HOUSE OF EARTH AND SKY

A new house on Cape Town’s At­lantic Seaboard chal­lenges con­ven­tion — aim­ing to be more def­er­en­tial to the nat­u­ral beauty of its set­ting and friend­lier to the peo­ple on the street

Sunday Times - - Inside Out - HOUSE VORSTER-BRUWER, CLIFTON

When you walk along Kloof Road in Clifton on Cape Town’s At­lantic Seaboard, there’s one house more than oth­ers where the jog­gers, dog walk­ers, strollers and oth­ers slow, stop and gather for a chat. “Clifton doesn’t have the typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban setup where peo­ple just drive. There’s a lot of foot traf­fic and peo­ple use the side­walks,” says ar­chi­tect Jan-Heyn Vorster of this sea­side neigh­bour­hood.

Jan-Heyn and his life part­ner Pi­eter Bruwer built the house specif­i­cally with the hope that it would be friend­lier to the street than the blank, over­pow­er­ing man­sions typ­i­cal of the At­lantic Seaboard. The houses in the area tend to fol­low a fairly pre­dictable for­mula: get up as high as you can and face the sea view, and build as big as you can ac­cord­ing to real-es­tate logic.

“They are built from left to right, the full width of the site to max­imise the views,” says Jan-Heyn. They typ­i­cally have no gar­den – just a deck and a swim­ming pool out­side. For all the beauty of those ocean views, how­ever, Jan-Heyn points out that the houses all face west, so they tend to be un­com­fort­ably ex­posed to the harsh af­ter­noon sun.

Jan-Heyn and Pi­eter had been liv­ing in an old Clifton house, built in the 1940s, for two years be­fore they de­cided to re­build. While the old house “didn’t re­spond very well to the site” (and left them with a long, steep climb up the stairs car­ry­ing gro­ceries from the garage, which was es­pe­cially un­com­fort­able when it was raining), they none­the­less learnt some im­por­tant lessons while liv­ing there. “It told us few things about wind, wind di­rec­tion, the views, the sun and how to de­sign around these cli­matic chal­lenges,” says Jan-Heyn.

As Jan-Heyn and his busi­ness part­ner in their ar­chi­tec­ture firm, Pi­eter Malan, be­gan de­sign­ing the house, their first key de­sign de­ci­sions were driven by those lessons. “We started look­ing at the place­ment of the build­ing on the site,” says Jan-Heyn. He and Pi­eter came up with the idea of an ar­range­ment, a lit­tle like a court­yard build­ing, that cre­ated a shel­tered out­door space that faced north, turn­ing its back on the south­easter.

They had to dig into the moun­tain­side so that they could cre­ate a base­ment garage. On top of that, they placed a guest suite, al­most a sep­a­rate flat­let that links in­ter­nally with the house. The same level houses most of the ser­vices: laun­dry, plant area, pump room and the rest of it. There’s also a wine cel­lar, and, be­cause it’s a smart house (with hid­den blinds that drop down au­to­mat­i­cally when the sun starts beat­ing down) the IT/AV room and so­lar en­ergy plant room are use­fully hid­den down on this level, too.

Pi­eter points out that on street level they used mainly nat­u­ral stone — ei­ther as stone ma­sonry walls or gabion re­tain­ers with packed stone. “The idea was that it was more of a land­scap­ing el­e­ment than an en­gi­neered built el­e­ment,” he says. “With the stone and plant­ing, it’s seen as if it is part of the moun­tain.” The house it­self is placed on top of this rugged base, which acts as “a sort of man-made, land­scaped plinth”.

“A lot has gone into bring­ing the land­scape back to the build­ing,” says JanHeyn. “It was very im­por­tant that the build­ing did not feel like an apart­ment block in the air.”

De­spite its be­ing densely built-up, the pres­ence of na­ture in Clifton — the ocean and the moun­tain — are cen­tral to the sense of place. Pi­eter points out how, es­pe­cially from street level, the house starts to “dis­si­pate” the higher it gets. “The mas­sive con­crete el­e­ments be­come thin­ner float­ing slabs that reach out into the view and into the land­scape,” says Pi­eter. “You ex­pe­ri­ence the con­trast be­tween solid and void, and in­ter­nal spa­ces that open up com­pletely.” The solid el­e­ments ar­tic­u­late the voids: the deck and court­yard. “The can­tilever­ing edges are planted with wild rose­mary, which will creep over the edges and soften them,” he says, so that even in the air, on the edges of the build­ing, the plant­ing con­jures a sense of con­nec­tion to the earth.

That con­nec­tion is not just win­dow­dress­ing: “The house is a green build­ing,” Pi­eter says. “It har­vests so­lar en­ergy to heat all the do­mes­tic wa­ter, wa­ter­borne un­der­floor heat­ing, as well as the pool. A pho­to­voltaic sys­tem gen­er­ates elec­tric­ity for the house.”

In­side, the top two lev­els of the home are ar­ranged around a dou­ble-vol­ume atrium. “We tried hard to make the house a com­plete in­door-out­door ex­pe­ri­ence with cer­tain ar­eas al­most be­com­ing out­door rooms when you open the big slid­ing doors and win­dows,” says Pi­eter. “So you’re al­ways part of the gar­den, al­ways part of the view no mat­ter where in the house you are.

“The house has an in­ti­mate qual­ity be­cause it is com­pact and con­tained. There are no ram­bling pas­sages; spa­ces are all in­ter­linked and well con­nected.”

The lower, court­yard liv­ing level in­cludes a lounge, a kitchen area, din­ing room and guest cloak room, with the pa­tio and pool in the front. Above the kitchen there’s a study or fourth bed­room. Above the din­ing room there’s a bed­room suite and a bath­room. The mas­ter bed­room, dress­ing and bath­room are above the lounge and close to the road edge to en­sure the best views.

All the bed­rooms are con­nected by a steel bridge, lo­cated in the dou­ble-vol­ume atrium. While much ef­fort has gone into mak­ing the house unas­sum­ing and ac­ces­si­ble from the street level, it still goes up four lev­els. “But when you’re in the house, you’re not re­ally aware of the garag­ing and guest suite be­low,” says Jan-Heyn. “The scale of the build­ing be­comes some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent from its ap­pear­ance from the street.”

The in­te­ri­ors are an ex­er­cise in re­straint and aware­ness of the se­lected ma­te­ri­als’ in­her­ent tex­tures and colours. There’s very lit­tle plas­ter­ing and paint­ing. “We aimed to cre­ate a warm, homely ex­pe­ri­ence, with much em­pha­sis placed on hand-crafted com­po­nents and the fus­ing of the work of var­i­ous trades­peo­ple,” says Pi­eter.

“The choice of ma­te­ri­als un­der­lines our de­sign phi­los­o­phy that fin­ishes are to be care­fully con­sid­ered to cre­ate a sense of time­less­ness and calm­ness,” says Jan-Heyn. With the pass­ing of time, as the plants grow and the stone and con­crete gather patina, he hopes the house will age grace­fully and be­come more in­te­grated with its nat­u­ral sur­round­ings.

malan­vorster.co.za

PIC­TURES OP­PO­SITE PAGE: 1 The guest bath­room reprises the pat­tern of ver­ti­cal wooden slats found through­out the house. 2 In the main bed­room, the bed unit was de­signed by Malan Vorster and man­u­fac­tured by Vers­feld Cus­tom Fur­ni­ture in oiled oak. The...

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