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The Fassler Gallery


When new administrative offices were proposed for the head of the School of Architecture and Planning in 2002, Professor P G Raman, suggested that a gallery form part of the renovation. The architect Thorsten Deckler proposed a glass wall and revolving panels that would create a versatile gallery inserted into the adjacent corridor of John Moffat extension, where exhibitions could be viewed by students and passers by. Thorsten Deckler swiftly developed the idea, detailed it exquisitely and built a model to motivate for extra funds needed. Raman also suggested that the gallery be named in memory of John Fassler, head of the department of architecture at Wits from 1948-1968. Thus, the Fassler Gallery was born.1

The inaugural exhibition, in August 2002, showing John Fassler's own watercolours and sketches, was curated by his daughter Mira Fassler Kamstra and Thorsten Deckler. In her opening address, Fassler Kamstra spoke movingly about her father's passion for architecture, of the buildings he designed, which include John Moffat building itself, and of his commitment to Wits. The exhibition, which comprised mainly student work, revealed Fassler's outstanding technical and artistic skill as a water colourist and draftsman. It also showed the various influences at play in the School. The early Arts and Crafts of the Baker School, being superseded by the extravagant exercises in Neo Classicism, in turn replaced by Art Deco - magnificently portrayed in a pen and ink sketch of a monumental memorial, soon to be overlaid by early modernism. What was also clear was Fassler's intense concern for detail. His sketchbooks contain countless impeccable sketches of the minutia of details of buildings, the workings of a tap, roof trusses and water towers. As Gilbert Herbert put it, "Fassler loved architectural detailing, and produced immaculate studies of exquisite precision, there was always, perhaps buried deep, a nostalgia for the richness of classical detailing which found little outlet in the austerity of the International Style".2

Of the best known of Fassler's work was a watercolour perspective of Peterhouse, 1934-35, built for Jonathan Swift with the unusual brief of a ground floor funeral parlour with flats above. Designed by the partnership of Martienssen and Fassler it became an internationally famous icon of Modernism. Only the ground and two floors were built instead of the eight as shown. The building, though in a shabby state, still exists in Bree Street in central Johannesburg.

A magnificent watercolour perspective of Escom House (1935) depicted the tallest skyscraper in Africa at the time, which incorporated many structural and technological innovations, including long span transfer beams, heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems. Fassler Kamstra noted that it reflected a move away from the sculptural Modernism of the work of the partnership of Martienssen, Fassler and Cooke, and is more akin to the stepped Art Deco skyscrapers of American cities. Its base shows the influence of the work of the early modernist Scandinavian architect, Gunnar Asplund. Escom house was imploded in the 1980s, despite concerted efforts by members of the Department of Architecture, the public and the profession to preserve it. Most notably, Fassler Kamstra reminded us that this perspective bears testimony to Professor Amacio d'Alpoim Miranda Guedes often stated remark that the drawings are more important than the building.

Gilbert Hertbert saw in Fassler "a sound, modest and sensitive designer - serious and sincere about architecture - his honesty of purpose resulted in work of great integrity".3 Many of these qualities are observed and experienced first hand by current students who use John Moffat daily. They take advantage of the sun's warmth inside the glass window of the foyer on winter mornings, and in summer, they sit in the shade on the other side of the very same window ledge, eating lunch beside the fish pond. Indeed, in the "Introduction to Structures" course, the building becomes something of a laboratory as students are made aware of its structure - of its columns in the foyer to support the library and of the acoustics in Dorothy Susskind Auditorium. They use the Martienssen library, perhaps unaware that Fassler placed the fountain below the windows so that its sound would assist concentration, or that he designed the very chairs they sit on.

John Fassler was a member of staff for more than 30 years and head of the department of Architecture for 20. During that time, "he devoted himself to building up the department into one of the best in the country", the vice chancellor and principal of the University remarked.4 Among his other building projects on campus are the Dental school, (now Wits School of the Arts) and Senate House. Another part of his legacy are the lawns and large pool of the Central Campus. The Cullen Library fountain, celebrating his love of the gardens of Moorish Spain, was built in his memory. We hope that the gallery will become more than an exhibition space, but also, a tool for teaching.

On the 10th December 2002, Wits University conferred an honorary doctorate on Amacio d'Alpoim Miranda Guedes, (Pancho) head of the department of architecture from 1975-1990, which was followed by a two-day symposium and exhibition honouring his intellectual and personal influence. The Guedes exhibition comprised playful, witty and provocative paintings and sculptures, most of which were loaned to the gallery by former members of staff and students.5


Pancho Gueddes

Other exhibitions included watercolour renderings by Pretoria based architect Trevor Lloyd Evans, a photography exhibition by second year architecture students, selected work submitted for the annual Des Baker students architectural competition, curated by Leon Krige, and an innovative photography exhibition, titled Slip slot slats by former student of the architecture department, Heather Dodd.

Trevor Lloyd Evans

The head of school is committed to promoting the space, and is currently trying to raise funds for data projectors and L.E.D. screens that will enable a range of media to be exhibited there. Indeed, the value of creating and showing architectural work, using the spatial configuration of the gallery to enhance the meaning of the work is one that architects have long been interested in. Henning Rassmuss of Paragon architects, for example, constantly reinforces this idea in lectures, stating that his own architectural practice has been enriched by installations and exhibitions, which include the Venice Architecture Biennale, and Sao Paulo Architecture Biennale. The latter was put together with contributions by members of staff in the School of Architecture, namely, Professor Lindsay Bremner, Thorsten Deckler, and Hugh Fraser.

The School therefore has high aspirations for the gallery. With the help of students, staff, the architecture profession and a minimum of funding it could indeed be a valuable asset to the city, the public and all who treasure visual culture.

1 A more detailed account of the gallery and the architect?s general outlook may be found in P. G. Raman, ?Integrating thinking and making?, Leading Architecture, Jan/Feb 2003, pp.52-53.
2 Herbert, Gilbert (1975) Martienssen and the International Style: the modern movement in South African architecture, Cape Town: A A Balkema, p.109.
3 Ibid.
4 Howie, D W (1971) Obituary: Professor John Fassler, Architect and Builder, July 1971, p.25.
5 The event was reviewed by Karen Eicker, ?In celebration of Pancho?, Leading Architecture, Jan/Feb, 2004, pp.55-57.