to create spaces which are harmonious with their environment, but simultaneously – through aligning them with the inherent order found in nature – to create spaces which are life-supporting and consciousness-awakening within. Here we find that the buildings follow the movement and shape of the surrounding mountains, blend perfectly with the backdrop flow of hill and valley – in such a remarkable way that from a certain distance it is difficult to see them as separate. At the same time, the buildings are aesthetically beautiful: simple, grand (the meeting place), cosy (the accommodation units), and exuberant and dramatic (the ablution facility). In Keith’s own words, he describes a first encounter with the meeting room in the following way:

Standing inside the belly of the rolling foothills of the Langeberg Mountains gives you a sense of being held in the warmth and safety of Mother Earth’s womb. The gentle vaulting roof at the Towerland Retreat, shaped like an inverted basket woven from arching poles and thatch, and resting on the curved rock walls half dug into the hillside, then covered with earth and plants, silences the sweeping winds as they billow the clouds across the towering mountain peaks.

He continues, describing a more inner experience of the room:

“As you enter the main volume of the building, a stillness and deep sense of peace envelops you; yet at the same time, the forms, textures and the quality of light inspire a feeling of aliveness, of inner freedom, and a renewed capacity to be creative. Completing the physical construction of this building was the end product of one creative process, which in its conception and reality enabled another: the more inward and ongoing personal process.

This is the awakening and transforming of our inner awareness as evolving human beings. Through the influence of the building, experiences in the depths of our being are brought to life; growing consciousness is stimulated and supported. The first process creates – from physical substance – something fixed and particular, and the second process nurtures the evolving development of something living and non-substantial – our inner life.

“What is experienced through the very fabric and forms of a building is whatever has inspired the owners, architects and contractors during the design and construction process. The quality and health of their inner life, their psyche, is mediated through the actual substance and shapes of a building to its occupants. We are unavoidably affected by this influence, embodied in every aspect of a building, which either impoverishes or enlivens us. Healthy self reflection and inner development is essential when designing and working in this way.”

A more technical description of the construction of the roof of the meeting room is given by Keith:

“The vaulted earth roof was constructed from gum poles, thatching, and a water-proof membrane, and planted with indigenous ground cover succulents. These plants are ideal as they have small and contained root structures, and can survive through long drought periods while still providing an insulation layer which supports a micro eco system. The roof is also fire proof, which is a major consideration in the fynbos-covered mountain area.

“The form of the roof is a vaulted timber shell. Constructing this required a measure of innovation and unconventional improvisation, as well as open-minded and actively supportive clients. The main contractor harvested the poles, treated them immediately, and then transported them to site. While the poles were still wet and pliable, the building crew bent the poles into a bow shape using a chain and ratchet, and then bound them in this position with wire. They bowed unevenly as the thinner tapering ends bent more easily than the thicker ends. This resulted in a naturally eccentric shell structure. They were left for a few weeks to dry, and then sorted according to their amplitude of curvature in preparation for the gradually ascending and descending vault.

By using blue gum poles dried to shape, we were confident the structure would hold. The bent poles were fitted between the walls, their tie wires were then cut, and they naturally sprang out to kick against the ring beam, which was later clad in rock. A second system of poles was fixed longitudinally, and local thatching was used to fill the gaps. A waterproof membrane and top soil from nearby finished the first phase of the job.”

We have recently completed several more accommodation units (so that we can now accommodate 18 people). In time we hope to build a large kitchen (at the moment there is one attached to the meeting room), an informal meeting room and a resource centre.