“In Johannesburg, there is no mountain,” says architect Anthony Orelowitz. “There’s no sea.” He is referring to Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Houses in Cape Town tend to look outwards, seeking to catch a glimpse of the ocean or frame a view of Table Mountain. “Here, you have to create your own habitat,” Anthony says.
That, at heart, was the basi s of his response to the Johannesburg’s urban character when he designed his own home in the city’s famously forested suburbs. Anthony is primarily a commercial architect. His firm, Paragon, is responsible for some of the city’s most significant architectural landmarks. But, he says, “I hadn’t done a house in nearly 15 years.”
Nevertheless, working closely with architect Elliot Marsden and interior designer Julia Day, he conjured a vision of what it means to make a home in Joburg, at once perfectly suited to the city and utterly unlike its neighbours. The plot of land Anthony was to build his home on had previously been a tennis court: accessed via a long driveway at the end of a ‘panhandle’, surrounded by neighbours on all sides and far from the street. It felt like a self-contained island with huge jungly trees in a sea of suburbia.
Julia was involved from the very earliest stages, so the ideas that drove the design have been sustained right down to the tiniest details. She says that working on this house was unlike any other she’d ever worked on. “Details everywhere were customised as we went along,” she says. (She recalls redesigning entire bathrooms so that the tiling layout would be perfectly even, lining up exactly with the doors, no trimming or uneven size tiles necessary.) Designing, engineering, building and decorating were one endlessly changing, unfolding experiment, evolving even as it took shape.
To create his habitat, Anthony turned to the archetype of the atrium house: an internal courtyard wrapped around on all sides by the house, creating a peaceful sanctuary at its heart, open to the sky. He calls it a “self-contained oasis in the city”.
The house itself is essentially a series of pavilions, with vast sliding doors and screens that can be opened and closed to reconfigure a mosaic of spaces in countless ways. (They had to design a new rail system to manage the massive glass panels which made up the sliding doors.)
Rather than simply surround the central courtyard, however, Anthony describes the way in which he “pushed ” the landscape through the pavilions and out to the very edges of the site. “The ground plane washes through the house completely from one end to the other,” he says.
This, he explains, creates “secondary courtyards” all around the house, where the pavilions open onto private, peaceful nooks under the trees, and the boundary walls in effect become the walls of the house.
Despite its long, low-slung appearance, the house also rises to create an upper level in the treetops, carefully designed around branches that lean into and over the house. It’s like a “big, adult treehouse” says Anthony. The effect is a sense of space knitted together vertically as it is horizontally, drawing you up to the terraces as much as thought the house and gardens on ground level.
Anthony designed it “upside down”, with the bedrooms at ground level, nestled under the trees, and the living and outdoor entertainment areas – even the pool, with portholes underneath looking down into the central courtyard – on the level above. He says that when he wakes in the morning, he wants to “touch the ground” and “be in the forest”.
The clarity and apparent simplicity of the design is, inevitably, a wonder of engineering, ranging from massive, brutishly strong “post tension beams” that wrap around the house (so well hidden by cascading plants that you’d never even know they were there), to a floating lounge floor suspended by a 90mm steel hanger from the ceiling above that it seems to defy gravity.
Julia says the carefully controlled palette of interior finishes was selected for its natural, highly tactile, raw attributes. Anthony speaks of wanting “sensory feedback” when you touch surfaces throughout the house, from the walls to the floors. He says it’s a quality he finds rejuvenating. The rough sensuality of the stone, the lushness of the plants and the elemental presence of the air and water leans away from the minimalism of European modernism in the direction of the lush, sensual tropical modernism with its early origins in Brazil.
The tactile dimension and natural qualities bring a certain earthiness inside, but that “feeling” is enhanced by the way light comes into the house, the way air flows over a pond and up though a skylight – the movement and variations in temperature…
The care taken with the detailing means that the transitions between inside and out become seamless in a way that houses often claim to be but aren’t. The slatted timber cladding that wraps the walls and ceilings have door and window frames so precisely integrated into them as to make the thresholds imperceptible. The lighting (also highly bespoke) is concealed and designed so that in the evening and at night the quality of light inside and out is consistent. The effect is slightly magical.
Despite the sleek beauty of the design, Anthony compares the house to Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter series of books, referring to the secret passages and trick stairs in the fictional school. He describes it more as a system than a set structure. “You’ve got hidden passages and concealed spaces behind spaces,” he says.
