“In Johannesburg, there is no mountain,” says architect Anthony Orelowitz. “There’s no sea.” While 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”. That, at heart, was the basis of his response to Joburg’s urban character when he designed his own home in the city’s famously forested suburbs.
Orelowitz 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 both perfectly suited to the city and utterly unlike its neighbours. The plot of land where Orelowitz was to build his home had been a tennis court in a previous life, 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 an island with huge jungly trees in a sea of suburbia.
Day 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 this house is unlike any other she’s ever worked on. “Details everywhere were customised as we went along,” she says, and recalls redesigning entire bathrooms so that the tiling layout was perfectly even, lining up exactly with the doors, no trimming or unevenly sized tiles necessary. Designing, engineering, building, and decorating were one endlessly changing, unfolding experiment, evolving even as it took shape. To create his habitat, Orelowitz turned to the archetype of the atrium house: an internal courtyard embraced on all sides by the building, 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 even had to design a new rail system to manage the massive glass panels that make up the sliding doors.)
Rather than simply surround the central courtyard, however, Orelowitz “pushed” the landscape through the pavilions and out to the very edges of the site. “The ground plane washes through the house from one end to the other,” he says. This 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 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 Orelowitz. The effect gives a sense of the space’s being knitted together both vertically and horizontally.
The bedrooms are at ground level, nestled under the trees, while the living and outdoor entertainment areas — even the pool, with portholes underneath looking down into the central courtyard — are on the level above. The clarity and apparent simplicity of the design is, inevitably, a wonder of engineering, with massive, brutishly strong post-tension beams that wrap around the house (so well hidden by cascading plants that you’d never know they were there) and a floating lounge floor that seems to defy gravity.
Day says the carefully controlled palette of interior finishes was selected for its natural and highly tactile attributes. Orelowitz speaks of wanting “sensory feedback” when you touch surfaces, from the walls to the floors. The rough sensuality of the stone, the lushness of the plants, and the elemental presence of air and water lean away from the minimalism of European modernism towards the lush, sensual, tropical modernism that has its origins in Brazil. These qualities bring a certain earthiness inside, enhanced by the way in which light enters the house, the way air flows over a pond and up through a skylight, and 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. Door and window frames are so precisely integrated into the slatted timber cladding that wraps the walls and ceilings that the thresholds are imperceptible.
The lighting (also bespoke) is concealed and designed in such a way that in the evening and at night the quality of light inside and out is consistent. The effect is somewhat magical. Despite the sleek beauty of the design, Orelowitz compares the house to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books, referring to the secret passages and trick stairs in the fictional school. He describes it as being more 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 mean that it can also be reconfigured. It is forever shifting and changing shape. “It’s quite theatrical in a way.” Some over-the-top features, like the app-controlled automated skylight 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,” Orelowitz points out, referring to the vertical garden. Day has continued this sense of surprise and discovery throughout the interior, particularly in the way cabinets and wall panelling conceal storage and even entire rooms. (Dressing rooms and a back-of-house kitchen open up behind what appear to be seamless panelled walls.) Even in plain sight, Day 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 need pods and cocooned pockets to create cosier, more intimate spaces.
She has drawn heavily on designs from Italy’s De Padova, France’s Ligne Roset, and Austria’s Wiener GTV Design, as well as local designers such as Haldane Martin. 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 a flowing, continuous space. “There’s nothing that interrupts the eye,” as she puts it. At the same time, Day sought out designs strong enough to hold their own “The house allows for sculptural elements,” she says.
The architectural shapes of Haldane Martin’s outdoor furniture, for example, carry the language of the “hard shell” of the house into another dimension. But perhaps more importantly, she thought carefully about the quality of the space that individual furniture pieces create around them, so that the furniture works in concert with the carefully choreographed architectural movement and connections. She had to consider the ways in which the furniture would “translate” from different vantage points. By the same token, she steered clear of designs that looked overly functional.
The kitchen, for example, was conceived more as a social area where you could cook and entertain than a traditional space. The interiors became an exercise in layering, articulating, and complementing the architecture. Natural textures are picked up in the fabrics, while colours are drawn from the water, the foliage, the sky, and the stone to “marry inside and out”. 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 and the imperfect to bring warmth to the space.
At times Day 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 that rings true to the spirit of the place. She quotes designer 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. And if it is, you have the makings 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 you make your home your favourite space in the city?” asks Orelowitz. The open courtyard at the heart of this home is an invitation to do so.
• From the October edition of Wanted, 2021.