Co­coon Liv­ing

A bold, mod­ern cedar-clad cabin in the winelands of South Africa’s West­ern Cape


The start­ing point for Gra­ham Paar­man’s cabin-like tree house in the fa­mously beau­ti­ful wine re­gion of Con­stan­tia in Cape Town was a par­tic­u­lar spot he’d cho­sen on his fam­ily es­tate—a clear­ing among the trees over­look­ing four square re­flec­tion ponds. The es­tate has ex­ten­sive land­scaped gar­dens, a manor house and a num­ber of dwellings and build­ings ar­ranged along the lines of a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a “Cape Dutch Werf ” or tra­di­tional Cape farm­yard.

The ar­chi­tects Pi­eter Malan, Jan-heyn Vorster and Peter Urry of Cape Town-based firm Malan Vorster Ar­chi­tec­ture In­te­rior De­sign had worked on var­i­ous build­ings on the prop­erty for sev­eral years and, to­gether with the gar­den de­signer Mary Mau­rel, had been in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing the quar­tet of re­flec­tion ponds in what had pre­vi­ously been a field of laven­der.

The ponds seemed to bring a cer­tain magic to the clear­ing, and gal­vanised

Gra­ham’s de­ci­sion to build a cabin there. He called on Pi­eter, Jan-heyn and Peter to help him re­alise his vi­sion for a tree house. “I al­ways wanted some­thing in the tree canopy,” says Gra­ham. “I never wanted a build­ing that was go­ing to im­pose it­self. I didn’t want some­thing sym­met­ri­cal. I hoped it would blend in and en­hance its sur­round­ings, and would in­vite the out­side in.” And he wanted some­thing small.

The “pure ge­om­e­try of the square” prompted by the ponds be­came a “sub­lim­i­nal link,” as Jan-heyn puts it, in the scheme they de­vised to bind to­gether the var­i­ous el­e­ments of the float­ing ar­chi­tec­tural in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the for­est that they en­vi­sioned.

To me­di­ate the com­bi­na­tion of in­spi­ra­tions for the tree house—the or­ganic forms of the woods on the one hand and the sharp-edged squares of the ponds on the other—they turned to the works of cel­e­brated mod­ernist ar­chi­tects the likes of Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa. “There are cer­tain ge­o­met­ri­cal ideas that they used that in­spired us,” says Pi­eter. “We in­ves­ti­gated a rig­or­ous geo­met­ric frame­work that also al­lows a sense of free­dom, curved flow­ing from straight lines, rect­an­gu­lar shapes that be­come drums and the cel­e­bra­tion of the con­nec­tions be­tween dif­fer­ent el­e­ments.”

So the tree house be­gan its ex­is­tence as a sketch of a square (the same size as one of the re­flec­tion ponds) di­vided into nine smaller squares, each the size of a re­flec­tion pool. Along the edges of each side of the square, four cir­cles rep­re­sented four trees, cre­at­ing a floor plan re­sem­bling a pin­wheel. Steel pil­lars, in groups of four, rep­re­sent the trunks of the trees, and rings over­head sug­gest branches. Branch-like beams in turn sup­port the floors above.

Each “tree” is of a slightly dif­fer­ent

The com­pact space seems spa­cious be­cause of its con­nec­tion To The vast­ness of The view and The dou­ble vol­ume above it

height. “The tree that ter­mi­nates at roof level be­came the cir­cu­lar drum for the stair­case,” says Pi­eter. It leads to a rooftop deck, an en­ter­tain­ment space that is also a view­ing plat­form look­ing over the beau­ti­fully land­scaped gar­dens and, of course, the re­flec­tion ponds. As­cend­ing the stairs feels a lit­tle like climb­ing a tree.

The rooms are ar­ranged ver­ti­cally: one liv­ing space per floor. The liv­ing area is on the first level, the bed­room on the next, and at the top, the open-air deck. At the same time, a dou­ble vol­ume space makes for a ver­ti­cal con­nec­tion be­tween the lev­els, and some of the rings ex­tend be­yond the edge of the al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly square floor plate, cre­at­ing can­tilevered out­side bal­cony spa­ces.

The struc­ture is glassed-in and cov­ered with a veil of ver­ti­cal cedar wood slats. “They cre­ate pri­vacy at cer­tain points and ar­tic­u­late the build­ing in oth­ers,” says Pi­eter. The lines they cre­ate echo the “ver­ti­cal­ity of the sur­round­ing trees,” so the build­ing blends beau­ti­fully with its sur­round­ings. The stair­case “drum” is the only re­ally solid mass in the build­ing. “We wanted the con­trast be­tween some­thing that is com­pletely open and one re­ally solid vol­ume,” says Pi­eter.

Gra­ham adds that de­spite its com­pact size, the house doesn’t feel small. “There are tall slid­ing doors at the front that opened up over both lev­els,” says Pi­eter. The large ver­ti­cal space opens up the liv­ing area, blur­ring the in­side and out­side. “It also plays with the idea of scale,” says Jan-heyn. “You are in this vast­ness of the land­scape, but you are also in the build­ing.”

