Illovo Cocoon House

Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Thys Dullaart This home in Illovo, Johannesburg, is at the end of a panhandle. It’s invisible from the road and even from the front door it keeps its remarkable interior quite secret. Yet behind its unassuming facade a quiet revolution is taking place. As soon as you step through the door you are immediately struck by its remarkable courtyard: a breathtaking central atrium crowned with a sweeping ellipse. Despite the cubic, modernist-inspired design of the building, the dominant feature is without doubt the double curve that opens the roof to the sky, and which defines the way in which you see and experience the house and its surrounds. ‘It has the effect of fish-bowling the world,’ says its architect, Sarah Calburn. ‘The trees and sky seem to bend into the courtyard when you look up.’ The owner wanted her home to be filled with air and light. ‘I wanted to feel like I was in the garden even when I was inside,’ she says. ‘I love the fact that you can look up and see the sky from every room.’ All the rooms, upstairs and down, open onto the central courtyard. The glass walls all slide away, which means that the courtyard and the garden beyond connect via the lounge, converting the interior of the home into an island among gardens. Sarah adds: ‘Inside and outside meet in the middle. The house and the garden are one.’ The egg shape draws together the rooms around the atrium and pulls them into a continuum, ‘articulating all the private spaces’, as Sarah puts it. ‘Sitting in the lounge in the evening is magical,’ says the owner. She adds that at night she can close up the house, but still put a table in the middle of the courtyard and sit outside. ‘In the mornings I love reading the paper in the kitchen while having breakfast with the sun on my back,’ she says, ‘and when it’s dark I can open the doors upstairs and just keep the shutters closed.’ This house was built on a subdivided plot – the site was previously a tennis court. In earlier stages of the design, Sarah played around with the idea of a Mondrian-inspired, grid-like pattern of positive and negative spaces, but eventually ‘arrived at a very simple courtyard house with a hidden soft space’. Sarah’s design retains the sense of the ‘bounded space’ and the geometry of the tennis court, and the site’s original incarnation lives on in its sense of scale. The significance of the design, however, reaches beyond its immediate site. Sarah attempted, as she does in all her work, to engage with various aspects of contemporary urban living and to ‘unlock unimagined architectural or urban potential’. The question for her is: ‘What are appropriate ways of building in this city?’ Her starting point was her frequently quoted characterisation of Joburg as not so much a ‘world-class city’, as a series of ‘world-class interiors’, where life is lived behind closed doors and walls and in private gardens. The upshot of this is the disappearance and radical weakening of the truly ‘public’ urban domain. ‘These kinds of ideas hold critical potential for imaginative strategies in architectural space-making’ says Sarah. With this house, she has turned the (usually crushing) Joburg necessities of security into the genius loci of the house. While disclosing very little from the exterior, the constant contact of rooms with the atrium makes the house feel safe, and yet very open, in touch at all times with what is often perceived as the ‘threatening outside’. The Cocoon House, as she calls it, allows its owner a dynamic and ever-changing experience of Joburg’s best qualities: its inside-outside weather, its luxurious gardens, its dramatic skies. Both garden and home form one ‘world-class interior’. Sarah Calburn Architects, 011-447-0867,  Q&A WITH SARAH CALBURN What inspires you? Inspiration comes from anything, in any form if it speaks to my mind and makes my neurons snap, whether positively or negatively. Design you’re most proud of? Well, I love them all as they’re happening. Being proud of something is often inseparable from the pleasure of the clients as they start to use and really experience their building. Most exciting project you’re working on? I really want to do a body of work that interacts with the public urban fabric of the city – work that can start to make a difference to what I perceive as our rapidly weakening urban quality. Favourite piece of design advice? Never give the client what they want, always give them more. Where do you think up your best ideas? At my studio table with a fountain pen and many large pieces of paper, the garden open in front of me, with the day open ahead... Buildings you admire? Brilliant contemporary architects (who happen to be friends too) are Neil Durbach and Camilla Block in Sydney. They produce consistently innovative, evocative and beautiful work. What central factors will influence architecture in the coming years? I hope that these will include the necessary realisation that space affects us – that the nature of the space we live in and interact with has a strong effect on our mental state and our attitudes, both to ourselves and to others. Society needs sustainable strategies as much as the environment and industry do. City and society intimately involve architecture. This article was originally featured in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of House and Leisure.