Open Plan: an Architectural Holiday Home Outside Kruger National Park

This holiday home close to the Kruger National Park captures the beauty and mystery of ancient African ruins in a dazzling, contemporary reinterpretation.

Warren Heath/Bureaux

‘Even though you might leave Africa, Africa never leaves you,’ says South African-born Julian Koski. He left South Africa for the US in the 1980s, but his vivid memories of his childhood safari holidays stayed with him. Now living with his wife Aida and raising their twins Leo and Tess, his thoughts turned again to his childhood memories of the South African wilderness. ‘I wanted to give them a piece of what I had growing up,’ he says. He saw the potential of a holiday home in a nature reserve to open up a new realm for them, a counterpoint to the privilege of New York City. 

He found a spectacular site overlooking a dam in Thornybush Private Game Reserve, pristine savannah adjacent to the Kruger National Park, and began a process that would realise his dream of a family base in Africa. 

If there’s one thing that Julian loves as much as a safari holiday, it’s architecture. ‘My whole life, I wanted to become an architect,’ he says. ‘It was always my passion, and this was an opportunity for me to exercise my architectural ambitions.’ So he set about designing his family holiday home himself. Although Julian says he didn’t have a preconceived notion of a ‘dream house’, he wanted to make some sort of reference to his family in the architecture. The concept was inspired by the idea of a family legacy. ‘Me being South African, and my wife being part Arabic, part Brazilian, we wanted to merge the north and south of Africa,’ he says. ‘I bring a sub-Saharan feel; she brings that north African feel – the more Moorish side of it. So, really, it’s the marriage of the two to make a whole.’ 

In addition to these personal references, the heart of Julian’s design was the mesmerising power of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval city in the heart of Africa and, according to some legends, the capital of the land of the Queen of Sheba. The rough-hewn granite stones of the disintegrating ancient city inspired Julian. He wanted to capture something of the sense of timelessness and belonging in the landscape, the aura of legend and ancient African civilisations. Building a house from scratch in the wilderness demands a complex response – something more than the usual reinterpretations of old lodge architecture. Julian’s vision seems like a geological construction echoing the landscape and a reference not just to its natural context, but the cultural context of the continent. 

When it was complete, he and Aida christened the house Kubili House: kubili means ‘two’ in Tsonga, in reference to their twins. But the house is in many ways about dualities. Julian conceived of it in two parts, drawing on ancient and modern influences: earthy, organic materiality expressed in abstracted, Modernist-inspired forms. One part is an outside living area with a floating roof, and the other is its rocky, monolithic counterpart with ‘the more Moorish, Moroccan, Zimbabwean ruins-type look’. 

In the outside living area, it’s as if the rocks are giving way to the smooth finishes of the floors and suspended ceilings. This space is all about openness and looking out. The furniture here – dominated by Donna Karan’s Urban Zen range in solid Balinese teak – is low to the ground. The fireplace, too, is on the ground, beneath a massive chimney dome that was custom-made and is inspired by the brass bells in the temples of Kyoto in Japan. It’s almost as if the furniture immerses you in the surrounds.  

The landscaping surrounding the house and on the grassy roof garden further embeds the architecture. The dam reaches right up to a retaining wall out in front of the abode. Julian says that while they were building, during a terrible drought, the dam had dried up and receded. Then, on the night that the house was completed, there was a torrential storm. ‘Within hours, the rain had filled that dam,’ he says.

The house was flooded and needed repairs, but the epic baptism seemed to welcome the house by absorbing it into the land and letting the water come up to meet it. That moment had symbolic significance for Julian. Throughout the process of designing and building the house, he had been wary of planting a ‘new gleaming construction’ in this untouched landscape. ‘It was very important to me that this house needs to look as if it has been there as long as the land has,’ he says. 

That sense of belonging was something Julian carried into the interiors, too. Antique wooden beams from France brought with them a sense of human time. He also introduced reclaimed wood to some of the villa floors and sought out interior designer Jacques Erasmus to help carry out his vision. Erasmus says the interior design was about more than decorating – ‘It was about putting the house into context.’ He saw it as a process of ‘bringing to life Julian and Aida’s vision’, and complementing the ideas that informed the architecture on a more detailed level. It was a two-and-a-half-year project that evolved as it went along and required constant editing. Erasmus says that they ended up removing as much as they brought into the spaces until they were a kind of distillation, as he puts it, of all earlier iterations.  

‘We kept the interiors simple and understated,’ he says. ‘We’ve got so much going on texture- and layer-wise that little had to be done to enhance what was already there. It was about bringing out the natural beauty of the materials.’ Because of the scale of the rooms, much of the furniture had to be custom-made, but there was no simple thematic approach. What Erasmus calls the ‘almost disparate materials and furniture pieces’ in the home helped create a sense of the passage of time – of it being lived-in rather than ‘decorated’. 

In the bathrooms, artworks by Andrew Putter oversee the bathing rituals. They are styled photographic portraits – fictional representations of real 17th- and 18th-century European survivors of shipwrecks along the South African coast who were saved by Xhosa communities and went on to form deep ties with their rescuers. 

In a way, these images at the heart of Kubili House are a key to its own vision: a salvaged piece of the past that allows us to imagine the future differently. Ancient African ruins here find expression in a modern form – an intervention in the landscape that is at once boldly ambitious and almost invisible.   

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