“It’s the en­cap­su­la­tion of co­coon liv­ing,” says Gra­ham. “But at the same time, I think we all have a con­nec­tion to na­ture, and this house cap­tures that in a very spe­cial way. You can see the fan­tas­tic night skies, and the

squir­rels in the trees. You can hear the birds from in­side, too.”

That the build­ing is small, mak­ing minute at­ten­tion to de­tail pos­si­ble, com­bined with

the fact that the struc­ture is ex­pressed in ev­ery as­pect of the de­sign, meant that noth­ing could be hid­den. As Jan-heyn says, “All of the me­chan­ics of the build­ing are aes­thetic, de­sign el­e­ments.”

The ar­chi­tects' choice of ma­te­ri­als prompted many of their fi­nal de­sign de­ci­sions so that the build­ing went up as much as the con­cept did. Pi­eter pro­vides a use­ful ex­am­ple: “Gen­er­ally the ver­ti­cal el­e­ments are steel. They sup­port the hor­i­zon­tal el­e­ments, which are tim­ber beams and floor plates. Those con­nec­tions are ex­pressed in lit­tle turned brass, hand-ma­chined con­nec­tions. The idea of craft­ing the struc­tural com­po­nents, to ex­press it, gave us an op­por­tu­nity to de­sign those things beau­ti­fully. We turned them into beau­ti­ful, el­e­gant sculp­tural el­e­ments, so they would not ap­pear too en­gi­neered.”

The ar­chi­tects used Corten steel, man­u­fac­tured only in flat sheets, rather than stan­dard, round mild steel sec­tions. The idea

“i hoped it would blend in and en­hance its sur­round­ings, and

would in­vite The out­side in”

of the steel be­ing folded ap­pealed to them, as well as the fact that it gains a patina in time, rust­ing and turn­ing into a cop­pery or fer­rous or­ange colour. The cedar wood they used will also weather. “Ma­te­ri­als are al­lowed to change,” says Jan-heyn. “It works in a nat­u­ral, or­ganic di­rec­tion.”

The high cop­per con­tent of Corten and the colour of its lead to the de­ci­sion to use warm met­als such as brass and cop­per for the junc­tions. This was picked up again in many of the other fin­ish­ings, such as the taps, show­er­head and lamps.

The ar­chi­tects de­signed the in­te­ri­ors and chose the fur­nish­ings, too. As Jan-heyn points out, “It’s lovely to have the op­por­tu­nity to take the con­cept right through to the fur­nish­ings. The same care goes into choos­ing a piece of fur­ni­ture as mak­ing the space.”

“I’m a fan of warm ma­te­ri­als and tex­tures... wood, stone and leather,” says Gra­ham. This per­fectly suited the ar­chi­tects’ idea to work with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als and met­als. “We tried to keep the colours subdued and al­most neu­tral so that you’re re­ally more aware of what is go­ing on out­side the house rather than be­ing colour­ful and flashy on the in­side,” says Pi­eter. They stuck pre­dom­i­nantly to linens, wool and leather in ochre, deep blue, taupe and brown.

“The ar­chi­tec­ture makes quite a strong, sin­gu­lar state­ment,” says Gra­ham. “But at the same time, it has be­come a sanc­tu­ary. It has al­most be­come trans­for­ma­tive as far as life­style is con­cerned.” Just as the float­ing tree house im­merses it­self in na­ture, and sub­tly me­di­ates be­tween its in­hab­i­tants and the na­ture sur­round­ing them, it also pro­vides a me­di­a­tion on man’s re­la­tion­ship with na­ture, an­other way in which it is like those four ponds that proved to be the seeds of its in­spi­ra­tion. “It’s just a very spe­cial space,” says Gra­ham.

FROM TOP Com­ple­men­tary colours such as ochre, deep blue, taupe and brown are used in the liv­ing room; the con­nec­tions be­tween the wooden and steel el­e­ments are ar­tic­u­lated with hand­turned brass junc­tions

OP­PO­SITE The stair­case is one of the ma­jor achieve­ments in the de­sign of the tree house

FROM LEFT The kitchen is from the Sine Tem­pore range of Val­cucine; on the first level, the liv­ing area, a half round ring, ac­com­mo­dates a pa­tio

THIS Page The "co­coon" of west­ern red cedar cre­ates a per­me­able, at times trans­par­ent, façade

OP­PO­SITE The glassed-in struc­ture is cov­ered with a veil of lin­ear cedar wood slats

THIS Page De­tails are func­tional as well as beau­ti­ful, thus, dou­ble beams with cav­i­ties in the ceil­ing also con­ceal wires

FROM LEFT The bath­room also matches the over­all theme of the home; the choice of cop­per

for the taps by Vola was prompted by the high cop­per con­tent

in the Corten steel used through­out the



The bed and other cab­i­netry, all cus­tom­made, are in solid oak with tra­di­tional

joint­ing de­tails

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