The story of Meyer Pienaar began when Willie Meyer, a young graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand, embarked for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA to attend the 1960/1961 architectural master class taught by one of the most influential architectural educators of the 20th century, Louis Kahn. Following his return to South Africa, Willie Meyer's early work was soon acknowledged as a significant departure from the modern movement of the 1930s and its later regional adaptations which defined contemporary South African architecture at the time.
Three apartment buildings in Pretoria, Kenmauval, Botha Mansions and Grupels Court became early and iconic markers of the "Philadelphia School" within South Africa. They demonstrated not only stylistic kinship to Louis Kahn's own work (such as the choice of materials, the planning approaches or the distinction between "servant and served spaces" within a building), but also introduced the approaches inspired by Kahn's thinking to the country. These countered the rationalising and reductivist approaches of the modern movement on the premise that form and order within a design are only meaningful if underlain by spiritual constants, which are to be intuited by the architect, who should seek to give form true to the intention of what a building "wants to be". Form and order, silence and light are an architect's vocabulary, the design his poetry, with which to evoke a lived experience of deeper, metaphysical meaning and purpose.
On the strength of his evident talent as a young architect, Willie Meyer was awarded the commission to design the new campus of the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) in Johannesburg, at the time the largest project to have been commissioned in the southern hemisphere. He established W.O. Meyer & Partners architects, the firm that was to execute the project in collaboration with the office of Jan van Wijk over the next seven years, and recruited as a design partner another graduate from the Louis Kahn masterclass, François Pienaar.
François Pienaar completed his architectural studies in 1964, and was afforded an opportunity to enrol at the University of Pennsylvania on the strength of a scholarship awarded to him as the most distinguished graduate of the University in Cape Town. He returned from Philadelphia in 1967 and joined Willie Meyer's team on the university project the following year. Their creative collaboration soon flourished, and François became a partner within two years and in 1978 added his name to the firm that was to be known as Meyer Pienaar Architects (with a number of variations of the brand) for the next thirty years.
The RAU project put Meyer Pienaar on the architectural map. Not only did it catapult the practice into becoming one of the larger South African firms; its dedicated research into the New University movement of the 1960s of which RAU became a prime exponent, earned it international publicity, including an entry in Sir Bannister Fletcher's "A History of Architecture", and inevitably made Meyer Pienaar an authority on the design of educational facilities. The practice was soon active in master-planning and building design for university campuses across the country. Meyer Pienaar ran a vibrant studio in Auckland Park, where the firm quickly grew to a team of about 80 staff, organised as a creative unit where teamwork was actively promoted.
The foundation laid in the formative years of the practice underpinned its ongoing strength and success for half a century of ongoing practice. Initial specialisations in educational and civic architecture were later expanded into a broader portfolio of corporate, commercial, residential and urban design work at all scales. Inspired by the teachings of Louis Kahn, a creative energy pervaded, and was made manifest as much in organisational and technical innovation as in the unrelenting pursuit of the purest architectural design solution to any given design challenge.
A number of architects held partnerships in Meyer Pienaar over a period of five decades, and countless students and young architects from across the globe passed through its doors as interns or longer-term employees. Working in an interactive studio environment, the creative teams within the Meyer Pienaar studio has built a portfolio of projects that has consistently earned Meyer Pienaar design awards, competition wins and acknowledgement through features in the professional press and a variety of books, both locally and abroad. This body of work remains a legacy that continues to enrich the life of the individuals and communities it serves.