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Michael Sutton Architect

Part 2 Dissertation 2003
Victoria Ross
University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg | South Africa
Michael Kidd Sutton, a deaf architect who graduated from the Wits School in the 1950’s, became prominent in the domestic scene in Johannesburg during the building boom of the 1960’s. Although largely un-documented, he produced a body of work instrumental to the development of domestic architecture of that time.

“The decade of the sixties represented in many ways a watershed in South African political, economic, and cultural life. In architecture, especially domestic architecture, it was a period of important developments.” (1) In Johannesburg particularly, a new domestic vernacular architecture emerged as a result of a wide range of architectural influences converging to form a new style (2).

Sutton - whose buildings display a sensitivity to material and to the subtleties of function, space and place making – is representative of this important era in South African architecture. On entering a Sutton building one is struck by a sense of quietness, balance and peace. Living in a Sutton building allows one an intimate connection with the richness of his architectural language. His work displays a subtle mingling of the formal characteristics of the International Style with an innate sensitivity to the local conditions of site, climate, and material as well as the specific needs of the client. His influences include John Fassler (one of the main protagonists in the dissemination of Modernism in South Africa, who took a personal interest in assisting Sutton as a deaf student), Norman Eaton (a Pretoria regionalist), Stephan Ahrends (Sutton’s mentor and an important domestic architect in Post War Johannesburg) and the Cape Dutch vernacular. Most importantly, however, Sutton was influenced by the Mediterranean and much of his time was spent travelling between South Africa and Greece, where he finally settled in about 1974.

Although Sutton continued to produce work in Johannesburg well into the 1980’s (whilst living in Greece), I have focussed on his work during the 1960’s and 1970’s. During this time he became well known for his signature style, which combined low-tech construction with sophisticated planning ideas, rough-and ready materials and simple detailing to form a timeless architectural language.

(1) Theron, Danie. (1972). Houses of the Sixties. In Lantern. 22. September. : 53.

(2) Chipkin, Clive M. (1993). Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society 1880’s-1960’s. David Philip: Cape Town.

Victoria Ross

Victoria Ross completed an architectural history research project during 2002, examining the work of Michael Sutton, an innovative South African architect whose major work was completed in the suburbs of Johannesburg during the 1970's. The work is entirely undocumented, due to Sutton’s quiet, even reclusive, personality.

Victoria’s work was unusual for an undergraduate student in that she used primary, rather than secondary sources, with the result that she has made an important contribution to the study of South African domestic architecture.

The study consists of:
· Interviews with architects who worked with Sutton, including his partners
· Detailed measurements of his houses
· Creative analysis of the houses, identifying common themes
· Comparison with the work of Sutton’s contemporaries
· Contextualisation of the work alongside modern international movements such as brutalism.

Victoria argues convincingly that Sutton amalgamated a number of eclectic architectural styles, including the vernacular of the Greek islands, to develop an architecture appropriate to South African conditions. She demonstrates Sutton’s sensitivity to unique local conditions, site constraints, climate, existing vegetation and low levels of building skill among South African artisans. Working within these limitations, Sutton developed a highly creative response to local conditions.

Sutton designed in a minimalist style acceptable to an affluent suburban clientele. It is Victoria’s understanding of the complexity and maturity underlying this apparently modest architecture that makes it a worthy contribution to South African architectural historiography

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