A Modernist Landmark Home In Claremont
An interior and furniture designer breathed new life into this historically significant Modernist landmark in the Cape Town suburb of Claremont.
In the fashion of so many modern concrete edifices today, greenery cascades down the facade of the four apartments that make up this architecturally significant Modernist landmark building. But this block isn’t just another conception of a young landscaper keen to bring a touch of verdancy to Cape Town’s urban jungle.
Erected in 1971, it was one of the first additions to Claremont’s suburban scene that smacked of Le Corbusian modernism. Distinctly right-angled and deceptively simple in structure, it was perhaps considered by residents of the stately neighbouring homes to be an unwelcome display of the avant-garde in this predominantly neoclassical setting.
‘You can just imagine it: in the middle of Claremont, with all the Victorian houses, this spaceship has landed,’says homeowner Ruben Rossouw, who moved into the abode just two years ago.
There are few South African buildings that draw such effusive praise from fellow architects as those conceptualised by Adèle Naudé Santos and Antonio de Souza Santos. The duo is responsible for a cluster of Cape Town’s most admired and studied builds – from the legendary Rowan Lane in Kenilworth to Iona Court in Newlands – all of which are Modernist landmark structures, and well documented in essays by local architects such as Ilze Wolff and Robert Silke.
And while this property is tucked away in a small horseshoe road in Claremont, it’s far from hidden. In fact, Ruben and his partner Fourie Botha regularly open their doors to architectural students who come knocking, eager to get a peek inside the structure they pore over in the pages of their textbooks.
As a partner at architecture and interior design firm Block Plan, Ruben’s work sees him designing thoroughly contemporary spaces for his clients. But with this dream home, the objective was to pay respect to the Santos’ creation while reinvigorating its interior.
‘The biggest challenge was: how do you renovate something from such big architects without messing it up?’ says Ruben, who really took his time with the interior design, meticulously researching the Santos’ limited South African body of work, considering every detail, configuration and finish.
‘In each room, I challenged their decision and thought of new layouts, but nothing worked. We always went back to the one that was most similar to theirs.’ While the exterior of the home is a revolutionary configuration of double-volume, boxy apartment spaces, inside, the house reveals itself through a series of curves. ‘It’s a bit like living in a shell,’ says Fourie.
From the entrance, your sense of space is immediately provoked by the dominant coiling wall that separates the mezzanine kitchen, study and guest toilet from the dining zone. At times, such bold architectural features like this feel somewhat like an intrusion on personal space. ‘Because of the use of curves, the home is actually configured into quite small areas that then flare open in a way that offers you a sense of relief,’ says Ruben.
It’s the juxtaposition of tension and release that perhaps makes this abode feel at once like a warren and a palace, as if the architects were trying to manipulate its inhabitants’ sense of containment and freedom.
Downstairs, the vast living area allowed the owners to take big liberties, like installing a double-volume walnut bookcase to house Fourie’s collection of tomes.
Yet one of the home’s most notable features – the seductive yet very slender staircase – is so narrow that you instinctively lean on the balustrade to avoid losing your footing. This is one of the defining characteristics of the space, as the architects devised a double helix – or scissor – design.
‘The idea was that there would be four ‘house-like’ units, each with a garden,’ says Adèle Naudé Santos in a video interview with Wolff. ‘The site is very constrained, so we had to come up with a clever way to get in an elevator and two staircases.’ Upstairs, the focus is on comfort, with soft carpeting, a pared-back colour scheme and restrained styling throughout.
The two bedrooms look out onto planter boxes, installed in the ’70s and now beautifully overgrown, while large windows open up these spaces to the mountains beyond. ‘The magical thing about this home is that you feel like you’re living in the trees,’ says Ruben. ‘It’s our treehouse.’
Back on the ground floor, Ruben expanded his own design repertoire for the decor, conceptualising furniture that would shine in a space that exposes each item from every angle. ‘Furniture needs to be structural, almost like a piece of art – it needs to be strong and bold. We drew a lot of inspiration from the 1970s,’ he says, pointing out pieces like a sensually curved couch upholstered in tan leather.
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A palette of ochre, emerald and dusty ‘rose vif’ is in direct reference to Le Corbusier, while Ruben’s work mingles with some local greats, like chairs by Vogel Design in the dining room. ‘Most pieces were designed for the space, just as purposefully as the space itself was designed,’ he says. ‘If Adèle herself had tasked me with the interior, this is always what I would have done. I hope she would be proud.’
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