houses, Uncategorized

Joburg Tree House

Text Sean O’Toole and Elaine Coaton Eksteen Production Sherri Chipps Photographs David Ross The day the 30-something couple moved from Cape Town to their new home in Westcliff was marked by an extraordinary highveld thunderstorm. ‘It was just amazing. We sat on the terrace and we were right in the weather,’ says the owner. ‘Tree House is the best place to be in summer.’ One of the things that attracted the owner and her business-executive husband to the home two years ago was the fact that all the hard work had been done. The previous owner, architect Johann Slee, whose environmentally sensitive work is respected worldwide, had already converted what was a forgotten house perched on a rocky outcrop into a ‘sanctuary in the middle of the city’. His changes included merging the covered terrace into the design (its cantilevered veranda projects into the surrounding trees offering front-row seats in thunderstorms and allowing for intimate encounters with the ‘different moods of the forest’). He also created the sandstone bridge that connects the house and street. ‘No renovation was necessary,’ the present owner says, but with the acquisition of the property below the house, it happened anyway. As the couple has young children, a larger garden was on their wish list, which is why they jumped at the chance to buy the neighbouring property. Having done so they called in a couple of experts – their friends architect Silvio Rech and designer Lesley Carstens, who also live in Westcliff. Renowned for their leisure architecture, Silvio and Lesley have undertaken projects that include the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania and elegant guest villas on North Island in the Seychelles. The owners asked Silvio to build an additional pool – and things grew from there. No longer having neighbours below (the house on the new plot was demolished) meant those views could now be maximised. Knocking through the old pantry and staff quarters at the rear of the house, they added an expansive bridge-like deck that incorporates a low open braai and seating area and extends to the new circular, rim-flow pool, making this and the new garden area more accessible from the house. But it wasn’t simply a matter of creating a little deck, Silvio says. ‘It involved changing the orientation of the home; we had to refocus and look the other way. By knocking out some walls we shifted the emphasis of the house.’ Now the owners have a second deck – this one, suspended above the massive eucalyptus trees, draws you east when you enter the house. ‘It adds a heightened sense of drama,’ says Lesley. Another of Silvio and Lesley’s additions is the Porky Hefer Weaver’s Nest tree house, which hangs from one of the tall blue gums in the garden. ‘It’s a beautiful piece that we first spotted at the Southern Guild stand at the Joburg Art Fair. It’s in keeping with our belief in using organic shapes and materials to create form.’ Inside, the couple’s pre-existing art collection – comprising contemporary works by South African artists and a large oil on canvas by French artist Fernand Lantoine – looks as if it was put together just for the home’s large open-plan spaces. A relaxed, comfortable glamour was brought into the home, not only through the artworks hung in just about every room, but also through the expansive use of oriental rugs and ornate antiques, many of which are family heirlooms. Flea-market finds and family photographs are just as essential to the home’s decor. ‘I buy old tapestries at second-hand stores and turn them into cushions,’ says the owner. Standing on the new deck, which incorporates custom-designed furniture by Lesley and offers an unimpeded view of Parktown, the owner registers her sense of satisfaction with a characteristic quip: ‘It’s spectacular at night. You can see the Mormon Church communicating with Salt Lake City.’ Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, Architecture & Interior Architecture, 011-486-1525; Johann Slee, Slee Architecture and Interiors, 021-887-3385,


As well as enlisting the help of Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, the new owners asked globally celebrated garden specialist Patrick Watson to pay them a visit. ‘Everyone in Westcliff used to terrace the grounds and plant roses, because they wanted to be in England,’ says Watson of the colonial-style landscaping that still characterises this suburb. He suggested clearing away the terraces on the new property and exposing the existing ridge – ‘to make it look like a sculpture on top of a rock’. After laboriously removing soil from the rocky ground, in effect restoring the site to its original state, he transformed the original swimming pool into a natural pond and connected the house to its new garden by a network of paths. While excavating on the new property one day, he found a cache of rusted pistols and AK-47 magazines. ‘One of the previous owners must have been a champagne socialist hiding guns,’ chuckles the current owner. Of the exposed bedrock, she says: ‘After a thunderstorm the rock steams. It looks like a volcanic island; it’s incredible.’ This home was originally featured in the August 2009 issue of House and Leisure.