The ways in which the walls and screens can be opened or closed in Anthony’s house means that it can also be quite magically reconfigured. It is forever shifting and changing shape. “It’s quite theatrical in a way,” says Anthony.
Some totally over-the top features, like the app-controlled automated skylight (about 20m long and 3m wide) that runs the length of the front of the house, add to the magical effect, transforming interiors into exteriors. “The walls are made of plants,” points out Anthony, referring to a vertical garden the length of the first floor.
Julia has continued this sense of surprise and discovery throughout the interiors, particularly in the ways she had detailed cabinets and wall panelling to conceal storage and even entire rooms. (Dressing rooms and a back-of-house kitchen open up behind what appear to be seamless panelled walls.) The effect is that it brings the house down to a comfortably human scale.
Even in plain sight, Julia has worked some magic to ensure that all the openness and connectedness is actually habitable, and that the family fills the spaces with life. She says that large volumes and open flowing spaces also need “pods” and “cocooned pockets” that create cosier more intimate spaces. If they’re to be deserted, open-plan designs need to create spaces where people can “be alone together”.
So, as much as she has respected the architecture in her choice of furnishings, she has made sure that the house feels as comforting, welcoming and calming as it is surprising and delightful.
She has drawn heavily on designs from De Padova and the likes of Ligne Roset, Wiener GTV Design and local designers such as Haldane Martin. She points out that, not only are the individual pieces beautiful, but they combine beautifully without “competing”. She favoured low-slung designs, often light, fairly transparent pieces that don’t interrupt lines of sight or “break” the views and the sense of flowing, continuous space. “There’s nothing that interrupts the eye,” as she puts it.
At the same time, she sought out designs strong enough to hold their own and not become lost in the space. “The house allows for sculptural elements,” she says. The architectural shapes of Haldane Martin’s outdoor furniture, for example, carried the language of the “hard shell” of the house into another dimension. But perhaps more importantly, she points out, she thought very carefully about the quality of the space individual furniture pieces create around them, so that the furniture worked in concert with the carefully choreographed architectural movement and connections.
The powerfully interconnected space meant that she constantly had to consider the ways in which the furniture would “translate” as you saw it from different vantage points throughout the house. By the same token, she steered clear of designs that looked “overly functional”. The kitchen was conceived more as a social area where you could cook and entertaining rather than a traditional kitchen.
The interiors, she points out, were an exercise in layering, articulating and complementing the architecture rather than decoration. Natural textures are picked up in the fabrics, maintaining the sense of grounded, authentic materiality. The colours are drawn from the water, the foliage, the sky and the stone to “marry inside and out as one space”.
To maintain the sense of simplicity, subtle variations in colour texture and material – the same granite hammered here, but sandblasted there – keep it from appearing monotonous or sterile. She embraced the overtly handcrafted, the sense of the human touch and the imperfect to bring warmth and humanity to the space.
At times she even went so far as to embrace what she calls the “anti-perfect” and do something deliberately “wrong”. The patterned tiling on the built-in outdoor sofa in the central courtyard, for example, breaks the rules, but introduces something whimsical and refreshing that rings true to the spirit of the place. Julia quotes Vico Magistretti, who designed a number of her favourite furniture pieces, some included in the house: “Simplicity is the hardest thing to obtain.” It’s an effect more than a set of rules.
The secret, however, remains in the detailing, in being able to sustain a clear vision from the “big idea” right through to the tiniest detail. Of course, such painstaking attention only pays off if the idea is convincing in the first place. If it is, you have the making of an architectural landmark. The idea is elevated.
In this case, the idea was not so much to create a building or a house in the traditional sense as a place. “Can make your home your favorite space in the city?” asks Anthony. The open courtyard at the heart of this home is an invitation to do so.
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The house is at the top of a long driveway on a “panhandle” stand. The paving mimics the patterns of tyre tracks arriving and leaving, transforming an ephemeral pattern of movement into an artistic detail, and signalling the extent to which the architecture and design is about movement and connections. The variation in colour on the aluminium strip cladding has the effect of softening the expanse and breaking up the mass of the façade. Entrance is via a large glass pivot door. Even from the motor court, it is possible to see through the transparent pavilion-like structures all the way through the courtyard. The pond at the entrance provides a welcoming coolness and the sound of water. A rim-flow design is created with a slim metal edge so that the water appears to rise above it thanks to the effect of the surface tension. In the window is a red Clay Table with Drawer by Maarten Baas.
