Mike Townsend is a restaurateur who describes himself as a serial builder: ‘I love to design and build houses and restaurants,’ he says. His restaurants are all over Cape Town but his houses have tended to be on the False Bay side, like the one he built last year.
It overlooks the restaurant that launched him, Kalk Bay’s high-flying Harbour House, a wave-splashed landmark perched on the rocks between fishing boats and sea. Not surprisingly, it’s the view of this attractive harbour, with the wide blue ocean behind and the encircling mountains, that first attracted Mike to the steeply sloping location of his current home. Just two roads up from the sea, it’s an exceptional site. A 700m² plot backed up against the mountain side, which, according to Mike, is a buffer against the wind.
‘What was originally here was a 1960s house, a bit of a shocker,’ he says. ‘Four upstairs bedrooms and two bathrooms, in a structure that was cantilevered over ugly square pillars. Only a storeroom downstairs. But what a view!’
To help him breathe new life into this poky little house, he brought in Thomas Leach, the architect who has worked on several of his projects. ‘Mike likes things stylish, calm and spacious,’ says Thomas. ‘He goes for a white Mediterranean look. Clean and uncluttered.’
As Mike puts it, he wanted to create ‘something simple, slightly modernist, a structure that’s more like a sculpture’. Simple maybe, but it required a radical revamp. This included major excavations to accommodate garages and staff. Stairs up to the house from the road feel like an easy climb past a newly terraced garden.
The overall design of the house was totally inverted to maximise the views. Now the entrance leads past two ground floor guest bedrooms to a stairway going up to what has become the heart of the house. It’s in this upstairs section overlooking the bay that Mike comes to unwind, in an open-plan living, dining and kitchen area next to the main bedroom.
‘We wanted to enhance the feeling of being suspended between sea and sky,’ says Thomas.
So with the top floor cantilevered dramatically over the bottom, they opened full-height windows facing the sea. It creates a powerful effect – ‘like a box floating on top of another box’, is how Mike explains it.
Nothing here hijacks the sense of space and never-ending vistas. ‘We didn’t want anything to come between us and the sight of all that beautiful nature out there,’ says Mike. ‘No glass doors sliding one on top of the other. Instead we made them slide away into cavity walls. Having nothing obstructing what you see makes a huge difference.’
They incorporated another cunning architectural concept into the main bathroom; a large skylight that dominates the space and maximises the light, while connecting it with the sloping garden and mountain fynbos behind. For extra comfort the architect put duckboard on the floor and located the dressing room alongside.
As a man who has ‘a lot of nice bars and restaurants I can hang out in’, Mike regards his home more as a place to relax – ‘my private space’ – than to entertain. But he cooks a lot. ‘Prepping is very therapeutic,’ he says. It’s a kitchen that Thomas describes as ‘a smart piece of low-level furniture that fits comfortably into the living room environment. We tucked the high cupboards, fridge and scullery into an alcove around the corner.’
Floors throughout are pale grey screeds. To avoid salt deterioration, windows are powder-coated aluminium, garden walls made of natural stone, and exterior house walls coated with Marmoran. In this case it’s a blue/grey that Mike feels blends into the mountain, and makes a change from the white he uses on all his buildings, including the interior of this house.
‘When in doubt, go white,’ he says. ‘I like big flat white pieces of wall. I don’t want to put paintings on them. The view is the painting. It changes all the time. You’re never looking at the same old donkey.’
Originally published in HL October 2014