The idea that a structure could nestle cosily into its site while also making a striking visual statement might seem contradictory but, as architect Yvette van Zyl’s recently completed home demonstrates, it is possible to combine these two aspects of design beautifully.
Situated in Mossel Bay, Van Zyl’s house — which she shares with her husband, Dëon — blends conceptual rigour with an easy-going, welcoming atmosphere. The site’s initial attractions included its north-facing aspect and lovely views across the sweep of the bay, as well as the fact that “the building could turn its back on the prevailing winds”, says Van Zyl.
In addition, the couple appreciated the fact that there was enough space to plant a small olive grove in the front garden, “and the privacy it has due to being tucked away with no street frontage”, she adds. Design began “after our wedding in March 2019”, Van Zyl explains, with construction due to start in April 2020, but it had to be put on hold until August owing to the Covid-19 lockdown.
The delay, says Van Zyl, turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise, as it enabled her “to refine the design after having had the luxury of time to mull things over”. Invaluable to the building process once it finally began was contractor Eric Waterson from Procon: “I could not have done it without him and his team,” says Van Zyl. Eventually, in October 2021, the couple moved into their new home.
Van Zyl’s design is striking in its simplicity and linearity, catching the eye on the slope of the hill from some distance away. “[It] evolved through quite a few iterations into a simple parallelogram box that perches upon the existing rock band on site and cantilevers out, with the central outdoor barbecue chimney serving as the main ‘column’ or ‘spindle’ for support,” she explains.
She conceptualised the structure using stereotomic principles, “with volumes carved out from the box to result in sculptural, ergonomic space”. This stereotomic approach — as opposed to the more usual tectonic approach to architecture, in which different structural units are assembled — has resulted in a true feeling of flow throughout the house, with the various spaces working apparently inevitably together.
The very tactile, approachable interiors were created via a deliberate contrast between rough, textured finishes and refined detailing. As Van Zyl puts it, “The humble brick was used extensively.” With most of the interior walls finished in bagged brick, a dark-grey face brick used for the striking central braai chimney, a white-painted brick brise-soleil screen separating the entry and patio, and brick pavers used for both the interior and exterior floors, the house is an object lesson in the creative use of one of the most classic building materials in existence.
Contrasting with the brick is the off-shutter concrete used for ceilings throughout. Skylights provide moments of joy as the sunlight moves down the walls to accentuate the sculptural quality of their curves and highlight the textural richness of the space.
Overall, the feel of the interiors is laid-back, and the house would be fairly monochromatic were it not for Van Zyl’s judicious deployment of splashes of bright colour. The front door is a brilliant blue, for example, as is an eye-catching section of the exterior that also contains one of several porthole-style windows and other openings, which playfully reference the structure’s seaside location.
Similarly, the mosaics used in the bathrooms are in colours chosen “to match the sky, ocean and milkwood trees in the garden”, Van Zyl says. The sleek bathrooms have a charmingly retro feel that is reminiscent of mid-century public baths or swimming pools.
A sensory experience above all else, this visually striking yet profoundly comfortable house both cossets and subtly stimulates. It is a remarkable expression of its architect’s sensitivity to site, situation, and the organisation of space.
• From the November edition of Wanted, 2023.