From the entrance, a staircase ascends to the upper level. Another, smaller stair leads down to the kitchen and dining area. The slightly sunken floor puts the edge of the pond at eye level. The baskets next to the pond are from Amatuli. The Louisiana Chair is by Vico Magistretti for De Padova, inspired by a saddle. The rug is by Paco, its abstract organic patterning functioning almost as an artwork, particularly when seen from above. Its colours pick up details from the foliage of the vertical garden and the cascading creepers. The Vidun table in the dining area was also designed by Vico Magistretti for De Padova. The Korium armchairs by Tito Agnoli for Matteo Grassi belonged to Anthony’s parents. The skylight at the top of the double volume space opens to the sky. The floating lounge above is suspended form a slim hanger at its corner, which imparts a light, floating quality to the architecture. The granite cladding on the wall behind the stairs is sandblasted, which that on the stair itself is hammered, creating subtle variations in the materiality throughout the house, while at the same time maintaining a sense of coherence and unity.
Anthony says that he didn’t want the kitchen and dining area to look like a traditional kitchen. Rather, it’s a space to cook and entertain. Julia’s selection of the Vidun table in the dining area was designed by Vico Magistretti for De Padova. The Korium armchairs by Tito Agnoli for Matteo Grassi belonged to Anthony’s parents. The rug is by Paco. The wood on the kitchen island mimics the aluminium element on the façade. The wood panelling at the back of the kitchen not only conceals storage, but a back-of-house kitchen and pantry. The artwork on the back wall is Four Letter Brand (Life) 1 by Kendell Geers, represented by Goodman Gallery.
On the lower level, the kitchen flows out seamlessly to a covered terrace with skylights. The stone floor, wall cladding and timber ceiling extend seamlessly from inside out, the tracks for the sliding door meticulously integrated into the finishes. The Papa Sun chair and sofa are by Haldane Martin. “I love their shape,” says Julia, referring to their organic curves, which contrast with the straight-lined architecture. Their light, transparent forms and lightness interfere very little with the seamless flow of space, while the closely spaced rods that form the bases of the Cha Cha Occasional tables, also by Haldane Martin, have been designed to create the illusion of movement, which speaks to the flowing sense of space created by the architecture. The handcrafted African artefacts from Amatuli add a tactile dimension to the arrangement, picking up on the handcrafted nature of much of the rest of the house. The portrait includes Anthony’s wife Zahava and sons Luke and Joshua.
Three “porthole” windows on the underside of the swimming pool on the upper level cast a liquid light over a covered section of the courtyard below. The Hula Dining Chairs and Cha Cha Occasional tables are by Haldane Martin, a playful update of the mid-century Salterini Hoop Chairs that were once ubiquitous in South African gardens. The circular shape of the furniture echoes the shape of the windows, which contributes to the sense of calm created through the consistent and harmonious use of shape and form (not to mention colour). The decorative tiles on the built-in seat behind, however, Julia says are “a bit foreign”, introducing a slightly off-theme element to deliberately “break up the perfection” as she puts it, and bring in a playful, offbeat dimension to the design. The mosaic pattern designed by Anthony and Marley Swanepoel on the floor of the pool was inspired by contour maps of the ocean floor – and a hint of David Hockney!
Anthony’s wife Zahava’s study reflects her love of eastern philosophy. (She is a psychologist.) The Targa Sofa by WIENER GTV, upholstered in deep turquoise felt, introduces a slightly whimsical Japanese influence in its lacquered finish, which is picked up in the Clyde desk by Numéro111 for Ligne Roset. The Japanese print on the wallpaper and the use of gold and brass, which is picked up in the brass tipped legs of the desk, by Ligne Rose. The artwork is titled Kwa Mahlongwane, Inkuthu, Ladysmith, by Jabulani Dhlamini, represented by Goodman Gallery. The Tondo Armchair is by Vico Magistretti for De Padova. The standing lamp is by Lampe Gras and the Lavenham chair is by Patricia Urquiola for De Padova.
Seen from the upstairs entertainment areas, the transparency and permeability of the pavilion-like structure of the house reveals itself. Lines of sight carry uninterrupted through the living space to the vertical garden behind, and diagonally through the courtyard to the terrace below.
