houses, Renovations

Renovated Joburg Apartment

Styling Leana Schoeman; Photographs Elsa Young


When the owners of this apartment in a secluded corner of Killarney, Johannesburg, first encountered it, they had to look past its dilapidated appearance, compartmentalised interior and various complications arising from its being made up of two previously separate properties. Its innate qualities, however, shone through and, with the help of Georg van Gass and Clare J. Eisenstein of GASS Architecture Studio, they set about realising its potential.

‘It’s a unique apartment block in that there are balconies that run the full length of the flats,’ says Georg. The building is set right up against the Killarney koppie, next to The Wilds nature reserve, so, despite that fact that this apartment is a few floors up, the sloping site provides intimate connections with the immediate landscape and vast views over Joburg to the north. While a number of walls could be demolished easily to open up the space, and it could be reconfigured to make a two-bedroom apartment (it originally had three bedrooms), there were a number of supporting columns in awkward positions that had to remain in place. These potential difficulties were deftly incorporated into the design.

The kitchen is very much the hero of the renovation and the centre of this home. It served as a starting point from which much of the rest of the renovation evolved. ‘The main focus was the view through the kitchen,’ says Clare. Its spectacular floor-to-ceiling window offers beautiful views of the hillside and trees. The black metro tiles in the kitchen gave Clare a non-negotiable aesthetic starting point. ‘I knew I wanted those,’ says the owner.

‘We took our cue from there and chose the floor and finishes to complement the tiles,’ says Clare. She adds that, because the kitchen was to be one of the main focuses of the home, it was necessary to emphasise the quality of the fittings, details and finishes. She worked closely with Zander van Niekerk and Herman Malburgh of One Good Turn, who made the wooden cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms, as well as the grand, patterned front door. ‘I wanted a sense of the handmade that the woodwork brings,’ says the owner.

A supporting column in the centre of the kitchen was cleverly incorporated into the design. The kitchen counter was built around it so that it divides the kitchen island unobtrusively into a prep and cooking area, and a drinks and entertainment area. ‘For some reason, since I was a little girl, it has been one of my dreams to have a hanging wine-glass rack in my home,’ says the owner. This wish was incorporated into the drinks area, which is also a link between the living areas and the kitchen.

The main living space is an open-plan area that was at risk of seeming like a large, empty box. Clare’s design gave it definition and coherence without losing the sense of space with a sensitively placed flueless gas fireplace. ‘It allowed us to divide the space visually without actually dividing it,’ says Georg.

The design of the living area was also complicated by the fact that there were a number of supporting columns between it and the balcony that could not be demolished for structural reasons. They ate into the interior, resulting in a substantial, but unavoidable, strip of ‘dead space’ between the living room and the balcony. Clare turned this challenge on its head, looking instead at the narrow balcony and realising that stacking doors, which ordinarily fold outward, would actually take up precious leisure space on the balcony if they did. She put the dead area to good use by having the doors stacking inward instead, thus maximising the balcony space, and making sure nothing, in the end, was wasted.

Warren Lange from Hort Couture Co. designed the balcony garden. Although its length was an asset, it ran the risk, as the owner puts it, of appearing ‘like a bowling alley’. Warren created clear areas without losing its scale. He linked a central entertainment area with private alcoves, semi-screening them off with creepers, which create an unobtrusive vegetal barrier.

The owners love their new apartment’s simultaneous connections with the natural setting on its doorstep and the city beyond. Through the entrance-hall window, they can see the side of the koppie ‘lit up like a mini Table Mountain at night’, and through the kitchen window they’ve watched peacock chicks hatching on the slope directly outside. The reconfigured space is light and airy, open but well defined. And anyone who enters naturally gravitates to the kitchen – just as the owner and architects envisioned.

This article was originally featured in the July 2012 issue of House and Leisure.