Earth meets sky in this Clifton home
Walk along Kloof Road in Clifton, Cape Town, and you’ll notice that there’s one house where the joggers, dog walkers and strollers tend to 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. Vorster and his life partner Pieter Bruwer built the abode specifically with the hope that it would be friendlier to the street than the blank, overpowering mansions typical of the Atlantic Seaboard.
The properties in the area tend to follow a fairly predictable formula: get up as high as you can and face the seascape, 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 Vorster. They typically have no garden, and rather a deck and a swimming pool outside. For all the beauty of those ocean vistas, however, Vorster points out that the buildings all face west, so they tend to be uncomfortably exposed to the harsh afternoon sun.
Vorster and Bruwer had been living in an old 1940s Clifton house for two years before they decided to rebuild. While their old home ‘didn’t respond very well to the site’ (and left them with a long, steep climb up the stairs carrying groceries from the garage), they nonetheless learnt some important lessons while living there. ‘It told us a few things about wind, wind direction, the views, the sun and how to design around these climatic challenges,’ says Vorster.
As Vorster and his business partner in their architecture firm, Pieter Malan, began designing the house, they found that their first key design decisions were driven by those lessons about the wind and the weather. ‘We started looking at the placement of the building on the site,’ says Vorster. He and Malan came up with the idea of an arrangement, a little like a courtyard building, which created a sheltered outdoor space that faced north, turning its back on the infamous southeaster.
They had to dig into the mountainside to create a basement garage. On top of that, they placed a guest suite that links internally with the home. The same level houses most of the services. There’s also a wine cellar, and, because it’s a smart house (with hidden blinds that drop automatically when the sun starts beating in), the IT/AV room and solar-energy plant room are usefully hidden down on this level, too.
Malan 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 building itself is placed on
top of this rugged base.
‘A lot has gone into bringing the landscape back to the building,’ says Vorster. ‘It was very important that it did not feel like an apartment block in the air.’ Malan 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,’ he says. ‘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,’ so that even in the air, on the edges of the building, the planting conjures a connection to the earth.
That connection is not just window-dressing. ‘The house is a green building,’ Malan says. ‘It harvests solar energy to heat all the domestic water and waterborne underfloor heating, as well as the pool. A photovoltaic system generates electricity for the house. Modern homes tend to be energy intensive, with the various technological systems required, so it was designed to be efficient and as self-sufficient as possible.’
Inside, the top two levels 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 Malan. At the same time, however, ‘the house has an intimate quality because it is compact and contained’, he says. ‘There are no rambling passages; spaces are all interlinked and well connected.’
The lower courtyard level includes a lounge, kitchen, dining room and guest cloak room, with the entertainment patio and pool in the front. Above the kitchen there’s a study, and above the dining room there’s a bedroom suite and bathroom. The master bedroom, dressing room and bathroom are located close to the road edge to ensure the best views. All the bedrooms are connected by means of a transparent steel and timber bridge, built in the double-volume atrium.
The interiors are an exercise in restraint and awareness of the selected materials’ inherent textures and colours. Malan and Vorster limited their palette to concrete, timber and stone: honest materials. There’s very little plastering and painting. ‘A lot of the success of the building had to do with the comprehensive use of joinery, and the attention to detail in the kitchen and bathrooms,’ says Malan. ‘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.’
The furnishings keep to a palette of quiet neutrals and refined design. Natural materials such as leather, wood and steel predominate, with copper and metallic sparkles providing interest and variety, and black adding definition and contrast. ‘The choice of materials underlines our design philosophy that finishes are to be carefully considered to create a sense of timelessness and calmness,’ says Vorster. With the passing of time, as the plants grow and the stone and board-marked concrete gathers patina, he hopes the house will age gracefully.