Adriaan de la Rey and P.J Kotze from The Open Window School of Film Arts set out to excavate a piece of buried South African history, and tell the story of the man whose buildings defined an era in Pretoria but now stand neglected and in ruin. This is the story of Norman Eaton, the prominent Pretorian architect whose distinct designs shaped the face of the city during the capital’s heyday. The documentary delves into his forgotten legacy, the influences underpinning his work, and questions the way forward for the city through a series of interviews and poetic excursions into the buildings of Norman Eaton.
Adriaan and P.J have entered the film into various local and international film festivals and are currently awaiting to hear where it’s been accepted. In June the film is being shown as part of the 17th Encounters documentary film festival at the Labia in Cape Town on the 8th of June at 18:30 and the 10th of June at 18:30 at the Bioscope in Johannesburg.
How did you first find out about Norman Eaton?
We both work as film lecturers at the Open Window Institute, which was collaborating with the 2014 Pretoria Cool Capital Biennale, an initiative that was really exciting for us as it was such a great idea with a lot of energy behind it. While planning possible film projects and screenings for the Biennale with the organizer Pieter Mathews, we started chatting about the beautiful yet underutilized spaces in the city that we could use for possible pop-up screenings.
Pieter told us about some of Eaton’s iconic buildings like Polly’s Arcade and the Netherlands Bank building which we’d all seen and admired. Once we heard snippets of Eaton’s story, we were immediately interested in doing more research, seeing that there was just so much to work with, especially since his buildings are so intricate and beautiful. We were also very excited about telling a story that would give us the opportunity to showcase the diversity and often overlooked beauty of Pretoria.
What appealed to you about this story, or lack thereof?
Once we found out more about Eaton’s story, his methods and his approach to architecture and design, we realised how relevant the story actually is and that the time was perfect for the film to be made. We’re all struggling with issues of identity in a South African and a global context, and Eaton’s approach to architecture in using local materials and embracing local, regional techniques, landscape and building methods really resonated with us in this regard. In many ways, this is what we strive for and promote in our approach to filmmaking and teaching, so it made perfect sense.
The fact that many of his buildings, especially those in the city centre, have descended into such disrepair also provided us with the possibility of not purely making a documentary portrait of a man and his work, but to rather investigate themes like nostalgia, how we interact with relics from the past, questions of identity in contemporary, urban South Africa as well as possible ways forward.
Something that also definitely struck a chord with us was that, besides architects and architecture students, very few people (us included before we started work on the film) actually have any idea who Norman Eaton was, so it just made sense to tell the story.
What was the research process and how did you choose your sources?
One of the main aspects that really interested (but also terrified us) was that we really didn’t know anything about Norman Eaton before we started research for the film. We didn’t have any preconceived ideas about how he worked or why he designed the way that he did, which we feel was invaluable in guiding our approach to the story and his work. The fact that we are filmmakers and not architects made us dissect the elements of his work in a very analytical manner and we had to make definite decisions on how to approach his buildings and how to film them.
Through Pieter Mathews, Pluto Panoussis and the Pretoria Institute for Architecture, we were fortunate to gain access to a group of very knowledgeable architects and academics such as Marguerite Pienaar, who did her Masters thesis on Eaton, Gus Gerneke, one of Eaton’s contemporaries and author Clinton Harrop-Allin who met Eaton and published a book on him and his architecture.
One aspect of the research that was quite challenging was the fact that many people who knew Eaton well had passed away, so finding anyone who had actually worked with him or even met him was a challenge in itself. Most of the interviews we conducted were with authorities on his work or at least architects that had some form of opinion on Eaton and his role in Pretoria.
Although quite intimidating, the process was really fun seeing that we started by interviewing our main authority Clinton Harrop-Allin, who provided us with a broad outline of what we should look at and then followed leads and conducted interviews as they revealed themselves. It was literally like building a big puzzle, although we had no idea what the final image would look like.
