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Thursday, June 6, 2024 - 22:51

The news that Michael Sutton had passed away was not surprising but nonetheless a gaping hole opened in me. With every recent message I had sent, I wondered which would be the last. 

Michael has inhabited my thoughts in one way or another since the fortuitous day I stumbled upon the townhouse in The Courtyards that would become my first home in 2000. When I walked in the door I just knew. Anthony (my partner then and husband now), who did not have much to say about architecture in general, and who was far more practical about making financial choices knew that we were not walking away from the encounter unscathed. We pooled our resources and were able to buy our first home.


The Courtyards (Wallace Honiball via Artefacts)


I have visceral memories of that place. The space was generous, the finishes sparse, the form simple and clean. The high walled courtyard garden was our haven. Brutal concrete beams over the terrace were covered in an exuberant banksia under which we huddled in summer. At night we shut ourselves away from the world behind sliding shutters and were woken in the morning by the slices of light through the slats.

That year, I wrote a rather amateur dissertation on Michael’s work with the help of Henry Paine and Marcus Holmes. I visited as many houses as I could lay my hands on and realised some of my childhood haunts were Sutton buildings- particularly Karen McKerran’s gallery house in Bryanston. Each evoked the same feeling of tranquility and peace that was not luxurious comfort, but an ease of existence. 

In about 2012 Michael got in touch with me! I was absolutely thrilled. Technology had it made it possible to easily converse with him where before the prospect had been quite daunting and cumbersome at long distance.

He arranged for me to accompany a Greek photographer, Yiorgis Yerolymbos, who he had commissioned to document his work in South Africa along with Mohammed Hans. Naturally I dropped everything to see as much of his work as I could. I met some of his clients who were endlessly hospitable, and I discovered that Michael’s buildings formed lasting bonds between client and architect. The houses we visited were timeless and beautiful. 


Goodman House, Johannesburg (Yiorgis Yerolymbos)


Around the same time Henning Rasmuss had bought House Smithers in Dunkeld and I had helped them with some gentle restoration. This was a wonderful project to be asked to do as I was a newly fledged sole practitioner amid bringing small humans into the world.


Smithers House (Yiorgis Yerolymbos)


Henning and Philippa then asked me to design a pavilion for them on the property that would sit in the garden and converse with their house- providing a work from home space and guest accommodation. This project has been a highlight of my career. First, to be entrusted with it by Henning, an architect I have much respect for and who helped bring me up into the practice of architecture. Second, to walk in Michael’s footsteps, an architect I held in the highest regard and whose buildings I feel such an emotional connection with. 

Michael then invited me to visit him in Greece which was another highlight of my life. I travelled with my closest friend, Georgina Guedes (who shares her memories of our trip at the end of this tribute). Michael met us in Athens, and we spent 2 days meeting his clients and seeing some of his work there. The reverence and respect they have for him was extraordinary. They love and appreciate the homes he designed for them, and he took such pleasure in giving us a glimpse into their lives.


House Apostilades, Cephalonia, Greece (Henry Paine)


Communicating with Michael was far easier than I imagined. As long as he could see us and we enunciated clearly it was almost seamless. 

He then took us to Galatas where he lived with Tom. We stayed in a hotel of his choosing on Poros, and we visited him and Tom at their beautiful home. I was filled with a sense of homecoming when I saw where he lived. It had all the simplicity and quietness of The Courtyards- but with the view of the sparkling Aegean. Smells of delicious food wafted out of the kitchen. We discussed the wall of DVDs that took up a portion of the lounge, we admired the beautiful Ostrich eggs that Tom spent so much time decorating. We ate on the terrace under a vine and drank wine. Tom teased me a bit about the information I got wrong in my dissertation and Michael waved his hands as if to say “Never mind that!”. 

What a gift that trip was. I have imagined returning so many times. I am deeply grateful for the communication with Michael over the last 10 years. It was like having a hero become a friend. He was interested in what I was doing, wanted news of my family, complimented my work when I shared it with him. I felt him omnipresent. A guardian angel. Perhaps it was because I never knew my own famous grandfather and Michael became a touchstone for me. This gentle giant who influenced so many lives and left a legacy of beauty and calm in his wake. I only hope that my clients feel the same about the homes I help create with them. 

I am forever grateful that I crossed that threshold 24 years ago. I will miss Michael terribly but I cherish the time I spent with him and all he taught me.


Van Straaten Residence, Johannesburg (Yiorgis Yerolymbos)


As mentioned, my friend Georgina wrote a few words about our trip to Greece to see Michael:

In 2014, Victoria de la Cour and I embarked on a pilgrimage to meet Michael Sutton in Greece. He had been the subject of Victoria’s architecture thesis, and was also an old family friend, and a series of circumstances had resulted in him inviting her to visit him at his home. She invited me along – a fitting adventure for the granddaughters of the John Fassler and Pancho Guedes architectural dynasties.

Mike showed us such generosity and kindness, hosting us in a hotel in Athens and another on Poros, and taking us on outings to see his buildings, and ancient Greek architecture, as one does. His clients – one was his patron, commissioning repeated architectural works – were delighted to show us around, proud of the beauty of their homes, how well their spaces catered to their particular needs or whims, and also of how Mike had left an imprint on, or even given shape to their lives with his work.

We also visited Mike in his own beautiful home with his beloved Tom (a journalist like myself), where we were treated to a fine lunch, and views of the impossible blue of the Aegean Sea. We spoke about books, and cooking, and interior design, and social politics – and Victoria and I had to learn to slow our speech and address our comments directly to Mike, rather than prattling along at a million miles an hour, as is our wont.

Our visit was gorgeous, sumptuous, colourful, hot – a feast for all the senses. Mike was a giant of an architect, with incredible skill, insight and execution. Those beautiful buildings – perfect in their setting – will stay with me forever. But so will the memory of the fun we had with Mike. His expressive interest in what we told him about our everyday lives. His recommendations of where to find the best kleftiko (we went back three times). His impatient tossing of a Greek salad that did not contain any capers. His warnings about the dangers of sea urchins in the otherwise hospitable sea.

His gift to us was making us feel completely at home. And I think that was his gift to those fortunate enough to live in his works as well.


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