The upstairs lounge floats dramatically against the background of a vertical garden, suspended by a slim steel hanger. It is open to the upstairs paved terrace which leads on the one hand, to the swimming pool, and on the other to the outdoor entertainment area on the opposite side of the courtyard. The furniture Julia has selected is low-slung and light, so as not to interrupt lines of sight through the house and courtyard. She has selected textured fabrics such as boucle (on the scatter cushions) and handwoven carpets to introduce “the human touch”, or the “anti-perfect” as she puts it. The tactile materials not only create a sense of comfort and envelopment, but also complement the sandblasted rock walls, which brings in a raw, earthy quality to the interiors. The Targa Lounge chairs by GamFratesi, the Italian-Danish designer duo Stine Gam and Enrico Fratesi, for Wiener GTV Design, have been upholstered in a houndstooth check pattern, which relates to the striped pattern on the kilim. Furnishings include a pair of LC03 chairs by Fabian Schwaerzler and Maarten Van Severen for De Padova, upholstered in black wholegrain leather. The Mosaïque sofa was designed by Piero Lissoni for De Padova. The Dan Table by Vico Magistretti and the Ishi Low table by Japanese designer Nendo are both also for De Padova. The ceramics on the table include works by Cape Town ceramicist Lisa Firer and the African headrest and other artefacts are from Amatuli.
A smaller lounge area, also on the upper level against the backdrop of the vertical garden, creates a more intimate gathering space around the fireplace. In this area, Julia says, she relies on simplicity to create an innate sense of calmness. While each of the furniture pieces in its own right is beautiful, they work together harmoniously. The Patrick Norguet P22 Wingback Chair was designed for Cassina and the Butterfly Stool is by Sori Yanagi for Vitra. The Ashby Table is by Lemon. The tall sculpture on the table is by Edoardo Villa. Other objet on the table include a ceramic vase from Liebermann Pottery and a Chica-Boum light by Numéro111 for Ligne Roset. The yellow abstract painting is by Fred Schimmel, represented by ArtVault.
The courtyard on the far side of the master bedroom is one of Anthony’s favourite places – a quiet, serene space under the trees. Plants cascade from the top level to the ground, creating a curtain of greenery and an almost tropical atmosphere while cleverly concealing the massive steel beams that enable the light, open, floating quality of the architecture. The Papa Sun Lounger and Cha Cha Occasional tables are by Haldane Martin. The Firefly nomadic lamp was designed Alexander Åhnebrink for De Padova. Inside the timber strip panelling creates an enveloping, warm atmosphere. The bed was custom designed by Julia. She refers to it as the “sleeping island”. It is dressed in a matt linen slipcover with bespoke linen by Heavenly Feather. The bedroom and bathroom open onto their own internal courtyard, which in turn can be opened up to the main courtyard, or, alternatively, screened off to transform the bedroom area into a private suite. The furnishings in the bedroom include a Yak Sofa in lambskin aniseed leather for De Padova. The Elementi Table Lamp was designed by Elisa Ossino for De Padova. The artwork above the bed is by Candice Kramer.
In the main en suite bathroom, which can be opened onto a courtyard between it the bedroom and to the garden at the back of the house, Julia has designed the marble showers to appear as if they have been “inserted” into the volume. The dropped ceiling creates a cocoon-like setting. The details are seamless – there is concealed storage behind the mirrors for example – and no extraneous detailing has been included. The Paipaï armchair is from Ligne Rose, as is the Globe Indoor light. The Estenda Clothes Stand was designed by Busetti Garuti Redaelli. The Sen range of occasional tables was designed by Kensaku Oshiro for De Padova. The sculpture on the wooden plinth is by Angus Taylor, represented by Everard Read. The bespoke bamboo towels are by Heavenly Feather.
The upstairs guest suite opens onto a beautifully planted bathroom, which can be completely opened to the sky with an app-controlled automated skylight. In the bedroom the sculpture on the wooden plinth is by Candace Kramer. The bespoke bedlinen is by Heavenly Feather in shades of green to echo bathroom planting.
Floating stairs lead from the internal courtyard to an upstairs entertainment area, which Anthony refers to an “adult tree house”, almost like a pavilion in the branches. The large sunken firepit was inspired by merging the idea of hearth with room. The balustrade, designed with standard square steel tubing, have been converted into planters with succulents, transforming something mundane into a delight.
The upstairs entertainment area is furnished with a Plat-O Table and Hula Dining Chairs from Haldane Martin. The structure provides a covered outdoor entertainment area, carefully designed around the branches of the existing trees, which lean right into the space. The island conceals a fully equipped kitchen.
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