Designed For Living: A Heritage Modernist Home
The sensitive restoration of a heritage Modernist home in Cape Town transformed the abode into a contemporary family space.
If you’re lucky enough to call a home designed by US architects Adèle Naudé Santos and Tony de Souza Santos your own, you have in no uncertain terms hit a winning six on the real-estate PowerBall.
The former husband-and-wife team were the original It architects of the 1960s and 1970s, responsible for some of Cape Town’s – and South Africa’s – most important heritage Modernist works.
One such build is this delightfully airy abode in Kenilworth, Cape Town, whose architecture is so admired that today the house falls under the protection of the non-profit organisation Docomomo: the International Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of buildings of the Modern Movement.
Owned by Bettina Woodward of Open City Architects and her husband Jeremy, a scientist, the house is both a lovingly restored example of heritage Modernist architecture as well as an inviting family home for the couple and their children, Tom (6) and Helen (3).
In response to the shape of the site and a row of maple trees growing through it, the home splits into two distinct wings: a public one containing the kitchen, dining room, playroom and lounge; and a private one for the bedrooms and bathrooms. ‘The architects decided from the outset that none of the established trees were to be removed, so the house weaves between them,’ says Jeremy.
Adds Bettina, ‘Adèle and Tony essentially “unwrapped” the building to accommodate these trees, which effectively created the courtyard between the two wings that fills all the rooms with light.’ Another consequence of this splitting of spaces is the sculptural staircase, which passes over the entrance to the glazed courtyard.
Studying the original plans also revealed to the Woodwards a carefully controlled set of geometric principles that underpinned the house’s layout. ‘Most people who haven’t been here get a big surprise when you open the door, because it’s unexpected to be confronted with this sculptural, glazed atrium space that contains a magnificent mature maple tree,’ says Jeremy of the entrance, which leads to the high-ceilinged public living areas.
‘Tony and Adèle were exploring their own spatial ideas within the Modernist paradigm, and went beyond purely referencing the stylistic elements of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier,’ says Bettina. ‘Working closely with South African architect Roelof Uytenbogaardt at the time, they pushed the envelope of avant-garde architecture and achieved global recognition for their work.’
Due to the home’s heritage status, its renovation and restoration had to be executed with an acute sensitivity to its context. Several architectural journals in the 1970s had published features about the abode and, after the Woodwards sourced these original publications, this material became an invaluable resource during the project.
It involved modernising the bathrooms and kitchen with understated white tiles and joinery, while reinstating steel window frames throughout. The roof walkway was also retiled, and both the rooftop garden and main outdoor area were re-established.
The interiors take a similar approach to translating heritage Modernist sensibilities into a contemporary context, and a rich profusion of vessels and wooden pieces speaks to the theme of utilitarian simplicity inherent in the architecture. ‘Modernists strived for functionality, using simple everyday materials, and in the same way stripping down form to the essentials. So for us, the two worlds are in perfect synergy,’ says Jeremy.
There are no border walls in the public living areas; rather, the pieces engage in a dynamic conversation that creates a layered and inspiring atmosphere. ‘It’s important for us to provide our children with a creative environment, where they can express themselves through art and imaginative play,’ says Bettina.
The chalk-white walls and roomy composition by no means contradict this heritage Modernist home’s dedication to comfortable family living. ‘The house has a strong connection to the garden, and this brings tranquillity into almost every room,’ says Bettina, highlighting the rooftop garden as particularly ideal for whiling away afternoons. ‘When we come home from work, we usually spend some time in the garden with the kids and go for a walkabout up the sculptural staircase to enjoy these spaces. It’s a lovely home for parties and braais because the outdoor areas are so versatile.’
The roof gardens, designed by Anthony Teuchert of Atlanticscapes, play out as a typical Table Mountain landscape in both species and planting, with particular care taken to achieve the right scale and texture. It was only on the south side of the property, thanks to the shade of some large trees, that rather than following the direction suggested by the heritage Modernist plans, they instead opted for drought-resistant species of plectranthus. ‘We spent a long time getting the mix of plants right,’ says Bettina.
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Perhaps all of this – the architecture, the aesthetic, the closeness to nature – was predestined for Bettina and Jeremy, who have always shared a love of art and design since they met at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. ‘My grandmother lived in a Modernist house in Stellenbosch and she had some iconic pieces that I inherited from her, including the Noguchi coffee table and the Swedish String shelves that are installed in the lounge,’ Bettina says.
She credits her mother’s love of Modern art as fostering her affinity for abstract art and furniture, and her childhood home was a great source of inspiration for her, featuring posters of works by the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. ‘When we first saw this house, we both realised that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in an “artwork”,’ says Jeremy.
If ever the law of attraction needed proof, then the Woodward family – and their unique heritage Modernist home – surely provides it.