Light Box Living
This compact Joburg house on the slopes of the Melville Koppies, now in its third incarnation, began life as a garage. After a subdivision, architect Sylvie Vantillard converted it into a house for herself. She added vaulted brick rooms on either side – one housed the kitchen, the other the bedroom and bathroom, and the middle the living area. It was simple, but cosy, and had flair.
Several owners later, when Pieter Botha moved in, little had changed. But after living there for a while, he needed extra space. As a fan of Mid-Century Modern design, particularly the famous glass houses – he reels them off: 'Farnsworth House and Villa Savoye, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, House Kaufmann by Richard Neutra' – he knew he wanted a 'glass box'. After seeing a house designed by architect Sarah Calburn on a rocky outcrop in Craighall Park (dubbed Little Cliff House) and being impressed by its bold but sensitive take on the theme, he gave her a call.
She came to see his house the next day, and they agreed: a glass box it would be. 'It was clear that we should go up in the middle,' says Sarah. While Sarah favours clean lines, sleek finishes and simplicity in her designs, it is in the details that many of them come alive. In this instance, the pared-down minimalism of her work has the calming effect on the eye necessary in a small space, but there is a simultaneous intensity in her care to make the most of details. The question, she says, is: 'How do you make yourself feel most excited in the space you are given? I wanted it to be an intense, joyous space.'
The sensitively proportioned glass box that became Pieter’s upstairs bedroom, for instance, not only opens up the incredible view east over the treetops of Joburg's urban forest and the CBD’s skyline, but also turns the corner to ‘look back’ at the original brick vaults. ‘The slick box contrasts with the vaults, emphasising their handmade and tactile qualities,’ adds Sarah. The contrast is a way of honouring the original, framing it within the modern addition. Similarly, the edges of the glass box are designed so they appear to hover above the brickwork. 'The corner floats out over the edge of the original vault, and doesn’t touch it,' says Sarah. 'It leaves them unmolested.'
'My top tip for living in a small space is to move in gradually and start with only the essentials' - Pieter Botha, homeowner
Downstairs, while the kitchen and original bedroom stayed much the same, the central interior space – the old garage – was where most of Sarah's work concentrated. 'The lounge area is not much bigger than it used to be, but much more useable,' says Pieter.
She stole some space from the original downstairs bathroom and 'rejigged the interior to be a more landscape-like experience'.
The staircase winds up from the sitting areas and turns around before leading up the back wall. The idea was to make the stairs 'habitable'. 'People like to sit on them now,' Sarah says. The stairs also 'communicate' with the couch, which was measured and designed into the architecture, so that the stairs seems like an extension of the furniture. (And, inversely, much of Pieter’s furniture is architectural: Breuer Wassily Chairs, a Le Corbusier armchair, a set of bent steel cantilever dining chairs.)
Sarah installed a skylight above the staircase, washing the back wall with light, which makes the room seem spacious. The stairs are another rich but subtle level of detailing. ‘There are three kinds of stair,’ Sarah says, 'solid, semi-solid and floating.' They seem to get lighter as they go up, indicating something of the character of the house: the downstairs section, connected to the garden, is an intimate, grounded space. As you ascend, it becomes all about air and space. 'Upstairs the world is your home,' says Sarah.
Sarah Calburn Architects, sarahcalburn.co.za
Originally published in HL March 2015