Deciding on which buildings and spaces to film and showcase was another challenge in itself, seeing that Eaton designed and built both commercial and residential spaces all over the country. We decided to focus on buildings purely in and around Pretoria and tried to cover a range from commercial to residential buildings. Let’s not even go into the mission of gaining access and permission to film in all of those spaces…
Who was the team that worked on the project?
We (PJ and Adriaan) did all the the filming, directing, editing, colouring and finishing on the film. The final sound mix was done by the very talented Jozua Loots (who also teaches at the Open Window) and on some shoots we were accompanied by Pieter Mathews and a few of our awesome Honours students, Nick Chrysanthou, Brandon Giles and Jaku Van Heerden, but barring one big shoot in Polly’s Arcade, there was no crew – only the two of us.
We conducted most of the interviews and building portraits either in pairs or sometimes alone, which was actually quite important seeing that we only had limited time in many of the spaces and for the interviews, so having a massive crew (not that we could afford one) would have hampered the efficiency of the shoot in any case. I think this was something really special for us, as being part of all of the aspects of the film allowed us to take full ownership of the project as well as to prove to ourselves that it really is possible to make a feature film with pretty much no budget or crew.
We were extremely privileged to have access to the musical expertise of composers Keith Moss and Pieter Bezuidenhout who composed choral and instrumental pieces for the film as well as Bittereinder’s Jaco van der Merwe who performs a segment of their “Tale of Three Cities” in the film. In keeping with the spirit of Eaton, all of our talent was sourced from Pretoria.
Why was Norman Eaton forgotten?
Eaton was definitely ahead of his time in terms of his approach to materials, sustainability, inspiration and his entire philosophy concerning architecture in South Africa. Unfortunately, he died quite young and wasn’t able to amass a very large body of work, especially not big, recognizable iconic buildings. He was also notoriously difficult to work with and this uncompromising attitude along with a changing political climate cost him the one big government project that would have put him on the map. His fall into obscurity and eventual death is a very devastating story.
Why does his memory need a place in the contemporary South African imagination, and how does this documentary aim to position it?
Besides the fact that Eaton’s buildings are incredibly detailed and beautiful, his work and memory remain relevant in that there is so much for us to learn from and be inspired by his approach and ideas. His philosophy around regional inspiration and sustainable design is more relevant now than ever.
It’s difficult to say exactly where the film positions these ideas, but it definitely aims to let one reflect on where we come from, where we are and most importantly where we’re headed in terms of not only urban architecture, but as city dwellers and individuals who interact with the spaces around us. The film definitely raises some points on heritage, nostalgia and re-imagining the possibilities of our urban centres and spaces.
Are there parallels between Norman Eaton’s buildings and his personal legacy?
You could definitely say so. Unfortunately most of Eaton’s buildings have either fallen into complete disrepair or have been altered in some way, leaving only glimpses of their former glory. Eaton never married, so he left behind no children or loved ones, which leaves only his buildings to remind us of his contributions and in many ways, these building very much reflect his fragmented, devastating yet inspiring legacy.
Are there broader subtexts that this documentary reveals?
It’s pretty much impossible to make a film of this nature in contemporary South Africa without engaging with some broader political and social topics. We like to think that the film, although focusing on Eaton and his work, explores notions of heritage and development and importantly, South African identity today.
More than just making an academically oriented architectural documentary, we felt we needed to explore the importance of architecture and spaces in the context of political and social dynamics in the often confusing context of contemporary South Africa.
How does the city of Pretoria play a part in this story?
Pretoria is almost the supporting character of this story in that we focused purely on Eaton’s work in and around the city. There are a lot of amazing people and great potential in Pretoria and we wanted to take the opportunity to show some of the beautiful spaces in the city and in our own small way, comment on the future development and re-imagining of the city.
What’s next for you as filmmakers?
The scope and viability of producing content in South Africa at the moment is so vast it can be quite overwhelming – there are so many stories to tell. It’s definitely a very exciting time to be producing film content in South Africa.
We’re currently both completing screenplays for narrative film projects as well as producing expedition film content for a series of adventure films, which is really exciting. We’re very privileged to be working at an institution that allows us the freedom and foundation to pursue personal projects without having to compromise on content, which is the most important thing.