Interview: Gary Coetzee, traveller and historic architecture fan

22 Jan 2024
Sir Herbert Baker is a prominent figure in the world of architecture, not only in South Africa but from Port Lympne Mansion in Kent, England, to the Old Parliament House in New Delhi, India. His gems are scattered across the world.  

If you’ve admired the Union Buildings that occupy the highest point of Pretoria – now classified as a South African national heritage site – then you're a fan of Baker's designs. The Union Buildings are considered the architect's greatest achievement and a South African architectural masterpiece.

Enter Gary Coetzee. He calls himself an average Joe, but he's a travel addict and former South African swimmer. Coetzee has made it his mission to visit as many buildings designed by the renowned architect as possible, and then capture photographs of his interactions with the buildings. We came across some images on Instagram and were intrigued by his work, so we started a conversation. 

Whether visiting India House in London or St John's in Joburg, Coetzee gives us a glimpse of Baker's rich architectural legacy on his Instagram account. From preserving the past to the predominance of churches, architectural favourites and want-to-see bucket lists, read our interview with Coetzee to find out more. Follow Coetzee on Instagram (@gjc04) to see more photos.
Flashback to SA trip and the beautiful hall at St. George’s Anglican Church in Parktown, Johannesburg, which was designed by Sir Herbert Baker. Image and caption @gjc04.

"You learn more about people, their history and their culture if you are able to immerse yourself in their world."

66 countries, and counting – what makes you travel?
I love the opportunity to see and experience the world. I always enjoyed history, and now I can see places that I had only been able to read about in books. I think you learn more about people, their history and their culture if you are able to immerse yourself in their world. I was very lucky to have my first overseas trip when I was 13, and that was the start.

How did you get interested in photography?
I don’t know much about photography; I just use my mobile phone and click what I see! But stepping back, it’s a visual memory of what I experienced and a tool so that I can share my photographs with friends and family who might not be as fortunate as I am to travel. I am quite conscious of the photos I take, and, maybe I’m trying to be more creative without losing the essence of the building or place I am looking at.

What set you on the path of looking for Sir Herbert Baker architecture around the world?
[It was] on a recent trip home to Johannesburg. I started looking for places to see and visit, as I would in any other city. I am quite embarrassed that I had not seen many of his buildings when I lived in South Africa, but I was lucky enough to see the [Old] Parliament House in New Delhi, which is a ‘replica’ of the Union Buildings, and have since decided to look for his buildings in the United Kingdom as well.
View from the rugby grounds of St. John’s College, Johannesburg, founded in 1898 but the current school design by Sir Herbert Baker dates post-Anglo Boer War. Another architectural gem. Image and caption @gjc04.
What drew you to Sir Herbert Baker,  the figure or the architecture?
He is a name I always knew about from history classes, a genius architect, and the Union Buildings are iconic, but I knew he designed loads of other buildings too, which I had not seen. So it gave me the opportunity to create a new ‘checklist’ which I love – having a goal!

How many Sir Herbert Baker buildings have you photographed?
I have only done about eight to 10, I should check my list! Most of which were done on my last trip to South Africa. Unfortunately, not many of his buildings are generally open to the public, which makes it more difficult to experience them, and I'm very thankful to those who opened up their homes and churches on my trip. Hopefully, on the next trip, I’ll travel to other cities around South Africa. I most recently managed to join a tour of India House [the Indian Embassy in London] which he also designed. 

Which is your favourite?
I think, ironically, it has to be the Union Buildings. I am not an architect, but each one is different and uniquely designed.

Do you have a least favourite? 
There isn't one that I don’t like. 

What have you learnt by following Baker’s footsteps?
There is an understanding and a care in his design, in his understanding of who he is creating something for and what he creates; the intricate touches he puts in. This was not building on a large scale. He captures something about the owners and the history or culture of the time. He is preserving the past.

What countries have you travelled to in order to see these buildings?
I have not travelled to a country specifically to see Sir Herbert Baker, but I always check to see if there might be one. Currently, the countries I've been to where I've captured his buildings are South Africa, the United Kingdom and India. 

A former South African swimmer? Tell us about that.
This was a long time ago. I used to be a breaststroke swimmer, competed for years, and was very fortunate to race for my country. I also raced in South African Master Swimming for about 15 years afterwards. 

Where are you based now?
I now live in London.

What brings you back to South Africa?
Family is very important to me. My mom, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and wider family and friends are here, and, for me, it is important to stay connected.

What do you do professionally?
I work in human resources.

Your favourite building in Johannesburg?
This is not a fair question! The one that stands out, maybe because [I visited it] recently, was the Rand Club, but I also love the brutalism of the University of Johannesburg.

The one building in Joburg you still want to see?
Oh, there are a number of buildings in Joburg's City Centre that I would like to see – and Baker's buildings I have not been able to access. There are still a few buildings on my checklist I want to visit, and hopefully, I'll be able to arrange access when I am back in Joburg.
Jeppe High School for Boys, Johannesburg. Another incredible design by Sir Herbert Baker. Founded in 1890, it moved location after the war to the land donated by Sir Julius Jeppe. Image and caption @gjc04.
You have taken many images of places of worship. What draws you to them as subject matter?
It is interesting that my profile shows so many places of worship. When I travel, especially in Europe, churches are a reflection of that time and place, the history; it's not only about the religion, it’s the artistry and the skill that they reflect. The pure beauty of the buildings and the items within them. But it’s not only churches; I like to see other places of worship, as they show you a culture within a culture. I try to uncover temples, mosques or synagogues.

Your photos preserve the architecture of a certain age. What made that significant to you?
Much of my travels have been in Europe and, with my love of history, I suspect that my photos reflect that love and passion. However, I hope to travel further afield and see different architecture and immerse myself in different cultures and their histories. I do try and photograph both modern, glass skyscrapers and old buildings, but maybe my preference for the latter shows in my profile pictures. 

From Gothic cathedrals and synagogues to luxury hotels, schools for boys, parliament buildings, and presidential houses, Coetzee covers it all. If this speaks to your aesthetic, take a look at his Instagram feed and give him a follow if you’re interested in fine architectural shots and snippets of the history behind them. To follow Sir Herbert Baker's work we recommend becoming a member of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, who regularly conduct tours of architectural wonders, right here in Joburg. 

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg interview with artist and founder of BKhz Gallery, Banele Khoza.
#MyJoburg with Charles Leonard, DJ and host of 'This is Joburg' podcast.
#MyJoburg with artist Thabang Lehobye.

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