There are some places so wild and lovely and untainted, you feel touched to your soul, perhaps subtly changed, after even the briefest encounter. Those who’ve stayed at any of the lodges on Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, discreetly placed in the dense fynbos on the sloping plains above Walker Bay, close to the town of Gansbaai in the Western Cape, will have found themselves moved by the quiet immensity of the natural surrounds: the 2 500 hectares of conservation land, the resplendent indigenous flora ever changing with the seasons, the moody ocean lapping against kilometres of white dune-capped beaches.
It is this scene that forms the backdrop to this modern villa, and each room has a panorama of the fynbos. On entering, the view through the capacious, glass-walled space is engulfing, with the boundary between indoor and outdoor spaces barely perceived. Before the structure was even conceptualised, its owners were taken with the idea of being close to nature; of a home that would serve as a ‘retreat’.
When Frank Kilbourn, Deon Huysaner and Tobin Prior first visited Grootbos, admiring the contemporary architecture of its Forest Lodge, they saw an opportunity to invest in the expansion of the conservation area and to build a holiday home for their respective families. This would allow for unlimited time to be spent here.
A variety of outdoor ‘islands’ were created for the express purpose of quiet contemplation of the natural surrounds.
Designed by Frank in collaboration with Vaughan Russell of Field Architecture
, the villa was to be able to accommodate at least two of the families at the same time, with plenty of private areas as well as common spaces in which to congregate. The brief was that the structure should not be intimidating, despite its 1 000m² footprint. Set away from the lodges, it is surprisingly unobtrusive; a calm, pleasingly symmetrical structure with a simple roof line that flows softly downwards with the contour of the hill on which it stands.
‘We didn’t want to build anything that would jar with its surrounds,’ explains Frank, who has ‘a passion for houses that fit well with their environment’. In a couple of years, he says, ‘it should look like it’s been there forever; it should almost disappear’.
The villa is a feat of structural engineering, with its heavy panes (storm proof to resist the often tempestuous weather conditions) ‘hanging off a central backbone’ and contributing to its sense of ‘floating in nature’. A vast timber pergola designed by Vaughan has both aesthetic and structural value, serving to stabilise the roof while visually ‘anchoring’ the house.
The use of timber, from the pergola to the balau decking around the pool, contributes to a layered effect that helps to soften the villa’s linear frame, with the structure appearing to ‘float’ beneath the roof line. Part of what co-owner Frank Kilbourn admires about the architecture is the interplay of light and moving shadows with the forms.
It was designed to be opened up completely – its outsized glass doors sliding away from sight – to merge indoor and outdoor spaces, and maximise the flow between the central living areas and the convivial entertaining areas around the swimming pool. And while the poolside braai gets most of its use in the summer months, a large indoor version in the genial open-plan kitchen – the real heart of this home – is fired-up throughout the year, creating a cosy hearth to which everyone is drawn.
An elongated plan allows for all the bedrooms to enjoy the sea views. All the doors were designed to be extra large, and throughout the house can be opened up entirely to blur the boundaries between indoors and out. In the guest bedroom the chair is covered in Pillar by GP and J Baker from bbellamy & bbellamy and the cotton ‘mud print’ throw is from Weylandts.
Two main sleeping wings are on opposite ends of the building, elongated to afford all the rooms equally superb views; a lower level houses an additional suite as well as a media room and comfortable sofas, a walk-in wine cellar and a gym.
The villa’s elegant, understated interior was accomplished by Vaughan’s wife and partner at Field Architecture, interior designer Eloise Collocott Russell, referencing the hues of the surrounding fynbos. ‘We wanted the space to be calm, not over the top, with an emphasis on less rather than more,’ explains Frank. ‘The idea was to make it really quiet inside, a contemplative space, with no clutter.’
The ‘more’ part comes from the art on display, gleaned from Frank’s and Tobin’s own noteworthy collections as well as pieces that the owners – all serious art appreciators – have given each other to mark their friendship. Key to the villa’s design brief was for it to work as a gallery of sorts, which plays out in the expanses of wall space that allow for optimal display of works by renowned artists such as Cecil Skotness and William Kentridge. Here, art and nature unite for the ultimate ‘wow’ effect.
Originally published in HL August 2014