During the time when Johanne Balfour and her family were building their home in Sandton, they rented a house designed by Mid-Century South African architect Norman Eaton. Eaton’s legacy is best summed up as pioneering a kind of Highveld regional modernism – and Johanne, who is French, could not have chosen a more thoughtful, nuanced example of local architecture to shape her family’s own architectural response to their new country.
‘From the start, I wanted to go modern,’ says Johanne, an interior designer who studied at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan and Joburg’s Greenside Design Center. And it was this idea that led her to the ‘tropical modernism’ of contemporary Brazilian architecture, which combines the clean lines and elegance of modernist architecture with textured natural materials and a more expressive approach.
Intent on adapting this influence for her family home’s Highveld setting and melding it with some of the principles that animated Eaton’s architecture in the late mid-20th century, Johanne called on architect Charles van Breda – and the result is a sophisticated version of modern African architecture.
The building comprises a wooden-slatted block resting on top of a glass block, with a concrete block on one end that intersects at 90 degrees. ‘The design crystallised into a very simple form,’ says Van Breda. ‘Effectively, it is a structure floating on another structure, with a glass box below.’ The bedrooms are above and the living areas are glassed in below, configured around the kitchen, which ‘formed the nucleus of the house’. In the concrete block is the garage.
Johanne wanted the garden and building to be well integrated, so she worked with landscaper Tim Conradie to create a largely endemic garden that stands as a wild counterpoint to the disciplined linearity of the architecture. This concept of a pristine, human-made ‘jewel in the landscape’ of classic modernism is tempered somewhat by the materials used for the exterior, which were chosen to weather with time: the wooden screen on the first level, for example, will turn a soft silver-grey and bring, as van Breda expresses it, another dimension of ‘life to the front of the building’, while the concrete and glass will maintain their clarity.
The effect, as Van Breda notes, is to shift the idea of a modernist house from a ‘machine for living’ to a design that ‘acknowledges the idea of the handmade object’. It’s not rustic by any means, but inside and out, there are references to the crafted and handmade elements embedded in the structured architecture.