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Exploring an African palace

Durban - Ammazulu African Palace, a boutique hotel on the edge of KwaZulu-Natal’s Kloof Gorge overlooking Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, has been described as a sensory delight.

What makes this destination different is that Durban artist Peter Amm has made his collection of Zulu art and crafts part of the more than 40 columns that support the building.

A bold mural behind Thai-style furniture. Pictures: GINNY PORTERThe eclectic barZulu arts and crafts have been incorporated into AmmaZulus 40 columns.The entrance hall and dining area reflects the fusion decor

Zulu beadwork dates back as far as the Middle Stone Age. Cave dwellers living from 280 000 to 45 000 years ago adorned themselves with beadwork using materials from many parts of the world, including the Far East.

Trade routes from Asia and the Mediterranean brought in ceramic glazed beads from China, agate and carnelian from India, amber from the Baltic, and glass beads from Rome. So the Ammazulu African Palace underlines the important historical link between local people and the Far East.

The steep driveway leads to the outside of a building redolent of the Zimbabwe ruins, with its turrets of hewn stone. The difference here is that they have been positioned in attention-grabbing patterns. It seems that at any moment a band of stomping Zulu warriors will arrive to escort you to the king.

The tour guide explained the commitment Amm had put into his creation. Architect Kevin MacGarry of Architects Collaborative designed the building, while architect and artist Jane du Rand was responsible for the mosaic work.

One website describes this venue as “a visionary lodge celebrating the cultural heritage of KwaZulu-Natal”. I prefer to think of it as a Zulu palace.

It has been said that in this country we have no distinctive architectural style. We tend to copy European designs – the Dutch-style houses in the Cape, for example – and we have “Tuscan” villages in our concrete and ash-block walled housing developments.

Maybe Amm has something uniquely South African here, revealing the identity of the people of KwaZulu-Natal.

Amm has had an interesting life, touring different countries to collect artefacts for his African palace. Although African art predominates, some of the furniture is from far-off places such as Bali.

The interior design is of the fusion variety. Eastern-flavoured furniture is made from a variety of hardwoods and is heavy and carved with interesting designs.

Amm’s passion and energy are evident in the building, and the paintings and Zulu art collection have obviously been chosen with care. He commented how he wanted to create something “completely, utterly and unforgettably different”, and he has done this.

His dream took him four decades to create. This building is not your normal square brick and glass shape, but one of walkways, walk-overheads, and interesting feature corners. For instance, there is a walkway which spans the main area, linking the bedroom suites.

The eastern furnishings do not quarrel with those in the Zulu tradition. The intricate patterning on the mosaic is also similar to Islamic designs. No doubt the trade routes brought in more than simply the materials.

The dining area in this building has an interesting curve. It reminds one of the rough picture frames made by Zulu crafters. And then, to find Thai-style furniture in a palace in Kloof is, indeed, delightfully different.

How does this building speak architecturally? Well, as in fractal theory, “simple” can lead smoothly to intriguingly “complicated”. Indeed, a recent discovery in African art and architecture is the widespread use of fractal design. Another way of describing this is the use of so-called “self-similarity”, in which the individual parts follow the same form as the whole.

At Ammazulu, it may seem that indigenous people simply built the structure using local materials, but the building is made to last and the high ceilings have a cathedral feel which is not commonly found in a vernacular creation.

You feel close to nature here, and the setting overlooking the gorge is ideal. Each of the stained glass windows tells a story. Then there are the vibrant murals, the wooden carvings, the stone work, the tiled floors, and the staircase which has another interesting message to convey.

You could spend hours gazing in wonder and delight.

AmaZulu means “the people of heaven”, which surely lends authenticity to the name of this destination. However, as it is Amm’s creation, the additional and quite acceptable prefix of his own name makes it, unforgettably, “Ammazulu”.

As you leave, the persisting yet glorious image is that of a global village that combines the mysterious, spicy history of the East African continent with the Orient and its cryptic past.

If You Go...

Leave the kids at home, as no under-14s are allowed: there are so many interesting items and works of art that could be damaged by careless or over-enthusiastic youth.

We need more buildings in South Africa which tell us about our cultural links. It is hoped that the Ammazulu Palace Boutique Hotel will grow in recognition and find a permanent place on tourism itineraries.

www.ammazulupalace.com

Ginny Porter and Patrick Coyne, The Mercury

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