The White House: an Architectural Showstopper Outside Plettenberg Bay
This pure-white off-the-grid holiday home in the pristine natural mountainside and bush inland from Plettenberg Bay is built to celebrate its spectacular clifftop views.
When you arrive at this low-slung, ground-hugging white holiday home just inland from Plettenberg Bay, its greatest asset remains invisible. In fact, the spectacular views the home commands from its clifftop promontory have deliberately been obscured. As you cross the raised meadow from your point of arrival, the house forms a screen of sorts. It’s all part of what its architect Christiaan van Aswegen calls ‘an unfolding sequence of spaces’ or ‘architectural tantra’, a carefully choreographed progression as you arrive.
From the meadow, you pass a pool and descend a few stairs onto a deck. ‘Then the surroundings really disappear because you are surrounded by the white walls of the house,’ says Christiaan. ‘The idea was that there would be a compression of space, a closing off. Only once you enter the house do you get a glimpse of the view beyond, and then as you work your way towards the deck in front, it just expands and blows your mind.’
The house belongs to South African-born British investor Julian Treger, a well-known art and design collector. ‘The landscape falls 1 000 feet and you have caves and birds below you,’ continues Julian. ‘Sometimes you wake up and the cloud level is below the house.’ There isn’t a building as far as the eye can see, and fynbos covers the meadows and ravines as they fade into the Tsitsikamma Mountains.
The site was inhabited by nothing but an incomplete building when Julian first took Christiaan there. It had been abandoned for about a decade. Julian describes it as a ‘square, minimal sort of 1970s Case Study House-type design’. ‘The whole place was overrun and overgrown,’ adds Christiaan. Given its position, however, Julian says, ‘it was natural to build on to that.’
Christiaan set about creating a design. ‘We inscribed a rectangle across the entire house using the front of the existing structure, and worked our way back onto the escarpment,’ he explains. ‘The rectangle was then broken up into a series of courtyards.’
The admirable restraint of the arrival sequence is about as wilful as the building ever becomes. For the rest, it seems almost to disappear, or at least serve as a backdrop to facilitate the views. The spaces are unified in their white finish, and the slate floors create cohesion and continuity inside and out. ‘On the one hand, it creates a simple and elegant backdrop for Mr Treger’s collection,’ says Christiaan. ‘On the other hand, it allows the architecture to disappear in the sense that the setting becomes what really matters. So your eye is drawn up to the sky; your eye is drawn to the horizon.’
The gallery-like interior is perfect for Julian’s collection of art and furnishings. He has explored a number of design themes in his selection. One avenue of his thinking is exemplified by the Chandigarh furnishings by Pierre Jeanneret, cousin of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as the father of modernism, Le Corbusier. Jeanneret took over from Le Corbusier as the architect and urban designer for Chandigarh, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s new capital for the state of Punjab in the 1950s. The furniture he designed was a combination of rustic and modern design. Here, it is combined with both cowhide and the sleekness of Willy Rizzo. Somewhere in between are the various geometric forms of Paul Evans and Harry Bertoia. Julian calls it ‘Le Corbusier meets Ricky Lauren … that camping, rustic, modernist-cowboy idea’.
The art collection explores a theme of particular interest to Julian: art that reveals the links between Europe and Africa, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. Around the house you will find sculptures by the likes of Edoardo Villa, Erik Laubscher and Trevor Coleman.
The house itself explores similar ideas to the Chandigarh furniture in its insistence on beauty and modernism, but at the same time its complete off-the-grid self-sufficiency and appropriateness to its setting. ‘It was an opportunity to prove something that I feel very strongly about,’ says Christiaan, ‘that sustainability and green architecture can never be an excuse for not producing a beautiful building.’ The house runs off solar power and stores and recycles its own water. It is entirely secluded and rural, but utterly modern.
The building’s character is at once meek and powerful. Christiaan comments on ‘the quiet that comes with the place’. ‘Perhaps because of its setting and its monastic quality, a lot of people find it very inviting,’ he muses. He and Julian sought to retain the sense of peace and awe they felt when they first visited the site. ‘There was something about the flat horizontal plane and the waving grasses on the very first day that we arrived that seemed so essential to the place,’ says Christiaan. He believes that remains central to the experience of visiting it. Julian agrees that it has ‘a very spiritual quality’. ‘You feel very grounded and it’s very restful,’ he says.