History of the ‘papier mâché’ house

Yokohama in Muizenberg.

Advocate Glen Babb, Muizenberg

In the year 2010 Japan celebrated its centenary of official relations with Africa.

Japan appointed Julius Jeppe honorary consul in 1910 and a plaque stands in the pavement near Greenmarket Square where Jeppe’s office was located.

But already in 1906, South Africa had a taste of Japan’s manufacturing skill when a ship’s captain, Captain Wilson, erected a Japanese prefabricated “bungalow” on Main Road in Muizenberg.

This house still stands at least 114 years later, demonstrating the foresight of the Japanese designers.

The house bears the name of Yokohama where the house was said to have been manufactured.

Locals call it the “papier mâché” house.

This is not the material that was used and which has lasted in the punishing Cape weather for more than a century.

The panels that make up the walls are called, in Japanese, “washi”. The material consists of a durable paste over a thin metal mesh. Because the paste breathes, its expansion and flexibility has allowed it to last this long.

The roof originally was covered in asphalt tiles. Corrugated iron has partially replaced these.

Even Dr Hans Fransen, in his book on the built environment of Muizenberg (A Heritage Survey of the Built Environment, Lakeside, Muizenberg and St James), avers the panels are papier mâché, but he did not have the privilege of examining the actual material.

The success of this remarkable material was surely superior to the asbestos of prefabricated buildings of the 30s and 40s. This Japanese innovation seems to be lost even in Japan.

Dr Fransen adjudges that the building is exceptional for its rarity and describes it inaccurately as “built of timber frame with papier mâché infill, on stone foundations. Handsome central steps to plinth”.

Each panel lists in Japanese script its sequence in the construction. The whole kit is assembled on the site.

Because of the strict regulations of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the owners have decided not to have it declared a national monument, but, as a building more than 60 years old, it is protected from alteration or demolition.

The deeds office does not throw more light on the erven and building – what the deeds reveal is that Captain Wilson in 1889 sold the erven to Mossop and Garland (the leather tannery owners), and it can be said with certainty that the building was erected after 1890. Although the date 1906 is commonly accepted, also by Dr Fransen, there is nothing to show the exact date.

The Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society, with the consent and co-operation of the owners, has over the past couple of years been trying to interest the Japanese consulate, embassy and government in this fine example of Japanese industrial development.

The consul, Yasushi Naito, and the embassy’s counsellor have visited Yokohama on several occasions with the intention of giving greater relevance to the building in the year 2020, when a JapanAfrica summit was planned but which was abandoned because of Covid-19.

The Japanese government also wants to effect further research to establish if the panels and kit were manufactured in Yokohama where the conference would have taken place.

Of course, the society would welcome a part of the building being used as a museum and is continuing its discussions with the owners and the Japanese Consulate.

Advocate Glenn Babb is deputy chairman of the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society and former ambassador to Italy where he was also South African commissioner to the Venice Biennale in 1993 and 1995.