Laid out in 1998. Architect : Alida Stewart
Article and photographs by Phillip Newmarch
Soundtrack : by kind permission of David Kramer
from CD Karroo Kitaar Blues tracks 3, 9 + 15, Mouers Family copyright Blik Music
video may be found at
Philippolis, a small town in the southern Free State, is a bit like a sort of time-machine. The clocks seem to have stopped here about 40 years ago when the main North-South road bypassed it, largely isolating it from the effects of the motorcar age. Its main street is a kind of architectural diary of its history of nearly two hundred years. Founded as a mission settlement, it remains a window, albeit a dusty one, on that long, now fragmented, history that preceded it.
I probably wouldn't know about it, but for its name, and the fact that it was on the main road back in the early 60s when I first travelled through that part on a trip to Cape Town. I have always had a vague proprietary feeling about it since. But I didn't go there again until recently. On the way back form Joburg, we happened to stop nearby and I decided it was time to visit my town the next morning. We had to wait half an hour for the petrol station to open, and so I had time to look around.
As you enter the town, you come across something like one of those webs, suspended from nowhere, almost invisible but for the rows of little reflections, radiating out and encircling a centre. Reflections, shadows, shafts of view between some incidental walls and piers, all held together by a not quite regular pattern of lines and paving on the ground. This is the Laurens van der Post Memorial Garden, established in 1998, and designed by Alida Stewart.
Laid out as an adjunct to a resource centre consisting of an old house with a small two-storey annex behind, it extends over an area that was previously “nagmaal” stands, next to the church, on a corner between the main road and another leading to an extension of the town, Poding Tse Rolo, across a little stream.
The main element is a path cutting diagonally across the site, one side defined by a line of piers, like a pergola, or a fence, and the other by a large arc described in the brick paving, with a curved wall at the apex, forming a small portico midway along the path. This portico is cut in two by a narrow fissure on the cross axis, giving a view focussed on the second element, a water labyrinth, and in the other direction, a view though a grove of trees, towards to main street, framing a small, black, rectangular urn.
Although the portico is located in the middle of the site, it is largely obscured by trees, and is consequently not the first thing one notices. It presents itself rather as a view down the path, focussed on perhaps two cows grazing near the stream, or a passer-by, or in the other direction, an old house across the street.
As you pass through, the curvature, and a change in of level, produce a change in perspective, like a kind of architectural zoom lens. In addition, the openings in the side wall frame changing views across the rest of the garden, with the town as a background.
The ground is divided into rectangular ‘beds’, similar to traditional vegetable gardens. Some of these are planted, some cobbled, and some with shallow reflecting pools, Between, are paths of brick paving that form a modular framework for the other elements, and implicitly extend into the surroundings. These are reflected in small, horizontal plaster joints in the walls and piers, linking them visually, and suggesting further, invisible layers of paths crossing the site.
While the actual built forms are strongly reminiscent of traditional stoeps and gardens, they are presented as insubstantial screens for shadow patterns, reflections of light, and frames for images of the real, live surroundings, all of which assume greater importance than the building itself.
The patterns on the ground are also suggestive of some kind of remnant. A path, aligned with the adjacent buildings, cuts diagonally across the modular pattern and leads down a furrow-like ramp to a lower terrace, with the ancient puzzle-form of the labyrinth set in a kind of amphitheatre.
Unfortunately, the water seems to be a rather temperamental element in the design, some of the reflecting pools and the water-labyrinth being empty at the time of photographing. Consequently these are not at full strength.
Buildings often have historical references, either explicit, or simply in that they are part of a certain tradition. But the ingenuity of this design is that it uses them to refer, not to itself, but to its spatial and historical context.
Alida Stewart, describing the construction of the project, relates the following story:
Oom Japie was wellknown to us - he lived in that house [nearby] and when we were planning the labyrinth in the church hall across the road, he visited in his pantoffels at 11'oclock that night...
The labyrinth was built by oom Gert (82 at that stage - he still fixed windmills then, and taught once a year at UFS in Bloemfontein.) According to department of agriculture he is the person with the best knowledge of veldplants in the Karoo.
His builders did not understand the labyrinth (we also struggle with it,) but oom Gert said it is just a big "plaasdam" with a very low wall!
Thomas and I had to draw it on an 10x10m black plastic sheet and cut it out to make a footprint for them to built from!
Oom Japie came over 11'oclock that night, took my 4-year old's hand - in silence the two of them walked the 300m labyrinth, afterwards he told us he will always be known as the first person to have walked this labyrinth - the next day he died in his sleep..."
and also a picture by Vaughanoblapski at
with a description of the project by Alida Stewart
Ms Stewart’s paintings can be seen at