Proof yet again that great design never ages, the simplicity of this dazzling glass-and-steel architectural home in Noordhoek, near Cape Town, harks back to the Forties yet is utterly contemporary. Located on the stretch between Chapman’s Peak and the curving sweep of the area’s famous 8km beach, the long, low, streamlined structure is also remarkable in its seamless blurring of the boundaries between indoors and outdoors.
It is a perfect setting for the Burns family, who spend as much time in the fynbos garden and the 15m lap pool as they do inside. ‘It’s a place you always want to come home to,’ says Kathy Burns, the clothing designer from Durban who lives here with her husband Iain and two young children, Saxon, five, and Jemima, nine.
Built five years ago, the design of the house was based on a low-cost, post-war Los Angeles project whose aims were to introduce the middle class to the beauty of modernism. Simplicity of form. Natural light. And an effortless connection between interior and exterior spaces. Cape-based architect Bert Pepler faced the challenge of producing blow-you-away modernism on a limited budget; like his Californian colleagues of that previous era, he did it with some unorthodox creative thinking.
‘The Case Study houses in Los Angeles were 36 experimental architectural prototypes that are now universally acknowledged as having made a significant contribution to modern residential architecture,’ he says. Architects included several who would become internationally recognised, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. As a low-cost response to the challenge of housing three million returning soldiers, they were radical designs a quantum leap from the usual peas-in-a-pod of suburban developments. In particular they promoted the use of war-time industrial materials and technologies. Those concepts featured in Bert’s Noordhoek design.
‘It’s a simple, L-shaped building in which we reduced costs by scaling down the kitchen and bedroom wing, and opting for smaller glazed openings with more cost-effective detailing there,’ Bert explains. ‘Instead, we put the budget into creating a large and beautiful living area that became the main focus of the house.’
With its warm wooden floor and ceiling, he made the living area a place where nothing hijacks the sense of flowing spaciousness. Walls on two sides are made up entirely of sliding glass doors looking onto the mountain. They open up so completely that the house becomes one with the garden, pool and Chapman’s Peak beyond. On the other two sides he put in a thin strip of glass between the top of the wall and the ceiling, running the length of the room. This brilliant piece of design lets in natural light and creates the impression of a free-floating roof.
Cleverly, the L-shape protects the house from the southeaster and captures the sun in winter. In summer the sun is directly overhead and the large overhangs of the roof shelter the house and keep it cool.
The house might be fairly modest in size – apart from the living area, the rooms are compact – but every inch of space has been cleverly utilised. The architect has also included details that enhance the effect of space, such as the sleek, handle-less cupboards lining the walls that appear more like panelling.
To complement the simplicity of the design, the decor has been kept quietly minimal, with liberal use of earthy tones and textures. Striking natural objects affirm the spirit of the place, such as the cane lampshades that hang like artworks and the sculptural clunky wooden stools made for Senufo chieftains. Many are beautiful, old African pieces as classic and timeless as the house itself.
This article was originally featured in the November 2012 issue of House and Leisure.