Architecture is known as the slowest moving of all the arts. Compared to fashion design, say, houses progress glacially so architecture tends to be the last thing to pick up trends and the slowest to let them go. Negotiating fashion’s fickleness is complicated by the fact that the most distinctive and lasting designs tend to be most perfectly of their place and age. The trick to being of your time but beyond fashion seems to lie in the question of influence.
This house, designed by Bryan Dunstan of bd Studio Architects and subtly altered for a subsequent owner by Nabeel Essa of Office 24-7, is an excellent example of how a Mid-century Modern pavilion can be reinvented for a more urbanised place and time: Joburg in the noughties.
Bryan points out that Bauhaus master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s inspiration can be found everywhere in the house. Indeed, the German–American architect’s famous Barcelona Pavilion was his client’s reference. Its influence is clear in everything from the travertine floors and the delicate columns to the pond and the ‘low-slung, skinny roof’ as Bryan puts it.
The design is essentially an L shape. One arm is made up of two bedrooms stacked on top of each other with a basement garage below; the other is the living area – a ‘horizontal element that plays off against the bedroom tower’ as Bryan describes it. Nabeel points out how the ‘tower’ looks almost like a townhouse from the street, giving it an urban presence, yet the living area is like a garden pavilion. There is just one door in the whole building and wherever you are your eye carries not just from one room to another but to the far reaches of the garden. ‘When you live on this property you live on the whole site,’ says Bryan. The landscaping was designed to extend the architecture.
The unified effect is enhanced by the materials, imparting what Bryan calls a ‘visual quiet’: travertine for the flooring throughout, for example. ‘We used as few materials as possible,’ he says. As a result the home ‘all becomes one thing’ like a sculpture.
Nabeel added a dressing room to the main en suite bedroom, a back-of-house kitchen parallel to the sleek galley, and staff quarters. His sensitive additions are so well integrated into the original you can barely tell they weren’t there from the beginning.
Inside Nabeel introduced textured grey wallpaper to ‘bring the outside in’, picking up on the trowel-flicked Tyrolean cement of the exterior walls, which are designed to weather, become covered in creepers and settle the house into its setting. He also designed the linear, geometric garden.
The challenge then was just how to furnish the space, which seems so complete in itself. ‘It’s detailed and very precise,’ say the owners. ‘We appreciate that.’ The last thing they wanted to do was detract from the qualities that had attracted them to it in the first place. ‘We took time to try to understand the big picture.’
With a design of this nature, which is as timeless as it is current, the entire history of modernism comes to bear on the big picture. That means you can throw in classic Eames moulded plywood chairs from the United States, an Acapulco seat designed in Mexico in the 1950s, a petrol blue Scandinavian couch, and made-to-measure sofas from Mødernist in Joburg’s own Parkhurst in the living area – it all works. Upstairs an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, a Haldane Martin Weightless Table and various items from Lim in Cape Town rub shoulders, and they belong together.
It all resolves itself so beautifully precisely because each piece is of its place and time but beyond them too. Influence and invention go hand in hand in the creation of something new and, in a home such as this one, they all become part of a conversation.