There are houses in beautiful settings that try to disappear into the landscape. Others like to perch on a prominent spot and lord over all they survey. This one — a holiday home on a big, beautiful semi-rural plot on the side of Steenberg in Cape Town — does neither.
Its solid masses seem to emerge from the ground and assert themselves unapologetically. Yet the indigenous gardens around its edges blend with the natural fynbos so that it looks as though it is being reclaimed by nature. It is undeniably there, but somehow it doesn’t seem like an imposition. Parts of it form big, monolithic blocks and others are almost pavilion-like — glass-sided, so you can see all the way through the house from one side to the other — but even they have heavylooking roofs.
An oversailing canopy seems to rest on one section but float above another, overlapping. In many ways, the house has no obvious “face”. It twists around, without a clear front or back. It’s a house that, from the moment you see it, prompts questions. Why does it have those angles? Why doesn’t the floating roof touch the roof below? Why is it even oversailing? But that’s the point. “It’s a bit of a mystery,” says its architect, Chris van Niekerk. There’s a sort of randomness about the way the parts of the house have been assembled, intuitively “like a child playing with blocks”. It has a pleasing, comfortable composition, but it doesn’t explain itself or seem to comply with any “rigid and ordered” logic. This arrangement was loosely inspired by the “rocky crest” of the mountains behind the house, which has a fragmented, almost geometric quality.
“It almost looks like [something that] could have been built by a person,” says Van Niekerk. It gives the mountains a hint of something ancient and primordial with which he wanted to connect. That look of something assembled, but not premeditated. The way its appeal short-circuits the rational mind is part of its magic. In fact, you might even say that the house meets that landscape halfway, adding a new dimension to your experience of it. Its strong presence, rather than being an imposition in the natural setting, comes across as a kind of intervention that completes it. Designed with enough sensitivity and insight, a house like this can make you see and appreciate the landscape in a way that you couldn’t have before it was there.
It is arranged in a horseshoe shape, which creates a courtyard with a swimming pool sheltered from the wind. “The living room is a big pavilion with a big, heavy concrete roof over it,” says Van Niekerk. On either side of this central space, which includes the kitchen, are two bedrooms: one with a study alongside it nestled into the mountainside, and then the main bedroom on the other, projecting out where the site slopes downward. Here, you will find the only section of the house that is double storey, which adds to the impression that it is emerging from the landscape. You enter from below, following a gravel path that leads to the front door and a staircase. There’s another guest bedroom downstairs and various services. Although the rather open brief asked for a concrete house, in the end Van Niekerk didn’t build it entirely from concrete. He used it just for the roof and columns, but went to great lengths to match the other materials he used, so the house looks like a single, unified object.
The walls are brick — deliberately roughly laid to create an uneven surface — covered with a lime mixture to create another finish that is pretty much the same colour as the roof. The granite for the floors is, once again, “exactly the same colour tone as the concrete and the walls”. Especially from inside, having solid walls in such a beautiful landscape might seem counterintuitive. The site has beautiful views towards False Bay and Table Mountain, and yet some of the rooms deliberately turn away from them. But there’s a good reason for that.
“What’s the point of having the view everywhere?” Van Niekerk asks, by way of explanation. To make the views special, he reasons, “you conceal [others] at times”. Once again, this is a kind of architecture that concerns itself not with the view itself but with the experience of the view. “You have to go to a certain place to see the view,” he explains, which brings a more considered or concentrated quality to the experience of looking out. “When you want to see outside, you see outside in the most profound way,” he adds.
Van Niekerk has gone to great lengths to reconsider the design of the windows with this in mind, designing frameless devices to make them all but disappear. In the main en-suite bathroom, the window is more like a big opening in the wall than a traditional window, and in the living room and downstairs bedroom the windows “step off the floor ledge”, so they appear not to be there at all. Light also plays an important role in the experience of the house. While the finishes are all remarkably consistent, the quality of the light varies from room to room, creating a variety of moods and tones.
It’s almost as though the house is a device that makes you reconsider first principles. It returns a sense of ritual even to everyday experiences such as taking a bath or glancing out the window, which brings a kind of poetry to life itself.